“No Middle Ground on Middle Earth”
If ever mass hysteria gripped this country, it was no better demonstrated that the last few weeks, when an industrial dispute erupted between Peter Jackson and Actor's Equity. The reaction from every segment of New Zealand society was one of collective naked fury not seen since the Under Arm Incident of 1981 or as divisive as the Springbok Tour, in the same year.
A simple dispute between Employer and Union turned into a near-panic and events spiralled unbelievably out of control, taking all the main players by surprise. There were street marches; Utube videos of Union officials harassed by anonymous video-photographers; threats; counter-threats; abusive emails(again mostly anonymous); newspaper editorials; and Talkback radio and internet chatrooms that demanded blood and the sacrifice of First Born.
All over a couple of movies about hairy-footed fantasy characters.
Actors Equity, to it's credit realised that the ire of the Village Mob had been aroused; were screaming for retribution; and duly called off any and all industrial action. Mostly to no avail, as reason had taken leave of most New Zealanders, it seems.
Finally, our esteemed Prime Minister and Typical All-Round Nice Bloke, John Key, faced off against a high-powered gang of Hollywood executives from Warner Bros. He went into the meeting declaring beforehand that there would be “no bidding war” with the likes of Slovakia or Hungary to retain the movies.
He came out some hours later confirming that tax-payers would be paying $85 million to Warner Bros, and we would be changing our labour laws to comply with their wishes. The Mafia couldn't have asked for a better outcome.
But was on Earth caused such a nationwide, feverish hysteria from so many normally easy-going Kiwis? What sparked such an outrage that saw local actors threatened with violence and even death? Even Robyn Malcolm stated she would be selling her home – such was the naked hatred being expressed toward members of New Zealand's Actor's Equity.
To be clear, this mass hysteria has little to do with an industrial dispute.
It has little to do with the prospect of losing a $650 million dollar venture to Eastern Europe.
And to be brutally clear, most folk couldn't care tuppence about local actors and technicians losing their jobs in the process.
After all, New Zealanders have stood by quietly and meekly as company after company relocated their manufacturing base and call centres tro China, Australia, Fiji, India, and elsewhere. Certainly not one single New Zealanders marched in the streets when Fisher & Paykel moved their manufacturing to China or when Telstra Clear moved part of it's call centre to The Philippines; as did many other companies.
Since the late 1980s, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost overseas, and most of our manufacturing sector has followed suit. Even our farmland is now up for grabs (more on this in a moment).
So obviously, New Zealanders are not to fussed about the 'gutting' of our economy. It has been happening for over twenty years and mostly with practiced indifferance by The Kiwi Masses.
So what was it that stirred the blood of ordinary New Zealand men and women to boiling point?
The answer, I would suggest, lies in our sense of self; our national identity.
Quite simply – we don't have one.
Once upon a time, we took pride in our rugby team, the All Blacks. Players such as Colin Meads, Sid Going, Brian Lahore, Ian Kirkpatrick were the stuff of legends. We were a tiny nation, but our team of fifteen black-garbed heroes could venture forth and thrash teams from far more numerically-populated nations. Australia, Britain, South Africa, France – all fell before The Mighty Blacks.
Then, as rugby became commercialised and slightly less “heroic”; splintered into various other 'codes'; tickets became outrageously expensive; and the names became more South Pacific than South Island – we slowly ceased to identify ourselves with the game. We became more sophisticated and were tempted with other sporting distractions in which we could take a small measure of national pride.
Also once upon a time, we took pride in being a rural country that could out-produce any other agricultural and farming country on this planet. Our archetypal hero, Fred Dagg, was a simple character with common sense wisdom and good-natured, blokish, humour.
But we outgrew Fred Dagg; John Clark moved to Australia; and our farmers began to speak with American, Australian, and Chinese accents.
We were a nation left with not many heroes, except for randy doctors and nurses on “Shortland Street” and high-flying financiers such as Faye & Richwhite and Allan Hawkins. Except that Faye & Richwhite were eventually investigated by the Securities Commission for insider-trading; the NZ Railways they purchased was looted and our rail system fell apart through lack of maintenance; and Allan Hawkins ended up in jail. The doctors and nurses on “Shortland Street” carried on with their amourous activities.
Then almost overnight, a new hero burst upon the scene: Peter Jackson.
Jackson started off in 1987 with his Z Grade splattermovie, “Bad Taste”. He quickly ran out of money and required tax-payer bail-out to the tune of $235,000 from the New Zealand Film Commission.
The film achieved a small measure of cult-status and kick-started Jackson's career. His subsequent films were popular, employing unique and charming aspects of Kiwi culture and humour.
In 2001, Jackson's first installment of “The Lord of The Rings” was released and became an international sensation. The eventual-trilogy earned Jackson Hollywood accolades; millions of dollars; and more Oscar Awards than could be carried in Fred Dagg's old wheelbarrow.
Indeed, the entire country shared in the radiant glory. New Zealand was suddenly the centre of international attention, if not most of the Known Universe. To be a Kiwi was cool. Tourists flocked to our country, eager to see the mountains; the rivers; the forests; and Hobbits roaming freely. Aotearoa became Hobbiton.
The Mountain Troll stood guard in Wellington's civic square. A heroe's parade at the World Premiere of “Return of the King” wound it's way through Wellington's streets. Dragons adorned The Embassy and Readings Theatres. A giant arrow was clevelerly plunged into the side of a Courtney Place pub. And a giant statue of Gollum greeted visitors to Wellington's International Air Terminal.
We suddenly knew who we were; we were the mythical land of Middle Earth. We were the nation that produced a man who could complete three complex movies, back-to-back, reaping hundreds of millions in profit in the process.
It put New Zealand on the map and our national and personal pride was boundless.
When the trilogy won a combined total of seventeen Oscars, Billy Crystal was moved to say, at the 2004 Academy Award ceremonies; "It's now official. There is no one left in New Zealand to thank." .That was the point at which Kiwis experienced a collective orgasm.
As many of the protest-placards stated during the recent “Save The Hobbit” marches; “New Zealand IS Middle Earth”.
So when Actor's Equity began their industrial action at the end of September, they were not just taking on Peter Jackson. Nor were they taking on Warner Bros. No, Actor's Equity was “attacking” New Zealand's deepest, cultural psyche.
New Zealanders now identifed so closely with hobbits and Middle Earth that any suggestion that movie productions be moved offshore was akin to wounding our collective heart. No wonder we responded with such irrational anger and hatred; our very national identity was under threat and as any psychologist will tell you, assaulting a person's psyche can have far more dire consequences than simply biffing him one.
New Zealand was not about to lose something we identified so closely with. (Because we had nothing else left in which to express our national pride.) And certainly not through industrial action led by an Australian, through an Australian trade union – which in itself raised stark issues surrounding our rivalry with that country. Australia was (in)famous for attempting to steal our cultural icons and now it appeared that they were after 'Our Precious', The Hobbit.
Yes, it seems we are that insecure.
So when John Key bent over backwards to the Wide Boys from Warner Bros, he was prostituting this country because he had no alternative. Far better to “take one for the team” than an alternative that, conceivably, could have resulted in people actually being harmed or killed.
Yes, the hatred was that palpable.
For a brief moment in our history, we went collectively mad. We were Bilbo Baggins faced with the awful prospect of losing The Ring forever.
And like Bilbo, we just couldn't bear to part with The Precious. We were The Precious and without it, we were faced with an culteral emptiness.We are indeed slaves to The One Ring