Monday, November 19, 2012

Leaving Middle-earth

First it was rugby and the America’s Cup, and sometimes Katherine Mansfield and Jane Campion (thank you very much). Then The Lord of the Rings came along and it became the thing that people knew about New Zealand. That, and that it was a place of great natural beauty.

It’s funny what people know about other nations. ‘If they commit suicide and the king rides a bicycle, it’s Sweden.’ I think Alan Bennett said this. New Zealand is the kind of place that people seem to know two things about. Seldom less, seldom more.

Years ago a friend in the tourism business who specialised in South-East Asia and the South Pacific told me that she visited New Zealand as little as her role allowed her. There’s nothing to see there, she explained, nowhere you’d want to be. Too much nature, not enough culture. It was a one-way conversation as I had no direct knowledge on which to build a counter-argument at the time. I’m not even sure I could successfully muster one now – not when she could turn around, pick up a brochure from a shelf in her office and wave it triumphantly in my face.

Image from the Tourism New Zealand website
This is how the country markets itself at this time. The $10 million campaign goes by the name of 100% Middle-earth and its main vehicle is a 60-second ad created by TBWA ‘placed on TV and cinema in selected offshore markets’. At the end of the ad, which tracks a fellowship of tourists as they tramp and frolic through a series of scenic spots, we come to the hobbit burrow shown above. The tourists look at each other in delight and wonder. Cue the campaign slogan: ‘Traveller: your dreams are waiting.’

It’s not just awful, but a special kind of awful. The last place shown in the ad before getting to the hobbit village is a hilltop dotted with carved Māori pou (voiceover: ‘where you can play on mountains protected by the gods’). Thus a direct, seamless transition is set up between the true and fake indigeneity, allowing the traveller to grab one of each. This New Zealand without cities, this nation without culture, is open to such reinventions.

The recipe is a kind of colonial mille-feuille. New Zealand can stand in for Middle-earth not just because of the entrepreneurial genius of Peter Jackson and the capital supplied by Warner Brothers but also because its native landscape was remade by British settlers in the image of their (and JRR Tolkien’s) motherland: hence when the Tourism Board boasts that ‘the fantasy of Middle-earth is in fact the reality of New Zealand’, as opposed to manufactured in post-production, it glosses over the pre-production work carried out by generations of colonizers. Another delicious layer of the cake consists of the arrangements that made the films possible, and the remarkable contortions (and outright deception) that led Warner to secure significant tax breaks and have a direct hand in drafting our labour legislation. Which efforts in turn – and we’re getting to the cake’s crunchy base – were targeted not at supporting a national film industry but rather at increasing the flow of foreign tourists.

The New Zealand of 100% Middle-earth is thus – to borrow Irena Ateljevic and Stephen Doorne’s phrase – the perfect postcolonial consumer fantasy: pre-packaged via entertainment products that are already thought of as pieces of tourism marketing, then sold as pure experience, a vast empty signifier that is up to the traveller to fill. There is no indigenous meaning here, not even in the shape of the land. We stand before you, all nature and no culture, ready to be remade in your image.

A true New Zealand landscape
The trouble is that none of it is real. Not 100% Middle-earth, which is just stupid, nor 100% Pure, which is the slogan of the parent campaign and only marginally less dishonest. New Zealand is neither of those things, and our target audience has cottoned on to this, as evidenced by the strange spectacle of the Prime Minister being grilled on such claims on Hardtalk last year (‘I think for the most part, in comparison with the rest of the world, we are 100% pure,’ was his inspired response) or most recently by a New York Times article timed to coincide with the release of the first Hobbit film.

Nonetheless, if The Hobbit is even a moderate success I’m sure that we’ll register an increase in the number of tourists, and the stats will be crunched and it will be found that the investment was worth it, all of it, including auctioning off our labour laws to a Hollywood film studio, for the people came, and they went to the hobbit village at Matamata, and they weren’t bothered by the fact that those lovely hobbit houses have no inside – they are just pasted onto the side of the hill – nor did they go away thinking you know what, in a funny way the entire country is like that: not quite real, a bit of a trick. You open the door, and there’s nothing there.

With thanks to Anna Caro. She knows why.