"Wellywood's $575 million bill – and you paid it" was the Weekend Herald's catchy headline. Subtext: you dumb muppets are funding a bunch of arty-luvvies. Rise up.

When I first read it I responded as invited. Sheesh, Alvin and the Chipmunks? That ghastly Scarlett Johansson movie where she wore a nude bodysuit and pretended to be Japanese? Couldn't we spend that money on hot soup and warm anoraks for decile 1 schools?

And yet, like most things, it can look a little different when not "in the hot, crispy, pan-fried moment in which events are momentous" (I nicked that from science fiction writer Bruce Sterling).

First, can we put aside the lip curl at Wellington? The headline stating the money went to "Wellywood" is not strictly accurate. The funding went to films shot in New Zealand, not just in Wellington. But I understand where the Jafa sneer comes from. Aucklanders have an un-classy envy of Wellington's arty cool. But south of the Bombays sniping should be irrelevant in this argument.


What does seem to count is the money. The almost-$600m figure is cited as the amount reimbursed to film producers in the past eight years. As far as I understand it, and I admit I'm not an expert in this area, the producers are being refunded money they have spent here.

Whether the figures they provide are robustly audited seems to me to be a valid question: film budgets are famously puffed up in order to render even successful films loss-making for tax purposes. But that was not the focus of this investigation.

I know film is a business. But it is also a creative endeavour, which is part of the arts. Not all art is high-brow. Film technicians who work on Power Rangers are still artists. So the funding for these films is for our artistic community, and I would argue that has a value that doesn't seem to get much of a look in.

Let's put it this way. So film funding got $575m, but in the same period of time, just one government-funded sports body, Sports New Zealand, spent more than $700m on sport. The government puts $62m per year into high-performance sport alone. In May's budget Auckland got $100m for the America's Cup.

Michelle and Barack Obama hosted poetry evenings and jazz concerts at the White House. Donald Trump has been visited by Ted Nugent and Kid Rock. Photo / AP
Michelle and Barack Obama hosted poetry evenings and jazz concerts at the White House. Donald Trump has been visited by Ted Nugent and Kid Rock. Photo / AP

Yet where are the headlines saying, 'Wake up you dozy planks, you're spending billions of dollars on dumb jocks'?

Sports is a business but government-funded sports are not required to become "sustainable" in the way the film industry is. The assumption remains, as usual, that somehow sport is a worthwhile endeavour while the arts have to grovel, Dobby-like, and justify themselves over and over.

This pro-sports bias goes so deep I'm sure many people will not even be able to see the anomaly. Because to them, sport simply is valuable, whereas the arts are something optional, non-quantifiable, indulgent.

In some ways, I understand their attitude, even though I don't share it; because the arts are threatening, challenging, subversive. Or should be.


Some people are more comfortable in the world of tangible things, and acquiring and achieving, on accepting reality at face value. These people tend to like sport.

In sport you know where you are. There are winners and losers. Sport connects us to the normative culture's comforting consensus about what's real and what's not.

But the truth is, the truth has always been a contested idea.

Art allows us to, as psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion put it, think the thoughts that cannot be thought. As Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei puts it: "Art is a social practice that helps people to locate their truth." People who are threatened by the notion that others may have a different reality from theirs may become defensive.

So the Wellywood headline could have another subtext: Here is proof we are sadly still a nation of philistines. Of course, if you are a philistine, you might not know what that is, so let me oblige: a person who is lacking in or hostile or smugly indifferent to cultural values, intellectual pursuits, aesthetic refinement.

It is interesting to note that the Trump White House is the first administration which is totally devoid of culture. The New York Times notes there have been only two artists who have visited the Trump White House – gun fetishist Ted Nugent, and Kid Rock.

Trump disparaged the musical Hamilton, attacked Meryl Streep and admits he never reads books. Whereas the Obamas hosted poetry evenings and jazz concerts. But this White house has no music, no art.

Writer Dave Eggers acknowledges that talking about supporting the arts can seem relatively unimportant when there are more brutal issues demanding attention, such as children being forcibly separated from their asylum-seeking parents. But Eggers points out that with art comes empathy. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanisation of others. "When we are without art, we are a diminished people — myopic, unlearned and cruel."

Maybe the value provided by the films we make here is not so easy to measure. But as Albert Einstein, an imaginative thinker, said, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.