Riley Kohler

Riley Kohler

Journal Entry #1: Movie Reviews

The three New Zealand movies that I chose to watch in preparation for the trip were Pork Pie, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and What We Do in the Shadows.

Pork Pie is a remake of an older film which tells the tale of the “Blondini Gang” and their travels across New Zealand as they evade the police and eventually arrive at Invercargill, where John seeks to make amends with his love, Suzie. As this was the first New Zealand film I had watched I did not know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the film. The many car chase scenes throughout the film were expertly shot and kept up the excitement throughout the film. Outside of the action, I really enjoyed the three main characters. Jon is trying to win back Suzie, whom he left at the altar in a moment of uncertainty and it is apparent that he still cares for her. Although Jon has a struggling writing career and gets jealous quickly, there is still some likeableness about him that made me want him to succeed in his quest. Luke is running away from his past in a stolen car and doesn’t have a real goal until meeting Jon by almost hitting him with his car. The two don’t seem to get along at first but grow closer when Luke is forced to evade the police to maintain his freedom and Jon is unwillingly brought along. Kiera is brought into the mix when Luke and Jon stop for lunch and she takes up their offer to escape with them after her boss finds out about her internal protest of the restaurant. The group’s continued escapades bring them close together and provide a source of inspiration for the people of New Zealand. The Blondini Gang serves as a symbol of the desire to escape from day to day life and live truly free on the run.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a story about a kid, Ricky Baker, and his new family, Bella and Hector, who adopt him. Ricky had a difficult childhood in a variety of homes and has a history of misbehaving and small crimes. When Bella and Hector take him in, Ricky seems to be up to his usual tricks, but after Bella repeatedly shows her affection, Ricky grows to feel at home. Abruptly, Bella dies and Ricky is left living with Hector, who had always been gruff and distant towards him. When the news comes that child services wants to take Ricky back in, Ricky fakes his death and flees to the bush where Hector later follows to ensure his safety. The boys grow close while living in the bush and when they hear that a manhunt has begun to bring them in, they choose to stay in the wilderness together. Like Pork Pie, this movie shows a desire to escape from society and be free. Ricky and Hector’s unlikely friendship is molded by survival and both characters have some deeper softness which comes out as they endure. Ricky lost his only friend at his young age and seeks to avoid the same fate. He also lives with the knowledge that his mother left him and has little knowledge of who she really is and why. Hector is an outcast who is unable to read and has served time in prison. His main tie to the rest of the world before her death was Bella. People like Bella are able to bring the best out of those with troubled pasts. Bella is a good role model for how to live one’s life, she is able to see past people’s outer flaws and find the good within.

What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary about vampires living in Wellington. It follows Viago, Vlad, and Deacon as they participate in day to day life and encounter normal problems, like the splitting of chores, as well as unique problems, like the need to find new prey to eat. The use of traditionally scary monsters like vampires allows the movie to showcase the absurd situations that the characters get themselves into and allows the humor of the film to shine through. LIttle jokes like the way the vampires fly and the way blood shoot out of victim’s necks permeate the film and remove any ablility to take the vampires seriously. The characters still have a human side to them however, as shown by Viago’s undying love for Katherine and by the group going to great lengths to protect their newly formed human friend Stu. The awkwardness of the side characters brings a lot of laughs to the table with Stu’s boring software ananalyst job being brought up a lot and Petyr not speaking a word throughout the whole film. This movie shows off the strong sense of humor that all of the New Zealand movies I watched seem to have in some degree. I have become a fan of Taika Waititi after seeing his role as director and the character Korg in Thor: Ragnarok and I am glad that his other films share some of his brilliant humor.

I enjoyed watching all of these films and am excited to see more of the country that produced them.

Journal Entry #2: Following the Rules

New Zealand so far has been a very pleasant experience. Through interacting with the locals, I have begun to pick up on the variety of rules that exist in kiwi society. Unlike in the United States, everyone we have met seems to respect these rules. Whether the rules involve environmental care, general trust, or payment practices, citizens of New Zealand . Maybe this observation is limited in scope, but the quantity of similar interactions I have experienced seems to indicate otherwise.

