A Window into NZ Writing: The IIML Documentary — 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

blackbirdThis Saturday I hopped a bus to the Paramount for the world premiere screening of documentary film-maker Richard Riddiford’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, a film examining “the community of writers based around the International Institute of Modern Letters and Victoria University Press.” I’m so very glad I did.

The film seems to begin as a history, an explanation of how a  successful creative writing program was built through the combined passion of instructors, predominantly Bill Manhire, and the contribution of American businessman and philanthropist Glenn Schaeffer. However as the film progresses, its interviews interwoven with readings from IIML graduates and professors, what emerges is less a tale extolling those who began the IIML, and more an exploration of what having a writing community can mean for an author’s process and resulting work.

Among those who discussed the idea of writing as opposed to the reality (forgive the paraphrasing to follow), I particularly enjoyed Ken Duncum’s suggestion that the support of a program can turn the need to write from a simple yearning into a realizable ambition, Paula Morris’s words about the myth of the isolated writer in the garret, and Eleanor Catton’s discussion of individual progression as a writer, the distance  that can exist between who you are when you compose one work, versus who you become during the next.

Some of the most memorable scenes in the film occur between Fergus Barrowman and Elizabeth Knox, the two wandering through the background as they take turns being interviewed, each contributing to the words of the other while simultaneously preparing dinner, the household cats intermittently moseying onscreen (and occasionally blocking half the frame, as is a cat’s right). These scenes stand out not only because they’re the only ones in which multiple interviewees appear together, but because they reflect the wider sense of the film, a sense of building community, of the we behind each writer’s independent journey.

I believe all aspiring writers (but particularly those in New Zealand) would enjoy and benefit from viewing 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird and I do hope that it becomes available for future audiences.

Liz Gillett

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