Nothing happens. Nothing happens, a lot, constantly, numbingly, agonisingly, in Go South, a kind of documentary, that records a trip by rail, road, and boat, from Auckland to Milford Sound, in which nothing – precisely nothing; absolutely nothing – happens.

There's a three-hour version and a 12-hour version. "When there's too much of nothing," Bob Dylan sang, "nobody should look." But you may not be able to tear yourself away.

It's always an event when the latest terrible idea arrives in New Zealand from across the water and Saturday night's screening of Go South on Prime marks the debut of something called slow TV. Slow TV is a concept from Norway. In 2009, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation made a programme which filmed a seven-hour train journey.

Nøthing happened, ja, but it attracted 1.2 million viewers, and inspired similar experiments in Australia (the Ghan train journey) and Britain (pootling along a canal - "strangely mesmeric", claimed the Daily Telegraph critic).


Go South is the New Zealand version. I've watched the first few minutes of this epic undertaking. A train leaves the station in Parnell on a grey morning. It hoots. It trundles past Hobson Bay at high tide. There's Rangitoto, there's the Otahuhu rail yards, there's a mosque. I got into the spirit of things; the core appeals of slow TV are at once profound and stupefying, so I sat back, emptied my head, and fell asleep within seconds.

Arthur's Pass on the TranzAlpine passenger train. Photo / Prime
Arthur's Pass on the TranzAlpine passenger train. Photo / Prime

It was all very pleasant. And I very much enjoyed meeting the show's producer the next day in the offices of Greenstone Pictures in Mt Eden, and discussing the possible merits of Go South. Spencer Stoner, 36, is from Austin, Texas. Dark-eyed, loud, cheerful, he had the American habit of doing his best to answer every question politely and enthusiastically, even when I leaned forward across the table, as if inviting him to share a secret, and asked, "Is it bulls***?"

Slow TV, and a slow interview: he repeated every question, held it up to the light, considered its possible merits. He said, "Is it bulls***? Is slow TV bulls***t? Are you asking me whether the Emperor doesn't have any clothes?"

I laughed, not entirely maliciously, and remarked, "It doesn't seem much of an empire and it doesn't have many clothes."

He said, "I think it that it asks the question, 'Can TV be something different for us?', and that's not bulls***. I mean you might like it, you might hate it, but I think it's worth watching and asking whether you're getting a different experience out of it."

I stared at him and waited for him to say something else. He said, "It's something that kind of sidesteps the analytical part of your head. Some people say it's the most boring thing they've ever heard of and can't understand why anyone would watch it. Other people, with similar, slow TV programmes, they say they will sit and watch and three hours later they can't believe they're on the edge of their seat."

The edge of their seat! Well, it's possible. I tuned into later parts of Go South – the train arriving at Frankton station in Hamilton, spring snowfall in the Southern Alps, the dark waters of Milford Sound – and experienced something resembling suspense. It got me to thinking that life was a long, slow journey and you never knew how it would turn out, what you might lose, when you would die.

Viewers are set to join the slow lane with Prime's 12-hour production Go South. Photo / Prime
Viewers are set to join the slow lane with Prime's 12-hour production Go South. Photo / Prime

I asked, "Is it meaningful?"

He said, "It is meaningful. And I wanted it to be meaningful. I didn't want it to be just pretty pictures, because there's nothing exciting about that."

"Is it an artistic enterprise?"

"Go South is definitely artistic. It's definitely a big, bold visual statement."

It was filmed with eight cameras, also by drone and helicopter. New Zealand On Air put in $263,749; the total budget was over $400,000. The three-hour version will play in the evening, the 12-hour version after midnight. But who will watch it? Will anyone watch it? Can anyone watch it? I asked Spencer, "How many people do you think could watch it?"

He said, "How many people do I think could watch it? Well – I – I mean – I don't know about audience sizes."

I asked, "17?"

He laughed, a little hysterically, and said, "17! More than that!"

"You would be disappointed if it were 17?"

"I would be disappointed if it were 17."

We talked for a while about the show's absence of contrived drama, its patient, Zen-like calm. And then he claimed that something actually does happen in the harrowing nothingness of Go South.

He said, "There's no way to really hide reality with this. There's things along the way that you've got to deal with, if like a bug hits the lens."

I asked, "Did a bug hit the lens?"

He said, "I can't even tell you how many times a bug hit the lens."

I asked, "Do we get to see a bug hitting the lens on Go South?"

"Yeah," said the visionary behind New Zealand's first venture into slow TV. "A bug definitely hits the lens on Go South. And in some respects, its going to feel – it's beautiful."

The three-hour version of Go South screens tonight on Prime at 9.30pm, with the 12-hour version beginning at 1.30am