Film festival: Talking a lot of Hot Air

By Peter Calder

Ahead of the screenings of his doco about NZ's inaction over carbon emissions, Alister Barry talks to Peter Calder about the film and his career.
Documentary maker Alister Barry.
Documentary maker Alister Barry.

For more than 40 years, Wellington filmmaker Alister Barry has been remembering on our behalf what we are always at risk of forgetting.

His meticulously compiled documentaries - particularly his first three films this century, Someone Else's Country; In a Land of Plenty; and A Civilised Society -sound a quietly angry call for social justice in a society that is typically reflected to us in primetime soundbites.

In the riveting Hot Air, which screens at the Auckland International Film Festival this week he turns his attention to our shameful record in dealing with carbon emissions and finds a story of conscientious and intelligent politicians outmanoeuvred by sophisticated and well-funded lobbying.

The film left me feeling pretty depressed. How about you?

One of my colleagues said I needed something more positive at the end and I've had to think about that sort of thing before.

I think we don't help our fellow citizens by misrepresenting the truth as we see it. The situation is currently depressing but we are hopeful that it will change.

The film sets its story in a political context over the past 25 years or so, a period of time in which there has been a power shift in favour of the business lobby. Is that a major strand in what has happened - or rather not happened?

Yes. It's been one of the surprising lessons in my own education in politics, which I have followed my whole adult life. An academic we feature in the film talks about her research that showed that the lobbyists employed by the carbon-emitting industries do manage to wield a huge amount of power and influence and it's very hard for officials and politicians to counteract that power. These people are very professional and work fulltime at it; they're forever there offering to submit a paper on how they might be able to make this or that work better. It was a revelation to me. And of course, it has to do with the downsizing of government in the neoliberal world.

Yes, it is very striking that Simon Upton [environment minister in the National Governments of the 1990s] and Pete Hodgson [various ministries 2004-08] are so frank now about stuff they could not say then: they were outgunned and fighting with one hand tied behind their back.

Lobbyists know they aren't going to change [former Greens co-leader] Jeanette Fitzsimons or Pete Hodgson's mind so they work out who else in Cabinet they can sidle up to and get something happening.

Much of your material is on the public record and has been seen before but when you present it cut into a coherent narrative it reminds us of things that hide in plain sight. Is part of your role as a documentarian engaging in an act of remembering on our behalf?

Absolutely. One the great tragedies of neoliberalism is that it encourages us to forget history and offer us a complete world-view. We become consumers and economic agents in the world and all the other qualities don't count.

The immigrants to this country came here to make a different society informed by Christian values and hopes. That has been written out and I think we have to try and get those values and try and resurrect them because they are what we are. We need to explore what being a New Zealander is and I suppose that's what I try to contribute to.

Do you ever get disheartened at what you take on? The Hollow Men made a huge impact but look at where we are now. The case that the film made has been comprehensively ignored by the public.

I think it's probably some quirk of personality. If I have a job in front of me and it makes sense and it seems to be worthwhile doing I can't help saying "Oh, yeah, OK". It's another day down at the National Library looking though newspaper articles or reading a book and making notes or looking at archive footage. You just get up in the morning and carry on. It is satisfying and fulfilling.

It would not have made you a rich man.

Well, I've got my Gold Card now, but when I set up Vanguard Films with a couple of partners [Russell Campbell and Rod Prosser] in 1979, we knew we wouldn't make a living from documentaries, so we have always worked part-time. I've worked a freelance technician on lots of dramas over the years and on commercials. I've lived a perfectly comfortable New Zealand life, taken the kids on holiday. I've been very fortunate.

Lowdown

What: Hot Air directed by Alister Barry and Abi King-Jones

When: Screening at the NZ International Film Festival at SkyCity Theatre on Friday August 1, 1pm and Saturday August 2, 3.30pm.

Bookings information here

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