Christchurch recovery documentary debuts tonight
Award-winning filmmaker Peter Young has lived a life of global adventure, but his new documentary examining the creative rebuild of Christchurch brings him closer to home. CHARLIE GATES reports.
Peter Young has worked on fishing boats in dangerous Alaskan waters, washed dishes in Antarctica, driven taxis in Seattle, been a cowboy on Molesworth Station and taken a global campaign to the heart of political power.
But the award-winning director and cinematographer's latest documentary kept him at home.
His new film, The Art of Recovery, tells the story of the coin-operated dance floors, bars made from scaffolding and street artists with spray cans that have defined the creative response to the Canterbury earthquakes.
The film, which debuts at the New Zealand International Film Festival tonight (some tickets still available), compares the grassroots artistic response to the Christchurch rebuild with the Government's blueprint.
Making the documentary led Young to some revealing conclusions about the opportunities in the Christchurch rebuild and where the government may have gone wrong.
A life of adventure
Young, 53, grew up in Taranaki in a large family. He is the third youngest of nine children.
"It felt quite natural. I was raised by my siblings and parents collectively because I was down the end. I remember just running bare feet after school. Running with the pack and having a great time in small town New Zealand."
But it was not a typical upbringing. His father was Venn Young, who was a National Party MP for 24 years and served in Robert Muldoon's cabinet for nine years.
"We used to go to the Beehive quite regularly. It was always fascinating. I love the big debating chambers and I remember having fights with my brothers in Bellamy's restaurant, just acting like a big unruly family. It was great. It becomes part of your norm."
At 17, Young struck out for the South Island to work on the vast landscapes of Molesworth Station.
"I came from a political family ... I'm not sure where I fit in among all that. We are quite a diverse bunch and that is great. I have always been the farmer. I always think of myself as a person of the land, really."
"I was just following what I wanted to do. I wasn't out to do anything except follow that yearning to get down south."
"The best thing about Molesworth was you led a very simple, connected life. You were connected to the land. Good people and very uncomplicated, but very fulfilling. We rode horses every day. We cooked our meals over the fire every night. It was a real privilege to get that experience, you don't get it now. They were wonderful people to work with and for. They just set me up in general."
He would pass time by keeping a diary and writing regular letters to dozens of friends. He didn't know it at the time, but he was teaching himself how to be a storyteller.
"I was telling little stories as I went along."
After 18 months as a cowboy, Young worked as a musterer and fencer, did a spell as a dish washer at McMurdo Station on the Ross Sea in Antarctica, before heading to the United States.
He worked as a construction worker and drove a taxi on the northwest coast of the US. Then he found work on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska.
"The fishing was an amazing adventure. That ranked equally as going to Molesworth in the impact it had on my life. It was really hard work. It was the hardest thing I have ever done physically.
"We were fishing right where [TV show] Deadliest Catch is set. It was incredibly dangerous and hard work. "It was 30 years ago and it was a very different way of fishing. We were doing 24 hour fishing seasons on 36 hour shifts." They'd leave port and steam into position, drop their nets and fish for 24 hours, then steam back to port.
"That is how they managed the quota system. Boats would get overloaded and would go down.
"You would go out whatever the weather. You have 24 hours to catch some halibut. [Once] there was a massive storm. Even our skipper, who was 67 and had spent his whole life on the ocean, was being very quiet and asking everyone to stop talking.
"They stopped that style of fishing. At the time I thought, 'Oh my God, this is really dodgy.' That was the Wild West."
It was in this unlikely place that his future beckoned.
"It was where I first picked up a camera.
"It was a simple video camera and I started filming the fishing trip. This was 30 years ago and it was one of the first video cameras that came out. That was when I thought: 'Wow, this is what I want to do'."
"I started telling these little stories on film.
"It all just sort of came together.
"I didn't chase photography before, but I was doing a lot of writing. I thought it tied together a lot of things I enjoy in life, which is meeting people, being out, talking to people, filming and being social and engaging with people."
He returned to New Zealand at the age of 28. He ran a ski video business at Treble Cone, then enrolled at the Christchurch Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology's broadcasting school.
This led to a job at TVNZ's natural history unit in Dunedin and a career in television working for channels like the BBC and the Discovery Channel. He has produced, directed and filmed a range of television shows, including Country Calendar, Hunger for the Wild, Coasters and a documentary for the Discovery Channel about giant squid.
