Not the final cut for Grahame Sydney

Grahame Sydney (left) and film editor Phil Hurring shape the film's final form. Photo Marjorie Cook.
Grahame Sydney (left) and film editor Phil Hurring shape the film's final form. Photo Marjorie Cook.
Grahame Sydney during filming. Photo Stephen Jaquiery.
Grahame Sydney during filming. Photo Stephen Jaquiery.
Sydney directs cast members. Photo supplied.
Sydney directs cast members. Photo supplied.

Wanaka reporter Marjorie Cook finds that Grahame Sydney's latest masterpiece is neither painted nor finished

Artist Grahame Sydney might as well have Central Otago branded across his forehead.

He didn't ask to represent the province but because of his paintings he has had to shoulder the responsibility, he tells me over a cup of tea.

"That would be cowardly to avoid and I won't have that on my conscience," he says.

I can only imagine conversations Sydney might have around the dinner table with his friends writers Brian Turner and Owen Marshall, sportsman and thinker Anton Oliver and actor Sam Neill.

They too could probably be said to be Central Otago representatives, by default if not design.

The vision of a such a supper puts me in mind of the weathered, "Good things take time", cheese advert characters, who embody the type of four-seasons friendships that seem to endure in these interior parts of the world.

The suggestion makes Sydney laugh.

A resident of tiny Cambrian, near St Bathans, Sydney has famously painted this land of strange rock-scapes for many years.

Now, after two and a-half years of immersing himself in Otago Goldrush diggers' stories, he is making his first documentary film.

There is also a book called The Promised Land, which should be published later this year.

The film has been a family affair.

Sydney's composer daughter Melissa (29), has written the music, which is being recorded in her home town of Melbourne, while his graphic artist son Nick (27), of Queenstown, has been working on special treatments of archival footage.

Sydney (60) says he has not had the luxury of telling a story before.

"I have friends who make films and for decades I wished they would ask me to be involved, but they never did.

"I realised the phone was never going to ring," he says, smiling.

Words, on the other hand, have been his friends for years.

He loves writing and has an University of Otago degree in English and geography.

Recently, he's been condemned for using words to defend his landscape muse.

But more of those opinions later.

For now, we talk about crossing over to a new genre. It has been a time of intensive learning, but his recent photography projects in Antarctica helped, he says.

"The nature of my whole professional life has been observing, so the camera has enabled me to do the same looking as I've always done.

"But movie-making has to be a story. Paintings don't tell stories . . .

"Painters will use a single frame to allow people to bring their own stance, to wonder for themselves.

"It is not up to me [as a painter] to dictate the story. But for film, there has to be an implicit story."

Then, in the loud, echoing café in which we sit, air blue from burned garlic, there emerges a startling and frank admission.

Sydney will not have finished his film in time for the April 28 launch of the Festival of Colour in Wanaka.

So next week, Sydney and Action Productions film editor Phil Hurring, of Queenstown, will do something they feel very uncomfortable about.

They will give Festival of Colour patrons a "privileged peek" into Sydney's film, which has the working title Dreaming of El Dorado: The Old Dunstan Road.

Sydney refuses to call it a premiere and the title is likely to change.

El Dorado (the golden one) was a mythical South American city rich in treasure, sought by 16th-century explorers.

Now, it can mean any place of great riches or fabulous opportunity, the Holy Grail at the end of a lifetime's effort.

Central Otago's wasteland - for that is what it was referred to in the 1860s when it was administered by the Wasteland Board - was a 19th-century El Dorado.

It was Otago's "golden heart" but also a heart of darkness.

Stories of success and wealth went hand in hand with snowstorms, disappointment, starvation and death.

Sydney has spent thousands of hours writing, researching, filming and directing.

Now he is spending many more hours in an editing suite - barefooted apparently - with Hurring, going through his film one tiny piece of mosaic at a time, in a process they hope to finish by midwinter.

Winces reveal the dread with which Sydney anticipates the Wanaka audience's response to his unfinished film.

But what could they possibly have to say that would be so terrible? Many Wanaka people share Sydney's views on the landscape and concern to protect it.

Sydney agrees and adds he doesn't think there are enough of them.

But no, the real problem is that revealing your art before it is finished is enormously risky, artistically and financially.

Feedback may cause further delays and interventions.

Sydney would not contemplate a public exhibition of an unfinished painting.

Hurring, who got his start with Dunedin's posse of natural history film-makers in 1983 and has since worked in television throughout New Zealand and in the United Kingdom, likens it to inviting people for a fabulous dinner and asking them to eat the meal before it is cooked.

The sneak preview is "a little bit odd", Hurring concedes, but he feels "OK" about it now.

He'll be watching the faces in the audience, anyway.

Sydney committed two years ago to screening this film at the festival. The show must go on.

Sydney and Hurring have negotiated an opportunity to talk before the screening, to explain things to the audience.

Those who attend may suspect the pair are holding something back. They will be.

That is not always Sydney's modus operandi. A small selection from the Otago Daily Times archives reveals a man with views on topics as diverse as food, art, and sustainable living.

The archives also tell of the condemnation he's received for speaking out against a proposed wind-farm on the Lammermoor Range.