Throughout my travels in New Zealand, I have yet to notice any signs of litter. In the bigger cities and in the countryside there is a severe lack of trash marring the beautiful landscape as is commonly seen in the States. This seems to be a result of the attitude towards environmental care in New Zealand. I noticed this attitude especially well in my interactions with some of the children attending Mahurangi College. Our group attended a nearby park with the children to plant trees and produced a lot of trash during lunch. Despite a lack of trash cans in the park, the children managed to transport all of the trash back to the buses. They were even willing to pick up trash that was not theirs in order to keep the park clean. The need to help conserve the environment has been instilled in these children at an age that is impressive when considering how big of a problem littering is for many American adults.

In addition to following their own rules, my experiences have revealed that kiwis trust others to follow their rules. While on Waiheke island, some of our group went kayaking. The man who ran the kayaking business, Ross, was unable to be present for the entire duration of our trip. Instead of not letting us go kayaking, Ross trusted us to come back after finishing the two hour kayak trip we paid for and even told us how to unlock the shack so we could retrieve our stuff. Ross showed a trust for strangers that is lacking in the United States. My experiences on this trip show that Kiwis are willing to trust even foreign strangers more than most Americans.

I have also noticed a strict adherence to proper payment practices in the New Zealand culture. Kiwis do not need to tip and in a lot of situations will not even accept tips offered to them. While staying in Auckland, our group often visited a restaurant called Betsia. The owner, a man named Om, was very nice to us and at one point brought us a free appetizer as thanks for our patronage. When a member of our group attempted to tip Om as a method of paying for the appetizer he refused to accept it. The cultural rules regarding payment practices appear to run strong in New Zealand. Strong enough for a young business owner to put them above his own financial gain.

Overall, kiwis seem to have a strong respect for the rules of their country. For a group that highly values freedom, they are surprisingly willing to submit to these cultural and legal restrictions in order to improve their country. Perhaps this attitude towards rules is what makes New Zealand such a safe and well-functioning country in comparison to the rest of the modern world.

Journal Entry #3: Reacting to Destruction

Our group recently visited the city of Christchurch and one of the key things that I noticed was how empty the city felt despite its large size. As we spent more time in the city, residents consistently spoke about the earthquakes that struck almost a decade ago and how devastated they left the city. Having seen places that experienced similar destruction in the States bounce back fairly quickly, I wondered what caused Christchurch to remain in a damaged state for so long. After spending some time in the city and taking to the locals, I have come to the conclusion that Christchurch’s problems stem from city loyalty issues and a lack of investment.

When our group was touring the City with Billy, the professor from Canterbury, he told us the story of the earthquakes. The key facet of his story that I noticed was people’s response to the tragedy. While some stayed and attempted to clean up the mess, many citizens of Christchurch fled the city in droves and moved to nearby towns and cities. From all indications during our stay there, those people never returned. Maybe it is because it is such a young country, but kiwis appear to have less of an attachment to their homes than there is in the States. It could also be due to the lack of a citywide common interest. I commonly bond with people from my city over the sports teams which we share fandom for. The lack of teams to represent the individual cities in New Zealand takes away a potential avenue for bonding with one’s city. In any case, the mass exodus of Christchurch citizens is a problem which has drained a lot of the lifeforce of the city.

Throughout the city, there are projects known as “gap-fillers” which aim to make up for some of the empty space caused by the destruction by filling the spaces with art or entertainment fixtures. These gap-fillers are a good way to fill empty space and make something out of nothing but there still seems to be a lack of investment in the creation of new buildings to replace the ones that were destroyed. After the recent damage caused by hurricanes in the United States, bills were passed by the government to provide relief funds to help the cities get back on their feet. This form of spending seems to be missing in Christchurch. A student group of volunteers was formed to perform projects to clean up the city and help rebuild but there is only so much that students can do. In addition, many landowners in the city have chosen to let their properties languish instead of building new housing to bring back the population or office buildings to allow for new jobs. This wasted land leaves Christchurch as a husk of its former self.

