In My Father’s Den

December 12th, 2007

I watched In My Father’s Den last night. Finally. The first attempt was when my parents and Roubaozi were here, we’d just got back from pizza at The Tree, and lzh had already gone up to Yanqing to take care of all the last minute wedding stuff… that would make it the evening of Wednesday, 28 November 2007. Not that that date is in any way significant. Anyway, finally sat down and watched it last night.

See, there’s the thing: In My Father’s Den is one of those films you have to be in the mood for. It’s not a Hollywood film, I mean (in part). It’s not an easy film to watch, and it is one I will revisit because watching it once through leaves you feeling like you’ve only glanced at the DVD cover.

It’s a slow film. It takes its time to develop the story. In fact, it takes its time with time. Eventually you start wondering what happened when. It’s not so tricky as to have most viewers questioning the ending, but it is subtly tricky enough to leave you wondering… It takes liberties with time, perhaps, but it certainly does take its time with time.

But what struck me most last night was the cop. The film (I can’t vouch for the original Maurice Gee book, having never read it) is set in Central Otago, in a town that looks very very familiar to Roubaozi and I- he’s from Southland and (naturally) has family and connections and experience in that part of the country, and I managed to get some time up there in my scarfie days- but we could never pick exactly where in Central it was. The Taieri Gorge Railway did play a cameo, though.

But what struck me most last night was the cop. So here we are in some small town in Central Otago. Apply the usual universal small town values here. The local cop, of course, is intimately connected with each and every member of the community. Paul Prior, the main character, is a local who “made good” and got himself a big fancy-pants career as an international war photo journalist. When the teenage girl we are first led to believe is his daughter, but who may well turn out to be his half-sister (just watch the film ok?) disappears, Paul Prior, who has just returned for his father’s funeral and who stays on as some kind of relief teacher, is the prime suspect. Well, he’s suddenly found himself as an outsider in his own home town, and he faces the usual small town outsider prejudice.

But the cop. Well. He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. The chip fell of his shoulder and left the block behind. Any excuse he flies off on some rant about how not everybody got the supercool opportunities Paul Prior got. And that’s what hit me. Something about New Zealand that is not often recognised or discussed. Something I had never really noticed before, not consciously, but an itch that was always there. There are those who stay behind who resent those of us who get out in to the big wide world, who get an education and experience. It’s not necessarily that Kiwis like me or Shushu have undue pretensions of grandeur, the trouble is those, like the cop in the film, who stay behind resenting everything we’ve done.

And it is not that we’re lucky. Not in any way, shape or form. We are certainly not unduely lucky. We saw opportunities and took them. Either that or we made opportunities. We chose not to stay in the closely-confined little worlds that raised us. We broke out. We did nothing wrong. Those like the cop in the film chose to stay behind but harbour a bizarre resentment against those who broke out.

Yes, in very many respects I identified with the Paul Prior character (NOT, I should add, in any way that will freak out any member of my family reading this- watch the film, if you don’t know what I’m talking about). More importantly, in the cop I saw a (rather extreme, perhaps) representation of something ugly in New Zealand society.

I should add that the majority of New Zealanders are not like the cop in the film. We tend to be a pretty easy-going, accepting bunch. Still, I have had my run-ins with such people- mostly before I had ever left New Zealand, as odd as that may sound. I’d just never come across any philosophical or artistic representation of such people that could help me to make sense of those experiences.

I should also make clear that the only things my family has in common with the Prior family in the film are: Nationality; skin, eye and hair colours; accents; and an overseas son.

Anyway, powerful film, well worth re-watching. Just make sure you’re in the mood. Thing is, by the time you get to the end, you don’t really know what did or did not happen in the film Everything is only “Well, apparently…”

Now, if only I could get my hands on the book… Mum?

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