A large number of my fellow countrymen have gone crazy because of a planned sign. It’s worrying.

Most of the time New Zealand is an amazing place to live, precisely because virtually nothing happens here. The chances of terrorists attacking us are very slim indeed, most people have a decent standard of living, and – occasional catastrophic earthquake aside – this is a place where people can go about their business with little to fear.

However, sometimes I feel like the lack of real problems causes Kiwis to get a little bent out of shape about really stupid things. The latest manifestation of this is the outrage regarding the idea of erecting a large ‘WELLYWOOD’ sign near Wellington Airport, on land owned by the airport. Since the success of the Lord of the Rings films, Wellington has prized itself on its film industry, and the ‘Wellywood’ nickname has been used for the past few years. Because of this, the powers that be (principally the board of directors who own Wellington Airport) have decided that it would be quite funny and tongue-in-cheek to copy the iconic Hollywood sign and hoist it on a hill that will be visible to incoming planes.

And a lot of Kiwis have gone mental. The press is fanning the flames by writing daily news stories about opposition to the plan and – in the modern (and equally ineffective) version of signing a petition – nearly 14,000 people have joined the Facebook group ‘Wellingtonians against Wellywood’ (including quite a few people who aren’t even Wellingtonians and will be entirely unaffected by the sign). Of course, we know that decision-makers often make up their minds based on the collective will of random Facebook users…

Having lived abroad for a very long time, I have a fair idea of the good and bad characteristics attributed to my nation. On the good side, we’re seen as friendly and capable. On the bad side, we’re seen as liable to take ourselves far too seriously and to be very defensive about to way in which we might be perceived. This can sometimes be described as being ‘precious’, and I think that it’s demonstrated in comments like this:

A source working on a current film in Wellington said the sign was insulting and diminished the city’s reputation for creativity.

“All the guys I know that are working on the film are like, `Oh my God, what a cringe’, and that’s from people in the industry.

“We do some very creative stuff; there’s some very talented people out there. For someone to be blowing our horn in an unoriginal way is really a slap in the face.”

That’s right: it’s a professional insult to hoist a mildly amusing and self-mocking sign.

When I read all of the media coverage and see people I know get bent out of shape about something like this I ponder two things:

  1. Are the people who form the NZ film industry really so fragile and lacking in confidence that they believe that their reputation for creative excellence and professionalism will be ‘diminished’ by mere sign? If so, that’s pretty unfortunate – they should take a good hard look at themselves.
  2. Is this really an issue that warrants such hand-wringing? You could be forgiven for thinking that Kiwis have nothing else to worry about. Despite what I wrote earlier, NZ is not paradise. For example, we have one of the highest child murder rates in the developed world (in 2006 we ranked as fourth behind Mexico, the USA and Hungary, and things have not improved – every few weeks another young child is murdered by a member of its family here). It would be fantastic if the 13,970 people who care enough about a stupid sign on a hill to join a Facebook page and egg each other on to send emails councillors and complain would put their considerable energy into campaigning about something that actually matters.

Anyway, my opinion: I couldn’t care less. It’s a sign on a hill in a city that I don’t call home. If forced to make a call, I’d say that it’s harmless and mildly amusing. And I think that the people who see it as try-hard, cringe-worthy and embarrassing are mistaken. I’d lay generous odds that foreign visitors who fly in to Wellington will see the sign and if it prompts any response at all, they’ll think, ‘huh – just like the Hollywood one. That’s funny. Holy crap; is this plane actually going to land or are we going to crash into the sea?!’ (Wellington Airport is on a narrow strip of land and arriving there can be quite hair-raising).

Long story short: it isn’t the sign that makes us cringe-worthy: it’s our reaction to it. There’s a parallel to be drawn with our performance at, and reaction to not winning, the Rugby World Cup every four years. The rest of the world really doesn’t think less of us for failing to win the tournament, but our graceless and over-the-top collective response to defeat leads foreign press and fans to mock us.

Of course, people should – and will – continue to voice their opinion about things that matter to them: that’s entirely how it should be. I just find it surprising that that won’t actually hurt anybody or cause any harm can cause such strong feelings.

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One thought on “Wellywood

  1. I completely agree. They could erect a giant nipple on a hill in Wellington and I still couldn’t care less.

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