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Barry Barclay: an appreciation

By February 21, 20085 Comments

Documentary filmmaker, and Dom-Post movie reviewer, Graeme Tuckett kindly gave me permission to post this lovely appreciation of Barry Barclay:

Tangata Whenua director Barry Barclay during the filming of The Neglected Miracle in 1985Its been a couple of days now since the phone rang, and I heard from his sister Pauline that Barry Barclay had died. Barry was — and remains — an absolute giant in New Zealand and the World’s film communities. He is widely and famously regarded as the first member of an Indigenous nation to direct a feature film, and often held up in New Zealand as being possibly our greatest and most influential documentary maker. But I think its important to remember now that Barry’s more celebrated achievements -Ngati, The Tangata Whenua series, The Feathers of Peace- were founded on the back of a long and compassionate journey of discovery of self, of others and a rigorous, vigorous, disarmingly playful and punishingly sharp mind. “Barry is a thinker” was one deceptively obvious little nugget that cropped up during an interview in Auckland a few months ago. Obvious on the face of it; but how many people can we really apply the epithet to? Barry was capable — and though he would never mention it, he had both the training and the firepower- of great and original philosophical thought. Get yourself a copy of Mana Tuturu- I’m sure Unity books will have them in a window display by now, even if Whitcoulls can not bring themselves to stock it — and read the opening chapters. Marvel and laugh as Barry affectionately and accurately accuses Captain Cook of ‘home invasion’- and then goes on to convincingly and elegantly prove beyond any talkback hosts wildest polemic exactly why ‘country’ and ‘nation’ are two very different concepts. All of that in the opening pages, and there’s still 300 to go…Enjoy. Or make the pilgrimage to the film archive’s basement, and treat yourself to a viewing of Barry’s early and wildly experimental doco’s Ashes, Autumn Fires, or The Town That Lost a Miracle. They are still head and shoulders above most of the publically funded obviousness that gets passed off as documentary today, and so far beyond the grasp of anything our current crop of ‘providers and funders’ would ever contemplate as to beggar belief. Not just records of another time; these films roll out like broadcasts from another planet: A place where ‘pitching contests’ and ‘expected outcomes’ would be classed as criminal activities. Barry made films from the position that the filmmaker was absolute; that everything was in the service of the film, and that the film (and its makers) served only truth. His approach to documentary especially was completely uncompromising, but somehow still malleable, adaptable, chaotic, and funny as all hell. His shoots were characterised by great humour and a constant sense of winging it with the best of them- but the results were searingly intelligent, provocative, idiosyncratic and timeless. I never actually heard Bazz say ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ — though I know he loved the sentiment — but I certainly heard him mutter ‘bugger the producer/broadcaster/funder a few times.

Barry BarclayIn his last couple of years, Bazz was hitting his straps with a gentle fury that probably looked like fun to the uninitiated. He was mightily enthused by the possibilities of cheap digital cameras and editing systems, and by the knowledge that soon the filmmakers would have everything they needed to make a feature or a documentary right in their own — or their communities- hands. He had a dream of a camera, an edit suite, and a broadband connection available to every marae, and a central server- administered from the NZ Film Archive- that could collate and store every second of footage that came down the pipe. I don’t doubt for a moment that, granted another year or two of life, Bazz would have made it happen. Will one of us pick up that load now?

Over the last few days- and I guess a few more times in the days ahead, you’ll hear and read a bunch of tributes that will invariably begin ‘Barry Barclay, the director of the film Ngati…” Well yes, Ngati is a staggering and gorgeous achievement (Hell, Bazz dieing might even spur the NZFC into finally making it available on DVD…) But right now, maybe its time to acknowledge some of the man’s work that might be about to vanish into the basements and memories of the many of us that he made friends of. I was a barman when I first met him, I saw the tail end of the deluge, and I’ve heard something of the damage and grief that a man of Bazz’s size can cause when he’s blundering in the fog. But for me its the jokes, the games of chess, the (ginger) beers, the sly charm, the righteous anger and the perfectly uncontradicted Marxism and spirituality that seemed to me to inform every word he spoke and frame he composed. They say ‑well, someone does- that the best way to mourn a man is to carry on his work. It’ll take all of us and then some to do a half of what Bazz might have done. But that’s no reason not to try.

Tama Poata, John O’Shea, Wi Kuki Kaa, Michael King and now Barry. There is a clearing where a forest once stood.

Graeme has just completed a documentary about Barry for Maori TV.