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."


The Whiteboard said...

I only saw the rough cut of HFIH but here's one thought. I queried Chris about lack of historical context, not only the convent and Baxter but the Maori background too (which is of course extremely interesting). He was very clear in his mind that the focus had to be on daily life and the discipline of that made sense to me. The film's title has that sense of quite innocent openness that often pervades far flung places. And it is the sort of question anyone- bikies, Baxter or the Sisters- might pose to themselves in that particular nook. I felt it was a long hard look at some pretty dark stuff really - a verite Once Were Warriors without the melodrama if you will. In examining social behaviour and circumstances in a such an immediate, verite way - and through children, with all the issues that brings up - I can see how the historical and literary significance of the place might have seemed a little outside the margins.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Gabriel - yes. I suppose, in the end, the historical approach is really the easy way out with such a subject. It's no real help with the dilemmas that face them all now ...

Anonymous said...

Very acute review - thanks Jack!