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For many New Zealanders, the year 1981 is synonymous with the Springbok Tour. From July to September that year the South African national rugby team, the Springboks, toured New Zealand.
South Africa was still under apartheid rule at that time, and a Commonwealth ban on all sporting contact, known as the Gleneagles Agreement, had been in place since July 1977. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union, however, was determined to proceed with the long-planned tour, and New Zealands National Government, whose constituency was largely pro-tour, was not going to stop them.
Long before the team arrived in New Zealand, the country was divided over the tour. For many of those against, the issue was about the immoral white rule in South Africa, but for others, the tour was also a timely reminder of New Zealands own unresolved colonial past. For those who supported the tour, the issue was primarily about the unwelcome intrusion of politics into sport and a desire to protect the traditional New Zealand values embodied by the national game of rugby.
As the start of the tour approached, Maori filmmaker, Merata Mita, conceived of a 25 minute documentary about how passive protest could affect the NZRFUs decision to continue with the 1981 Tour.
The documentary would eventually become 110 minutes long and involve
more than 16 field camera operators. Completed, the film documented how
thousands of everyday New Zealanders Maori and Pakeha, children
and grandparents, clergymen and gang members demonstrated their
disgust at apartheid and their dissatisfaction with New Zealands
race relations. At first peaceful, the protests became increasingly violent
as hundreds of police and army personnel were mobilised to ensure the
tour went on. Filmed throughout the winter of 1981, Patu!s
world premiere was held at the Wellington Film Festival in 1983.
Patu! is not only a record of New Zealands most violent exchange of recent memory, but also a documentary made under extreme circumstances. These circumstances explain the films stylistic approach to the action it portrays.
Co-ordinating a large team of professional and amateur filmmakers, Mita used footage from protest actions in Auckland, Wellington, Napier, Hamilton and Christchurch. The camera operators were often in physical danger, filming violent exchanges between anti-tour protestors, tour supporters and the police. Peter Wells tells a story of how Mita held a cameraman by the shoulders tilting him this way and that to avoid the bottles and flying debris while his eye was looking through the camera viewfinder. These extreme circumstances are evident from the finished film: Patu! contains shots with jumpy movement, indistinct sound, and dramatic sequences that could only have come from a camera being held on the shoulder of a running camera operator.
Interspersed with these highly mobile sequences, Patu! also contains many still photographs. This was partly to express important events outside the time and place of the filmsuch as riots in South Africabut also to continue the narrative through events for which there is no footage at all. This sometimes happened because filming was too dangerous, because the film was ripped from the camera by bystanders or because police wanted no cameras running during their actions. Mita was filming the protests in Hamilton, where she later recalled running from the worst violence she had ever witnessed:
Its the first time in my life I have passed women who
were being kicked and punched, I had to keep running. The cameramen who
were behind me were beaten. Also, the crowd went for the cameras, they
ripped out the film so there was no record of that violence.
Patu! was made on a small budget. While the New Zealand Film Commission eventually assisted with some post-production funding, original requests to them were turned down. Later, grants from bodies such as the National Catholic Commission would draw sharp criticism from community and church groups, showing that even after the end of the Tour, feeling among the New Zealand public ran high.
A Bay of Plenty Times editorial, in November 1982, summed up the outrage felt at the idea of public money being used for Patu!, describing the grant as a license to promote the cause of Left-wing elements who flout and disobey the laws of the country.
Because of the lack of funds, what film stock there was had to be used very carefully. Much of the film, in fact, was shot on stock thrown out by TVNZ, the Film Unit and other commercial film houses. Using both reversal and negative stock, Mita found a problem with matching everything together during editing. Working creatively, she and her editor turned this to their advantage, using the variations in stock to emphasise the films narrative and emotion:
I thought we could get away with using reversal if we made it into something stylistic. Inside Hamilton, we use the negative stock warm, close to the demonstrators. When we cut out to the Wellington motorway, the colours are colderreversal.
Once shot, the footage was carefully guarded. In the course of prosecuting
protestors, police endeavoured to get film and photographs of tour protests.
For fear of compromising their professional ethics, the media refused
to cooperate, so the police sought a court order to allow them to confiscate
film and photographs. To ensure that police could not seize any of Patu!,
much of the films 12,000 metres of footage was sent out of the country
Counterbalancing the official view
Documentary, according to John Grierson, is the creative treatment of actuality. In the years after its release, Patu! was accused of being biased, and of presenting only the perspective of the protesters.
Like many politically motivated documentaries, however, it can be claimed the film is biased only in that it presents a view different from the official view. As Mita commented to the Evening Post, in September, 1983: I felt it was necessary to counterbalance the offical and institutional comment about the tour with this point of view from the streets that involved over half of New Zealand by the time the tour ended.
Other films Merata Mita directed or collaborated on held at the Film Archive: Karanga Hokianga Ki O Tamariki (1979); The Hammer and the Anvil (1979); Keskidee Aroha (1980); Bastion Point: Day 507 (1980); The Bridge: A Story of Men in Dispute (1982); Mauri (1988); The Shooting of Dominick Kaiwhata (1993); and Mana Waka (1990).
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