Many of the people we spoke to were optimistic about the future of Christchurch given more time to rebuild, but time is not enough to fix a city. Investment is necessary to provide new housing and jobs and the missing population needs to be replaced to give reason for future development. Christchurch’s slow progress towards its former status is not a result of only the amount of destruction but also the reaction to said destruction.

Journal Entry #4: Learning From My Experiences

When I decided to study abroad in New Zealand I had already formed an idea of what I thought New Zealand was like. Having seen the Lord of the Rings films and heard about the amount of sheep farming, I pictured an extremely rural-centered country with little to no city life. After watching some New Zealand films to prepare for the trip, I gained some more insight into the country I was visiting. The films Pork Pie and Hunt for the Wilderpeople showed me a deep yearning for freedom in the Kiwis it depicted as they both involved running away from traditional society. Lastly, I had an impression built up that New Zealand was very similar to Australia and had attached what I knew about Australia to my imagining of what New Zealand would be like. This relation gave me the idea that New Zealand would be full of hostile wildlife with the bush preventing civilization from spreading too far into the countryside.

Upon arriving in Auckland, my conception of New Zealand’s cities was immediately proven wrong. Auckland felt like a huge city and didn’t feel very different from New York city or other large American cities I have visited. Even as we traveled around to more rural areas there was still a lot more going on than I expected. Perhaps the massive amount of tourism causes even the more remote areas feel civilized. Unlike my conception of the cities, my idea of a yearning for freedom proved to be true. Several of the people that we met along our journey had fled from big city life in order to find freedom in the countryside of New Zealand. On Waiheke island, the kayak guy Ross disavowed city life and insisted he was not a Kiwi but a Waihekean. In Akaroa, Ray the sailboat guy told the story of how he his wife left Auckland to search the world for a home until he realized Akaroa was the home he was looking for. I also learned quickly that Australia and New Zealand are very different entities. The people of New Zealand were against the comparison from the start but my own exploration revealed some differences. I learned through the various museums and zoos that we visited that the bush in New Zealand is an obstacle that is easily overcome. The Kiwis even went too far in their taming of the countryside and caused the endangerment of many of the indigenous species which they now fervently protect. New Zealand is also missing many of the natural dangers posed by the wildlife in Australia including snakes and crocodiles.

Through the process of learning what New Zealand is really like I’ve noticed some problems that the country will eventually have to deal with. In most of the areas we visited the locals described the population in terms of permanent residents and visiting populus. These numbers differed wildly with few people remaining for the winter months. This population swing makes sense given New Zealand’s status as a popular tourist destination but can have dangerous effects on these areas. When an area’s economy largely depends on tourism, the area loses control over the factors that determine its success. If tourists decide to stop visiting for some reason, many businesses in that area could become unsustainable due to lack of a population to keep money flowing. In addition, any natural disasters that strike could render the area an undesirable destination. If disaster strikes and tourism dries up because of it, the area could lose the economic ability to rebuild and get back to its former status. These effects could explain some of what is occurring in locations in the South Island such as Christchurch and Kaikoura where disasters have caused large setbacks.

The reliance on tourism in New Zealand is not a necessary problem. New Zealand has several fields which with a little effort could become powerhouses for their economy. For one, New Zealand already has very good film work and the locations to provide inspiration for future films. A lot of Kiwis seem to feel a need to travel abroad in order to pursue their goals in making movies, but if they were to stay New Zealand, they could develop a local film industry which could rival Hollywood. New Zealand also has the potential to become a hub for the development of new technology. Being close to Asia where a lot of technology is manufactured provides an advantage over the States which is much farther away from the action. There are also a multitude of high quality universities in New Zealand which can source the talent necessary to make developments in the technical fields. All that needs to be done is for talent to be gathered and fostered instead of shipped elsewhere in the world. It is time for New Zealand to step out of the shadow of other modern nations and become a powerful independent entity.