The second instalment of Patrick Gower’s On… series is about the one issue that has touched all of us this year. But the documentary seems almost as fascinated by Gower himself, writes Sam Brooks
It seems strange, on the day that Auckland comes out of a lockdown, its second, to be watching a documentary about the first. But that’s what Patrick Gower: On Lockdown gives us. The follow-up to Gower’s 2019 documentary On Weed, On Lockdown is the Newshub journalist’s personal take on the one universal experience of 2020: Covid-19. Specifically, the nationwide lockdown just a few months ago, which now feels like several lifetimes ago.
Where On Lockdown has most value, fittingly, is as an archival document of what actually happened during Covid-19. It presents a timeline of how the pandemic came to New Zealand, the various clusters, and the government response to it. Even a few months out from the first outbreak, seeing it laid out like this, with stark, clear visuals, is helpful. The documentary also fills in the blanks in some of the major Covid stories of the past few months. Gower interviews the Bluff couple whose wedding was the epicentre of New Zealand’s first outbreak, along with key people involved in the Covid response, from an essential worker to the Bloomfield-Ardern dream team themselves.
The interview with the Bluff couple is excellent – it asks some tough questions without ever seeming exploitative. Equally good are the interviews with Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern. It’s valuable to see Bloomfield at work, instead of behind the podium at a 1pm press briefing, as is getting the prime minister’s frank account of why she made the decision to move into lockdown in the first place. When we see them every day it’s easy to forget that these are real people, not just the public face of the Covid response. Bloomfield is pleasantly cheery in his interview, recounting how, coincidentally, he was in Southland the same weekend as the Bluff wedding – he was there to see his son compete in the bagpipe national championships – and had left his decision to go so late that he had to stay at a backpackers. For people who watch this in the future, when Covid-19 is hopefully nothing but an unpleasant memory, these interviews will be an important record of the decision-making that led us through this crisis.
On Lockdown is artfully made, but distractingly so. There are long, moody shots of empty streets, colour-corrected to look like the apocalypse is nigh. The interviews are done with the kind of shaky cam that you associate with Sundance indies and Bourne films. It’s clearly meant to underline the hectic nature of those early days of lockdown, and the uncertain nature of life under Covid, but it’s a self-sabotaging approach to the material. We know what lockdown was like – we were there. There’s only so much a slow moving camera peering around a doorframe or trundling down a hospital hallway can do for an audience, especially when used as the set up to seemingly every interview or talking point.
Another distraction is just how much Paddy Gower there is in On Lockdown, which is a lot – understandably, given that his name is in the title. Gower is a respected journalist and an empathetic but dogged interviewer. It makes sense that he is fronting his own series. But the documentary centres him in a way that doesn’t necessarily illuminate anything about the lockdown, other than perhaps what it was like to work and travel during level four. Gower’s voice-over is used liberally, as are his reaction shots during interviews. We’re often watching or listening to Gower react to information, and Gower is not a neutral personality. His responses, liberally peppered with “bottom of the world”–style cliches, are not neutral. The constant foregrounding of Gower’s take on events leaves On Lockdown feeling less like a documentary and more like a video essay.
The irony is that On Lockdown is actually most effective when it puts a human face on Covid-19. For all the impact on the economy, Covid-19 affects humans first and foremost. When Patrick Gower talks to the couple from the Bluff wedding, they express some of what we’ve all felt during this pandemic. You see them wrangling with incomprehensible intersections of emotions – guilt, loss, sorrow – and you can’t help but be moved. When the wife says, “I want to look back at that day, not everything after it”, you feel that. It’s one of the best moments of the entire special and it shows you exactly why Gower is, in many ways, the right person to do this: he can get the interview and conduct it in a way that doesn’t just speak to the couple’s experience, but reflect everybody else’s experience of Covid-19 as well.
There’s a lot to like about On Lockdown, but there are also choices that boggle the mind, like the decision to interview the members of the multi-millionaire Mowbray family (who own toy brand Zuru), rather than the owner of a small business or someone whose livelihood has been completely wiped out by this pandemic. But the documentary never lets you forget that this is Paddy Gower on lockdown. It’s Paddy Gower’s lockdown. It follows what he thinks is important and newsworthy, which is not objective; it can’t be. Maybe it’s best to see this not as the definitive document on the lockdown, and instead as one very well-placed and capable journalist’s take on it. You can take Paddy out of lockdown, but you can’t take him out of On Lockdown.
Patrick Gower’s On Lockdown screens at 8:30 tonight on Three.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.