Monday, July 30, 2012

NZ's Best: Matt Harris & Miriam Smith

43,000 Feet (2011)

I'm afraid I've only made it to two film festival films so far this year. They've both been extremely interesting, though: last Saturday (21/7) I went to the world premiere of Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith's documentary How Far is Heaven, and this Saturday (28/7) I went to the New Zealand's Best programme of six local short films, selected by veteran Kiwi film-maker Roger Donaldson.

There were, admittedly, some ulterior motives in these two choices. I've known Miriam Smith for a number of years, and have watched with admiration the sheer enthusiasm and determination she's brought to her quest to break into the film industry. It's wonderful to see her name on a feature film at last, and especially one as innovative and thought-provoking as this documentary about the small Māori / Pākehā community at Jerusalem / Hiruharama on the Whanganui River.

Matt Harris, who wrote the screenplay for the short film 43,000 feet is also an old friend and colleague. We work together, teaching creative writing at Massey's Albany campus, and I was in fact the co-supervisor of his recently completed Doctoral thesis on New Zealand metafiction. Getting the opportunity, at last, to see the short film we've heard so much about, was therefore quite a thrill.

What shall I say about the films? The idea for the NZ's Best short films screening was to get the audience to rank in order the ones they preferred, with a substantial cash prize awaiting the victor. I may be prejudiced, but I do feel that Matt's film, expertly filmed and interpreted by director Campbell Hooper, cinematographer Andrew Stroud, and producers Heather Lee and Amber Easby - not to mention actor Dylan Pharazyn - was by far the best. Or the most to my taste, at any rate.

That's not to say that there was anything wrong with the other films: I was particularly struck by Michelle Saville's Wellington hipster comedy Ellen is Leaving, but Sam Kelly's Lambs was also extremely powerful and well-made.

What all the other films had in common, though, was a strong local flavour: almost an insistence on the value of portrayals of the Kiwi quotidian. Matt's stood out simply because of its "rootless cosmopolitanism" - as with the metafictions he's been studying so assiduously over the past few years, Matt's film seemed the only one that was interested in laying out new directions for our storytelling.

One might argue - Matt, in fact, has - that this tendency has already been successfully established in New Zealand fiction (with Janet Frame the first great breaker of the mold), but our film-making still seems dominated by the great New Zealand realist tradition.

It was not the ideology of the thing that made Matt and Campbell's film so entertaining to watch, though: it was the Taika Waititi-ish playfulness of the story, combined with the magical intensity of the imagery.

Was it necessary to give the lead character an American accent, and imply a North American setting for the story? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I'm sure a lot of thought went into the choice. The fact that the film has already screened at so many international film festivals (including the Tribeca Festival in New York) would seem to vindicate their decision, though.

You could hardly imagine a greater contrast with Chris and Miriam's film about the interactions between the nuns of Mother Mary Aubert's order of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion, and the children of the local community.

This was fly-on-the-wall film-making with a vengeance. Interview after interview had been carefully spliced together into a somewhat meandering chronicle of life in this small outpost on the Whanganui River. At times one felt the lack of a larger context to the story that was gradually unfolding - some account of James K. Baxter's involvement with the place, for instance; not to mention Mother Mary Aubert's own experiences there.

By the end of the film, I felt more as if I had myself spent a year living in Jerusalem than that I'd seen an analysis of the complex interactions going on there now, more than 120 years since Mary Aubert first established her mission so far up the river.

Thinking it over since, though, I've come to realise how necessary this approach was to such sensitive material: so many off-the-cuff comments and revelations offered to Chris and Miriam in trust. Of course, though, their film has turned out to be an account of the sheer difficulty of helping people, however good your intentions. With so few locals attending their services or requesting their aid, the nuns have been forced to reconsider their role in the town. As one of the sisters puts it herself: "“At a major level they do not need us.”

Should they stay or should they go? No heavy-handed solutions are suggested by the film, but the sheer scope of the problem is outlined with subtlety and tact. The more I thought about it, the more I understood why the sole reference to James K. Baxter, whose grave still looks down on the little town from a bluff above the river, was a side-view of a picture of him inside the church. There's an absorbing, fascinating history to Māori-Pākehā relations at Jerusalem, but the subject of this film is how it feels to live there right now.

It may be less immediately beguiling than Matt and Campbell's film, but Chris and Miriam's definitely stays with you, grows in the mind. It's a film to ponder, to watch more than once. These film-makers may have fallen in love with their subjects, but the way they've cut their eventual documentary offers a wry commentary on a lot of aspects of life in this country that it seems very timely to hear about right now.

