Forgotten Silver remembered 20 years on
It was the moment when some viewers lost faith in TVNZ. New Zealand's equivalent of Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. A part of our televisual history, along with Angela D'Audney going topless and Thingee losing an eye.
Twenty years ago today, Peter Jackson and Costa Botes fooled the nation with their "documentary" on pioneering Kiwi filmmaker Colin McKenzie – Forgotten Silver.
Playing in the prestigious Sunday Theatre slot, it purported to have been inspired by the discovery of a chest full of film in Jackson's parents' garden shed. A carefully orchestrated media campaign helped pave the way for the "hoax", with Botes and Jackson giving interviews to the likes of The Listener, The Dominion and The Evening Post.
Then a film reviewer for The Dominion, Botes described it as "a three-year labour of love and a monumental task of cinema archaeology".
Despite the onscreen presence of such revered cinematic luminaries as film critic Leonard Maltin, legendary producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Sam Neill, its airing became something of a "national gullibility test", with most workplace discussions the following morning revolving around when people twigged to its "fakery". For the record, my late father's knowledge of railway gauges were what made us doubt its authenticity. That, and the fact "Colin McKenzie" looked remarkably like a young actor (Thomas Robins) who worked in a local Dunedin record shop.
But among the film's claims which should have tipped the scales were proof that Kiwi aviation pioneer made his maiden voyage six months before the Wright brothers, the discovery of a lost city on the West Coast and the suggestion that McKenzie created both the world's first talking and colour movies. Then there was Jackson's visual hints. Not only did he start by literally leading viewers "down the garden path", but he also showed how the films had been discovered under the statue of a "bull".
Despite this, not all those watching got the joke, with many expressing their outrage to TVNZ or their local paper. "A pox on Peter Jackson's future efforts and may his worst nightmares be digitally enhanced," wrote an outraged Derek Martin to The Evening Post, comparing the work to those created by the Nazi regime's head of propaganda Josef Goebbles.
The Broadcasting Standards Authority received three formal complaints, with Bluff's Brent Proctor expressing the belief that "heads must roll at TVNZ" for misleading and deceiving the public with "an infantile and nefarious enterprise". All three were rejected.
For his part, Botes, who was inspired to make Silver after a seeing a similar 1960s BBC show Alternative Three, was surprised that was originally little more than "amusing diversion" had caused so much angst. Writing for NZ on Screen in 2008, he described how "the mood turned nasty" when people discovered their new "national hero" was a sham.
"As a work of fact, our most trenchant critics said, Forgotten Silver could have been a national treasure, but as a work of fiction, apparently, it was worthless.
"Ironically, this dismal assessment underscored the whole point of the film," he wrote, "that this country is not very supportive of its artists."
TVNZ had planned to repeat Silver almost immediately, but as the controversy got bigger, they lost their nerve, Botes recalled.
Back in 1995, he also had a special response to the Post's particularly-outraged letter writer. "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."
Unhindered, and perhaps even boosted, by the controversy here, Silver went onto get a terrific reception at prestigious international films festivals like Cannes and Venice, where it won a special critics' prize. And even in 2008, there were still believers.
"We continue to get emails from people wanting to know where they can get hold of the full cut of Colin McKenzie's biblical epic, Salome," Botes wrote.