Costa Botes and the critics

Hoax documentary smart idea which turned sour

Keith Harrison
     It is a risky business when a production is set up to con the viewers. The Montana Sunday Theatre: Forgotten Silver the final in the series of New Zealand films was a not-so-elaborate hoax.
     Funded by New Zealand on Air and the New Zealand Film Commission it was advertised as a documentary about the life of pioneer New Zealand film-maker Colin McKenzie, and how the work of his forgotten genius was brought to light.
     Early sequences of the first powered flight shifted to the wonders of steam-operated cameras and then to the West Coast, to a great stage-set of a city for the making of an epic film Salome. Colin McKenzie's hand-held portable camera filmed his own death in action and all the old films turned up in a trunk in his widow's garden shed.
     Written by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes, and directed by Peter Jackson, it proved to be a rather smart idea which quickly turned sour.
     The first sequences, in which the old film is blotched and scarred, are still clear enough to view New Zealand's first powered flight. The team had taken infinite pains to make those sequences credible.
     But from then on the pace slackened and they got careless about the story-line, putting nothing like the same effort into the later sequences.
     I stayed until the end out of a certain basic curiosity. I had no interest in a story which had lost its momentum and a cast which was going through the motions, but I wanted to see whether or not they had the gumption to reveal all in the credits, or conclude with a sequence which would confront the viewers with the reality of what they had done.
     Instead, they chose to finish with a whimper instead of a bang, perhaps because they could not think of anything else, or perhaps because they were just arrogant.
     The whole presentation lacked humour, lacked purpose, lacked shape and lacked talent. It was a typical undergraduate attempt at humour rough around the edges, self obsessed and patronising. The earlier publicity reported solemnly that the work of this forgotten genius had come to light and that great revelations would be the viewers' reward.
     The result was a kind of in-house joke - which had lost its point and purpose long before it was completed.
     It was a disappointing end to a series which had had its share of low and high spots and it would have been good to have finished with a strong and memorable production. This was, instead, a production which lacked integrity, thumbing its nose at the viewer and patronising the television documentary. If it had been done well, with the viewer included in the joke at the end, it may have succeeded. The result was an expensive failure which had little to commend it.
(Otago Daily Times, 4 November 1995)

Costa's reply:
     Your television commentator, Keith Harrison, obviously disliked my film, Forgotten Silver. Fair enough. But it is also fair to point out that the vast majority of reactions to the programme were complimentary. In fact large numbers of people took the trouble to write or phone, offering praise. Most cited the very qualities which Mr Harrison claims were lacking.
     The "point" of the exercise was not to con viewers, but to give delight, and offer a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Kiwi ingenuity. It was a matter of some dismay to me that so many people were taken in. That was not a completely predictable outcome given the incredible nature of the events depicted. I hope that when Forgotten Silver is repeated soon, Otago viewers who missed it the first time will ignore Mr Harrison's rather dyspeptic dismissal, and take the opportunity to make up their own minds.
Costa Botes
(Otago Daily Times, 10 November 1995)

'Forgotten Silver' deadweight

     Forgotten Silver was very clever (The Post, Oct 30). It brings contemporary technology to bear on an old technique.
     Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda in Hitler's regime, controlled every detail of Germany's film industry.
     He refused to screen "patriotic heroics", choosing instead to entertain and amuse.
     He invented the soft-sell by illusion and is obviously the patron of television. Our local film-makers either fully used the effectiveness of emotive propaganda or are deliberately blind to the consequential lessons of history.
     Their use of computer graphics in the Pearse flying episode brings into stark contrast a means to an end, so differently used by the Dunedin company for the America's Cup. Local heroes in both cases. Was it for profit? Power? Vanity?
     Will John Britten get the same treatment? After 12 months of the 0 J Simpson fiasco, what will media manipulators do next?
     Professionalism was introduced to give the public a reasonably safe choice in selecting skills on offer.
     It seems restructuring and deregulation has not only dismantled professional bodies, it has thrown out ethics and promoted profit and products as values above all else.
     Sure the film gave us clues. Anyone with hindsight would be more sceptical, less willing to accept, more independent in their analysis, as would those who died on Mt Erebus or listened to the statements after.
     So much depends on what is anticipated. Such is the act of illusion.
     All who wish to offer tender concepts or new ideas to public scrutiny will now have the further handicap of the cynicism engendered by Forgotten Silver.
     A pox on Peter Jackson's future efforts and may his worst nightmares be digitally enhanced.
Derek Martin
(Evening Post, 6 November, 1995)

Costa's reply:
Forgotten Silver was total fiction, but the spirit it celebrated was real enough. The film was intended as a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek tribute to Kiwi ingenuity. Thankfully, that's how the vast majority of television viewers interpreted it.
     I'd be really depressed if the humourless reaction of your correspondent Derek Martin (Letters, Nov 6) was typical. His references to Nazi propaganda and the victims of the Erebus disaster were gratuitous and tasteless.
     I suppose Mr Martin is still wondering how Steven Spielberg managed to train the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park? The art of storytelling is the art of spinning a convincing lie. I'm not going to apologise for doing my job well.
     If Forgotten Silver causes people never to take anything from the media at face value, so much the better. Our film was better researched and, on the whole, more "true" than most products of the "infotainment" industry.
Costa Botes
Co-writer and co-director Forgotten Silver
(Evening Post, 16 November 1995)