His words have been as unwelcome to corporations dreaming of converting Central Otago's silent land and rowdy rivers to energy, as the influx of 30,000 gold-miners was unacceptable to 1860s provincial administrators trying to suppress news of gold.

But it is not just the corporations who have fired back.

Among the "everyman" correspondence is a letter from an A.K.L. Hart, of St Leonards, who wrote to the Otago Daily Times in September last year, lashing out at Sydney for "standing in the way of the development and welfare of many".

It was "funny that an artist who has made a lot of money out of portraying the abandoned and dilapidated ugliness of the detritus of previous generations has the nerve to protest at the creation of more", Hart opined.

Of course Sydney doesn't care what A.K.L. Hart thinks of him. He cares that corporates portray themselves as concerned with the greater welfare of society, and are accepted by others as such, when they are not.

They promote the idea of economic welfare as being for the national good "so if you dare question it you get responses, like that from the guy from St Leonards, that my view is contrary to the national good," Sydney says.

Otago University philosopher Charles Pigden, a self-described "ambitious academic" who has vowed to curtail his overseas travel to once every five years to protect the Earth, said in his letter to the editor of November 2007, that Sydney and the Upland Preservation Society exhibited a "fondness for posing as representatives of the public" and had a "tendency to blackguard their opponents as motivated by greed".

People who loved the upland views were free to give to the cause but were not friends to the Earth.

"What you are a friend to is the way a tiny portion of the Earth looks," Pigden said.

Sydney says there is nothing wrong befriending tiny pieces of Earth, if you could call the Otago interior that.

"You put your viewpoints because you care about these things deeply.

"If it's supported, the result will satisfy your hopes. If it's not supported, you lose.

"But to tear into someone for daring to put their views is incredibly sad. That is not something I believe in."

Sydney doesn't want to see the Clutha River choked with dams and mountain ridges sprouting wind farms.

Last year, he spoke about investigating nuclear power solutions to New Zealand's energy crisis and was admonished by wind-farm supporters.

Sydney sticks to his guns but clarifies he has only limited support for nuclear energy.

The bottom line is, he says, to make the most of the geothermal possibilities in the North Island, where most of the demand growth is, and for the Government to provide incentives for efficient solar energy.

Only then is it a choice between nuclear power or the landscape, he says.

"The problem with a wind farm on the Lammermoor is that if the wind doesn't blow you are . . . [foiled]."

As it happens, the proposed Lammermoor wind farm would sit beside the Old Dunstan Road, known to diggers as "the mountain track" that links Clarks Junction with Hartleys (now Clyde).

But Sydney's film is not about the wind farm. Nor is it just about the track.

"The film began as a documentary about the Old Dunstan Road but expanded into something much broader.

"I no longer consider it to be the story of the Old Dunstan Road.

"I am using the Dunstan Road and the Otago Gold Rush of August 1862 as the artery by which Central Otago's almost unknown interior was discovered ... and the revelation of a landscape in the same way as it was revealed to the gold-miners.

"The diggers swarmed in with hope in their hearts and dreams of wealth.

"Where they were going was literally unknown to them and they had no idea what to expect. And it was a shock.

"It was nothing like what they were used to. When I say that, most of them came from the Victorian goldfields in Australia.

"About 20,000, mostly men in their 20s, came through Dunedin. Dunedin was unprepared for that."

Sydney's guess is there were no more than 40 to 50 pastoralists living in the Wasteland, with access provided by the barest of tracks.

By midwinter 1862, the population exploded to 30,000.

Many people sailed north from Dunedin to Waikouaiti and then travelled by wagon or dray through the Pigroot to Central Otago, but most of the diggers departed for the mountain track from Outram, on foot.

The place names - some of them still current - speak for themselves. Barewood Plateau, the Great Moss Swamp, The Styx, Rough Ridge, the Raggedys.

With good conditions and a sense of urgency, the great walk into the unknown was possible in a week.

The diggers carried all their worldly possessions through a fenceless land without shelter, devoid of trees (except matagouri) and only the mere possibility of finding pastoralists willing to provide mutton.

In the wintry August of 1862, terrible hardships were endured.

Some never made it, others turned back.

Sydney says all that remains of the diggers' passage is a ghostly presence symbolised by way-markers such as McPhees Rock (Rock and Pillar Range) or Leaning Rock (Dunstan Range).

They are permanent, as unchanged and true as the day they were seen for the first time.

Film editor Hurring leaves no doubt Sydney will be leaving his stamp on the film.

"Compared to a TV reality series, with fast, relentless pace, with this it is trying to pull right back, slow it down, look at what's actually there and have time to take it in . . .

"There's a saying, 'a documentary is never finished, it is always abandoned'.

"That is not going to happen with this one. But there is a point in the process where they start to gain their own personality. That's when you realise you are close to finishing," Hurring says.

Sydney, who usually works in "places of absences", has relished the chance to work with a crew.

"After 35 years of working in solitary confinement this is a very collaborative process.

"The finished product will be the result of combined intellect.

"Ideas get thrown at you all the time, which you consider or reject . . .

"It is radically unlike a painter's professional life, where you please no-one but yourself at all times, if you are sensible.

"In the movie world, you listen to all points of view, if you are sensible," Sydney says.

-The Festival of Colour preview screening of Sydney's unfinished film is on Tuesday, April 28 at Cinema Paradiso at 10am.


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