Fresh from his successful documentary on cannabis, television journalist Paddy Gower has brought his unique style to the issue that has dominated life in New Zealand recently – lockdowns. Mark Jennings previews the film that will screen tonight.

From New York via Los Angeles to New Zealand and Bluff. The original path of the virus that resulted in the country’s second worst Covid-19 cluster to date, is a central theme in Paddy Gower’s latest documentary.

The Bluff cluster, which saw 98 people infected with the virus, could’ve been a lot worse.

In the film, Gower introduces us to Adrienne. The Auckland mother of two had just cycled the length of the country and asked a guest from a large wedding party having its photo taken at Bluff’s iconic world travel signpost to also take a photo of her.

They obliged but with the photo came coronavirus. A potential timebomb was soon on its way back to Auckland. Adrienne’s job meant up to 2,000 people could have quickly been exposed if she returned to work. The city sat on the edge of a very big outbreak.

In the end, only her immediate family of four contracted the virus from Adrienne  because the day after she returned from her cycling adventure was the day New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown.

Gower thinks the “narrow escape” was mainly due to the urging of Professor Michael Baker, the public health specialist who had been pushing the Government to impose a lockdown.

“We are lucky to have him. I think it came down to days or even possibly hours. Adrienne gave it to her family and it went no further than that because of the lockdown,” Gower told Newsroom before the screening of his documentary.

Gower on assignment.

Gower’s interview with Baker, at his home during the lockdown, is one of the most fascinating parts of the documentary. Baker, who has come across as a precise, almost cold, public health expert in the scores of interviews with daily media, becomes emotional when Gower asks about his attempts to convince the authorities that a lockdown was urgently required.

“I couldn’t persuade people quick enough,” Baker told Gower, who then puts a slightly strangely worded question to the epidemiologist: “Why did this sicken you so much?“

Baker doesn’t say if he was sickened but with tears in his eyes replies “I just felt everyday counted and that we would basically lose the battle.”

According to Gower, Baker was “cracking with emotion, it was awesome to see him have a bit of emotion.”

Bringing visible emotion, including his own, to the surface has become something of a thing with Gower. It was a slightly haunting presence in his documentary on “Weed” and has been prominent in his coverage for Newshub of the Christchurch mosque shootings.

We see it with Baker and we see it in interviews with Betty and Manoli, the couple whose wedding was at the centre of the Bluff cluster. Manoli, of Greek descent, lost his 87 year-old father Christos to the virus and describes his own harrowing experience with the disease.

Gower says the interview was one of the hardest he has done. “The conversation about the coronavirus, well it turned dark, really dark. It is not just an illness, it is much bigger than that. The stigma that goes with it. For Manoli, it was also the inexplicable way he got it.”

In the documentary Gower talks to a genomicist who traced the Bluff cluster back to New York. An Air New Zealand flight attendant, a friend who attended the couple’s wedding, caught the virus off a passenger who had travelled from New York to Los Angeles and then on to New Zealand. A tearful Gower asks the couple if they wish they could have their wedding all over again. They both say yes.

The fact Gower and most of those interviewed in the documentary shed tears doesn’t mean the emotion is mawkish or contrived. Gower’s empathy feels genuine and his “grass roots” style sits easily in the narrative. He greets Manoli with “Yeah, yeah, how are you mate, yeah” and somehow it doesn’t feel clumsy or inarticulate.

Gower and director/editor Justin Hawkes have emerged as probably the country’s best exponents of the modern commercial television documentary.

Hawkes’ ability to keep a story moving and add a sense of drama with his editing and sound tracks give his docos a very contemporary, almost Netflix, feel. Jake Bryant’s cinematography (there are lots of city skylines and drone shots) add to the international flavour of the film.

But it is not flawless. There are strange inclusions, Finance Minister Grant Robertson pops up out of nowhere with the line that his Government spent “10,000 million dollars in just three weeks“ and new Air New Zealand boss Greg Foran: “We’ve been in crisis since the day I started.” These add nothing new or interesting and perhaps emphasise the difficulties of making a documentary on the run. There is also little examination of the psychological impact of the lockdowns on the “team of five million.”

Gower accepts it is far from a comprehensive look at the lockdowns.

“This was a lot harder than doing the weed doco, where everything was planned. With this, there was no plan. Should we be forward facing or backward facing? Should we be looking at a comparison with Sweden? How do we finish when the story is not finished?

“This is the first look at the lockdowns but there will be many more documentaries made on this.”

Gower describes himself and Hawkes as “quirk people “ and the documentary includes two pieces of quirk which add to its watchability. One is the revelation of where the Director General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, was, and what he was doing, when he decided the country should go into lockdown. The other is the type of pets that sit on Michael Baker’s deck. (Newsroom is not in the business of spoilers.)

Patrick Gower: On Lockdown | Monday, 8:30pm | Three

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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