How New Zealanders Are Impacting Democracy Through Art

A new documentary follows Kiwi artists fighting against the lack of democratic transparency brought on by the TPPA.

While it barely meant shit to those over the ditch, New Zealanders didn't take the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement lying down whatsoever. Protests in Auckland just over a year ago saw 10,000 people march against the proposed trade agreement, the biggest ever of its kind, yet it wasn't enough to stop the government from going ahead with their plans to sign it into action.

That's changed now. With Donald Trump heading up a new administration in the US, the TPPA deal looks set to be officially written off. Despite that, the protests did manage to inspire two young New Zealand filmmakers, Rose Archer and Sandy Wijetunge, to produce a short film that explores the art and activism surrounding the TPPA and pro-democracy movement that's going on right now throughout the country. The documentary, Beautiful Democracy, follows a graffiti collective, an activist group and a choreographer as they fight against the lack of democratic transparency brought on by the TPPA.

Ahead of the film's release on January 25, VICE spoke to Archer who, as well as directing the film, is also an advocate for human rights and social justice. Her family's background is quite political—"my parents met on an anti-nuclear demonstration so I guess you could say that it's in my blood," she tells us—and though she's never explored politics herself, it's something she thinks about often. "But I love filmmaking and the world needs more female filmmakers, so this is where I am for the foreseeable future."

VICE: This is a film about defending democracy through activism and art. What did you set out to achieve by making it?
Rose Archer: When we started making the film, we were setting out to give a platform to these artists and activists who are working to defend democracy through these more creative methods—through art as well as through these really creative forms of activism. Also, we really just wanted to draw attention to the quite undemocratic processes that have started to almost become standard practice internationally and locally for creating new policies. The TPPA was quite a strong example of that, so we just found people who were doing work around that topic and followed them.

Producer Sandy Wijetunge and Rose Archer.

You've said that the film is more important than ever now that the TPPA likely won't go ahead with Trump in power. Why do you think that is?
The point that I was making with that was not so much to do with the TPPA not going ahead as such, but over the last 40 years we've seen a sort of slow erosion of democratic power and also the kind of culture of democracy and politicians really engaging with populations in a way that's meaningful. But also an increase of influences, corporations and monied interest into politics through processes like privatisation. And you see it all over the world: you've got Margaret Thatcher starting it off in the UK, Ronald Reagan in America, and Rogernomics in New Zealand. I think that last year we saw a few events that really exemplified the trend that we've been heading on in the last 40 years of people being increasingly disengaged and feeling disenfranchised e.g. Trump and Brexit. I think these were symptoms of people feeling disillusioned with the status quo.

Really what Beautiful Democracy is about is showing that there are ways to engage, and that your voice is powerful and that you can do something other than just kind of passively accepting the status quo, or putting forward a vote that is meant to signal your discontent with the current system. We can find creative ways to engage and to work to imagine a future that is better than continuing down the path that is eroding our democratic rights and allowing the ways that our power structures work to become more and more corporatised and more and more about money.

Voter participation in New Zealand is continuing to decline , especially with young and poor people. Why do you think it's not a priority for this generation to get involved in our democratic process?
I think that people do feel very disenfranchised by the way that the democratic system is currently operating and I think that this a result of trends that have happened—that I mentioned—over the last 40 years. With events such as the TPPA, what we see happening is that our politicians are divesting themselves of power and putting it into a smaller and smaller group of people, power and resources. I think that people see this; they notice the impact of this and increasingly feel to an extent a certain amount of apathy.

I think also that there is a bit of an issue that we lack leadership on the left internationally and what people see when they look at politics is an increasing trend towards corporate power, towards politicians who don't really engage with the public and listen or respond to what they say. For those reasons, it becomes less of a priority for people to engage.

Do you think this attitude has created a division with New Zealand youth?
What I found from talking to people who feel more apathetic about the political situation, but also from people who are engaged, is that there is a desire to be engaged—there is a desire to be listened to and to feel like we can work towards creating meaningful change. Having some kind of meaningful input into policy is not there. People don't feel listened to and they don't understand necessarily how to engage. I think it's that which creates the apathy, even though there is a desire—in my experience–for engagement.

Also, I think we have this narrative around the decline of the democratic system–that a lot of people see and understand is happening now—that it's to do with the young generation being self-involved. That it's because young people either can't be bothered to vote, or it's entirely because of this lack of engagement from young people. But I think that young people have inherited a political system that has been in decline for the last 40 years where you have less of an ability to impact the decisions that politicians are making.

One of the reasons we wanted to make this film was to challenge that narrative because we have this film where young people are engaging and they are fighting to make their voices heard. But I think that when we talk about young people being disengaged, and when we talk about young people not voting, we need to look at it on a slightly deeper level and ask ourselves what are the fundamental issues with this system that is failing to engage young people.

Academics have said that decisions made by the current government, like pushing for the TPPA or the SkyCity Convention Centre, have helped to confirm that democracy in New Zealand mostly favours people with money. From your experience in filming Beautiful Democracy , would you say that's accurate?
The overwhelming concern I heard from people when I was filming was that we are moving towards a system that is dominated by financial interests, and that increasingly ignores and sidelines the interests of people. I think that this manifests itself in a lot of different ways: declining social services, the housing crisis that we're having in Auckland at the moment and a lot of the policies that we've seen implemented by the National government in their recent terms.

The other I got from people through conversations around this documentary was just a real desire to see more space opened up in society—literally and figuratively—that has nothing to do with money. Places where people can get support because they need it and because they have a right to it. But also cultural spaces that have nothing to do with money. And I think that was one of the things that was really special about the work that we followed; all of the artists and the activists that we were working with, their priorities in making the work was really to do with building community, bringing people together and facilitating people becoming educated about the way that their society works.

Beautiful Democracy will be available to watch online from January 25.

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