As the young girl Chevy explains, talking about the taniwha that lives under the concrete bridge leading into the town: "Rivers are important to Māori. It's because we don't have anything else."

Friday, July 13, 2012


Korero (12 July-2 August, 2012)

Korero is a "collaborative exhibition illustrating a fusion between visual art and poetry. 20 artists from various disciplines select from 20 carefully chosen poems on the theme of conversation, to use as inspiration for their artwork. The artists include Ingrid Anderson, Lisa Benson, Kirsty Black, Chris Dennis, Sue Dick, Matt Moriarty, Dom Morrison, Emily Pauling, Clinton Philips, Kirsten Pleitner, Ramon Robertson, Mark Russell, Kate Sellar, Brendon Sellar, Shona Tawhiao, Emma Topping, Wayne Trow, Jana Wood and Nicola Wright."

One of the poems chosen for the exhibition by Siobhan Harvey and Melissa Elliot, the curators, was my piece "Except Once":

Aren’t I always nice to you?
Except once.
[Overheard in the Massey @ Albany Refectory]

tap’s still dripping, diesel generators roar
in shop doors, no money rolls
in, lumps of old essay sag
in plastic bags – I type out texts
from Penguin Books of European Verse.
The water’s too cold
for swimming.

Focus on externals: tick of death
in Irene’s stomach, Miriel’s scorched flesh,
brain-clots and blood-diseases, Julian’s sister
killed on Saturday night – I like to see
the islands in the gulf, driving
down the long hill, ships floating
down the sky.


So, as a result, Bronwyn and I drove over to the Uxbridge Creative Arts Centre in Howick last night for the opening of the show. And I'm very glad we did. We got to catch up with a number of friends we hadn't seen for a while: Sarah Broom, Riemke Ensing and Sonja Yelich among them. And we also got to meet the artist who'd created a work based on my poem, Kirsty Black.

Here we are in front of her painting, also entitled "Except Once":

And here's a more detailed view of the painting itself:

[Kirsty Black: Except Once]

[Except Once (detail)]

I guess I should explain that the poem was written during the great Auckland blackout of 1998, when "diesel generators" were indeed roaring "in shop doors" up and down Queen Street, and the only lights one could see in the darkened city were traffic red, orange, greens. It was a strange and uncanny time, and an appalling number of people I knew seemed to be in pain and turmoil just then. There's a bit of a lift at the end, though, which I feel that Kirsty has picked up on in her transition from the dark blue at the bottom of her painting to the lighter, more life-affirming colours at the top of the frame.

It was very interesting to discuss her intentions with the piece with her. All in all, though her painting didn't win the $1,000 prize, I think it was a thoroughly worthwhile experience. I guess that's why I'm looking so smug in the picture below:

Monday, July 09, 2012

Leicester Kyle in the NZ Geographic

[NZ Geographic 116 (2012)]

I had an interesting phone conversation a couple of months ago with journalist Kennedy Warne, who was working on an article about the implications of further strip-mining of coal on the West Coast of the South Island. He'd just come across my Leicester Kyle website, and was fascinated - above all - by Leicester's lyrical sequence of protest poems The Great Buller Coal Plateaux (2001).

I'm happy to see that he's included a number of citations from Leicester in the article which has just appeared in the latest issue of New Zealand Geographic, which he was kind enough to send me a copy of (nor is it true that the hirsute creature in the picture above is intended as any kind of satirical reflection on Leicester's own magnificent set of silver whiskers ...). Here's one example, from the beginning of "The Black and the Green":

... Thin, cold, acidic soils and scant nutrients stunt growth. On the Denniston Plateau, life adopts a low profile.

You might expect such a place to have a pinched austerity about it — sour, waterlogged, battered by the elements, a po-faced bog. Yet the land surges with beauty. I walk across it and discover what the late poet Leicester Kyle, from Millerton, just north of here, called an "untrod field of singing flowers". Sprays of pink, insect-devouring sundews mingle with swards of tufting mosses. Each sprigleaf hair is tipped with a single droplet of dew. Crouching at ground level, I gaze across a field of sparkling globes. ...

I thoroughly recommend reading Kennedy Warne's article as a whole. I have to say that it horrified me to discover just how little of the pakihi land Leicester and others were struggling to save a decade ago is left now. The Millerton Plateau is, it seems, pretty much a done deal. The struggle now is to learn from that lesson, and try to avoid the same ecological devastation on the Denniston plateau, a bit further south.