In 2012, he released a feature length documentary, The Last Ocean, which called for the Ross Sea in Antarctica to be protected from commercial fishing with an international marine reserve. He was moved by the idea that one of the last wildernesses on earth, the Ross Sea, was being damaged by commercial fishing.
"I felt compelled to tell this very simple story.
"I had been working as a freelance documentary cameraman, which meant I had seen the world and seen some of the most beautiful places in the world. So, I knew the Ross Sea was a gem. It was untouched.
"I couldn't have that knowledge and not do anything."
He toured the film around the world, connecting with campaign groups and setting up the Last Ocean Charitable Trust to push for a marine reserve. He even took the film to the centre of American power, screening it for US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in Washington DC in 2013.
"It was an amazing adventure and took us to places where we never dreamed of going when we set out. It really pushed us, but it was really exciting.
"It provided me with a real insight into politics and change. I am glad to step out of it. I never set out to do that, but I don't mind working on a cause like that.
But the campaign to protect the Ross Sea has not yet been successful.
"It is in the upper echelons of politics. We will never get commercial fishing out of the Ross Sea. In my optimistic moments I like to think we are on the cusp of creating the largest marine reserve in the world in the Ross Sea. That would be awesome to protect that. I don't know, given the state of world politics, if we will get there."
"There has been a bit of jockeying and international politics. It comes down to relations between Russia and the States and China. If they want to work together or not. It doesn't matter how rational an idea is, when it gets to that level, that is what it comes down to."
Bringing it all back home
His new documentary, The Art of Recovery, also touches on political territory, examining the rebuild of a city he has called home for 25 years.
The film looks at projects like Gap Filler's Dance-O-Mat, a coin operated dance floor in the city centre, Johnny Moore's Smash Palace, a bar constructed from scaffolding, and the Rise street art festival, which has brightened city centre walls.
Young was attracted to the project by the energy and generosity of the people rethinking the city in creative ways.
"It was challenging because you are covering four years of the most dynamic, creative and contentious years in Christchurch history.
"I just found the change in the central city fascinating. I loved it in a way. The ruins. It was so foreign and disorientating. It was like you were in a totally new and different city. When you found the pockets of activity, there was a real rawness and vitality to them."
"That is what attracted me to the story – the defiance of these people not to be beaten by the quakes. They were generous in their spirit and time in what they did. It thrived in Christchurch.
"I thought there was a wonderful story to be told there. I was really impressed."
His fascination with the creative rebuild led him to consider the complexities and politics of designing a new city.
"I started out filming those projects and came across a bigger and more universal story, which is how do we build our cities and how do we live together? In Christchurch it is the challenge of creating a city with colour and character in a world that is increasingly corporate driven. How do we keep that colour and character?"
So, having spent the last three years examining the Christchurch rebuild, what are his thoughts on the Government's approach? He is reluctant to engage directly with the politics of the city, but has a few pertinent observations.
He believes the Government should capitalise on the creative response to earthquakes, rather than focusing on a rigid blueprint.
"The blueprint is about big business. It's about attracting investment. You need that, but the colour and character comes from the people.
"I think that a city is about the people on the ground, I don't put my faith in big business to provide heart and soul.
"The more you can allow a city to develop organically, the better it will be.
"I don't think the government needed to extend their influence as much as they did in designing the central city. New Zealand is a country full of innovators. We do small business really well. We have this great energy and intelligence. We just need to provide the environment for them to go and do their stuff. That is what we needed. The blueprint is only one way of building a city."
But he believes there could still be a chance for the creative rebuild to have a larger influence on the new city.
"It is open now because things aren't going to plan. These projects aren't turning out how they were envisioned. There will be gaps in this city for years to come. It is how you fill them that will decide the city."
Young's political advocacy for preservation of the Ross Sea and examination of rebuild politics in Christchurch takes him close to the family business.
His father was a cabinet minister and MP for 25 years, his brother is a National MP and his sister is political editor for the New Zealand Herald.
Despite his lineage and global advocacy, Young says
"I'm not a political beast. I just observe things and try to tell a story that captures the spirit of a time," he says.
The Art of Recovery will premiere in central Christchurch tonight and will screen again on Tuesday.
"It is just fantastic to bring it to the Issac Theatre Royal and to have that place humming. The Dance-O-Mat is just outside. We will get that cranking and hopefully have a bit of dancing afterwards. That is Christchurch today. It is dynamic and changing all the time."