Gone not forgotten

Art is not truth, and the Colin McKenzie hoax did what film is meant to do.

The article as it appeared in the Listener
(click on the image for a larger version)

(Many thanks to The Listener for allowing the reproduction of this material)

By Geoff Chapple
     The question finally came down to this: was gulling the national television audience better than dulling it? Film-makers Peter Jackson and Costa Botes had no doubts - go for gulled. Their Forgotten Silver documentary - New Zealand's biggest-ever hoax - took as its subject an undiscovered film genius, Colin McKenzie from Geraldine.
     On October 29, 400,000 people watched on Montana Sunday Theatre and the collective Kiwi breast swelled with pride. Even overseas experts acknowledged, face-to-cam, that the early history of cinema would have to be rewritten to make way for McKenzie's contributions.
     The letdown later was severe. Some people laughed, but some got very angry.
     Says Jackson: "Some people were upset, but nonetheless they had an entertaining time on television for an hour, which is rare. I don't watch television myself - it's usually so dull."
     Says Botes "This was fiction, but it was a full-blown celebration of Kiwi ingenuity, asking people to wake up and see what's in their backyard. Picasso said, 'We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth.' "
     Not everyone was that subtle. The reaction, as measured by phone-ins and letters to those who broadcast, funded or produced the film was - aside from TVNZ's claim of majority support for the programme - often negative.
     Facts, the anti-Silver contingent said, should be always and only facts. But, by marketing measures, Forgotten Silver was an unqualified success. It has won a repeat screening on TV1, although when is not yet decided, and the New Zealand Film Commission is currently negotiating a distribution deal with Miramax Films in New York, which may recoup most of Silver's $620,000 budget.
     The documentary - now revealed as part of the esoteric "mock-u-mentary" genre - was based on film-stock recovered from an old chest in Pukerua Bay. In the years 1901 to 1927, McKenzie, the film genius, invented tracking shots, grabbed footage of the March 1903 flight of Richard Pearse at Temuka, shot the first colour film and the world's first a sound feature, then built a vast set in deep bush for his masterwork, Salome. He fell in love with Maybelle, the female lead of Salome and, when she died in 1931, left New Zealand forever.
     "People said to me they cried when Maybelle died, and that's what film should do," says Jackson. "It is about emotion. It is about the suspension of disbelief. In ET, the audience cried when he had to go home - and he was a little rubber alien."
     Colin McKenzie was, in the end, no more than a home-grown rubber man, a reminder that what walks like a duck, and talks like a duck is still not necessarily a duck.
     Some guessed quickly - either because of the absurdities, or by the sheer force of female intuition. Says NZ On Air's programme manager Jane Wrightson: "A friend of mine called and said she knew it was a hoax - no one could have achieved all those things, and been called Colin."
     Others, and they included top executives at TVNZ and Creative New Zealand staff, were still enthusiastically expounding Colin's talents the next day.
     "It's not that you made a jerk of yourself if you believed," says Jackson. "It shows a healthy imagination. They haven't shut their minds off. They're not cynical. The world is a bitter and dull enough place, and if you have some fun for some of the time, that's great."
     The idea came originally from Botes, who says he has one regret. A grand-niece of Richard Pearse, the man who really may have flown before the Wright brothers, watched Forgotten Silver in great excitement. The Botes/Jackson "computer enhancement" of a newspaper in someone's back-pocket at the flight scene purported to establish the Pearse flight at March 1903 - nine months before the Wright brothers.
     But, for the rest - there is no apology. Both filmmakers, by a neat inversion, say the people who have dumped on them are the same who would have dumped on McKenzie had he been real. Nor do they believe that they have diluted, by mock-u-mentary, the cherished national myth of backyard genius.
     Says Jackson: "There's a lot of Colin McKenzies out there, and a lot of such backyard people are nobbled in New Zealand. They're nobbled by the 'go out and get a proper job' brigade. The negative reaction to our programme seems a very good example of that."
     And there were, of course, the many who loved it. Of all the letters that came into Wingnut Films after the production, Botes most liked the one that said, "One Network News admitted that last night's Montana Sunday Theatre was a hoax. Well, all credibility has gone down the tubes - I won't be believing in TVNZ's news anymore."

(New Zealand Listener, November 25 1995)