Making myths for a new place beyond the frontier

Go see River Queen. It conflates too many stories into one fragile vehicle with too many consequential historical and cultural inaccuracies. But it is an historical allegory of what and who we are this Waitangi week.

The future indicated in Vincent Ward’s 1860s film was one of British domination and a shattered Maori way of life.

That colonists’ future was what historian James Belich called Better Britain: Britons displaced from the homeland but open-faced, optimistic, big-bodied and a bit bombastic.

That future died with the last vestiges of Britain-as-Home last century. And with it went the Better Britain frontier myths — to quote another historian, Mary Boyd — of “strong, courageous, independent, enterprising, hospitable, casual and down-to-earth improvisers at need” who were not rugged individualists like Americans but “looked to their mates for help and sustenance”.

“Their utopia,” Boyd wrote, “was rural, agrarian, democratic, egalitarian and respectable.” To that, some have added “progress”.

Now we are rural only in our export dependency. We’ve narrowed what we mean by egalitarian, if the survey in the Herald on Saturday is correct about social attitudes. “Progress” has lost its magic.

But a society needs myths to hold together. A nation is woven out of fictions, agreed from experience and from artists’ and writers’ imaginings drawn from that experience.

That makes film important now. Not the Hollywood showoffs, hugely valuable as they are to make money and showcase scenery and brilliant directors and world-leading digital imaging and to provide the industry’s critical mass. The real importance lies in the local films such as Whale Rider and River Queen which mirror our history and our legends and so us.

Somewhere deep in her instincts Helen Clark grasped this. That is why she is Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage. An almost subterranean, but nonetheless central, element of her prime ministership has been “nation-building”.

Not that she says much about “myths” and “fictions”. She is too much the farm girl for flights of fancy. She even avoids the word “nation”.

Instead, when she wants to talk about nation-building, she talks about being “proud to be New Zealanders”.

She venerates heritage. She visit war graves, goes to Gallipoli, is patron of a schools Anzac essay competition. By that she says (and we agree) the war dead and those who fought and lived made a building block of who we are now.

She visits galleries and museums in the provinces and puts state money into small restorations. She lends quiet authority to little things that add small depths to communities, helps them know themselves a little better.

And she celebrates musicians (with earplugs for the super-loud popsters) and artists and writers and filmmakers (and peak sports people who make myths) — mostly away from the media scrum and out of mind of the large majority.

She treats nation-building, it often seems, as just another project. She shudders at being thought effete, which political folklore says costs votes in the suburbs and provinces.

Clark is instinctive about this, not prescriptive. Which is appropriate. Myths come from the people, not the politicians.

Does the National party get this? Its prime preoccupation certainly involves magic: tax cuts and deregulation and welfare reform will catch us up with Australians’ wealth, despite the mountainous fact of Australia’s minerals cornucopia.

But today’s Nats have pretty much subtracted the word “nation” from National. The founders 70 years ago would not have approved. A true conservative party is the guardian of history and of a nation’s myths.

To be fair to a party bamboozled now in a leadership maze, the old myths of the founders’ time are no longer there for the keeping, though some Nats cling to empire and its faded tapestries. There are not yet new, enduring myths to guard.

Hone Harawira, protester turned patriotic MP, voiced that transitional tension in Saturday’s Herald. “I am proud to be a New Zealander. (Waitangi Day) is our national day … the challenge for me is to change the fear in people, to show people it is a day for nation-building.” Then he added: “Labour and National are kidding themselves if they think the Treaty can be signed off in a full and final way. It is ongoing.”

Is it? Is the Treaty the vehicle for nation-building? Or has it been in the past quarter-century a useful temporary fiction to enable us to come to terms with the fact of two cultures and our historical denial of that? Can such a passing fiction do double duty and signpost us to make a nation?

Or has Clark instinctively understood that the nation will materialise when we sense, without knowing quite why or how, that we are, as Harawira and she in parallel put it, “proud” to be of this place and its goings-on and its creations?

Go see River Queen and muse on where Clark and Harawira have got us to — and what myths we will make now that the frontier is far behind us.