By Shlomo Porath
Blessedly interrupting the typical early-year film-going doldrums (which seem to bar any good films from being released before May at least), the first New Zealand film festival kicked off this past weekend at the Cinematheques in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa. I was fortunate enough to attend the opening ceremony in Jerusalem, which surprisingly and happily attracted a very large crowd, filling the Cinematheque’s grand theater nearly to capacity (although some of them may have come for the pre-screening reception, which included ample amounts of wine and beer).
Before the screening of the opening film, director Vincent Ward’s (probably best known internationally as director of 1998’s ‘What Dream May Come’, starring Robin Williams) 2008 film ‘Rain of the Children’, a number of speeches were made, and although they did delay the film by 30 minutes or so, they did add grandeur to the screening. After an introduction by Cinematheque director Ilan de Vries, Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, said a few words, followed by out-going New Zealand ambassador Hamish Cooper, Dr. Ian Conrich, The Director of the Centre for New Zealand Studies at the University of London, John Boock, the president of the Israel-New Zealand friendship association, and the film’s director, Mr. Ward, who, as a side note mentioned that on this his first visit to Israel, he had met a first cousin of his for the first time ever (his mother was of Jewish parentage).
The film is a documentary, telling of the life of a Maori woman named Puhi who was born around the turn of the last century, and died in the early 1980’s. In 1978, Ward, then in university, was intrigued by a Maori revival that was taking place on campus. He found an elderly woman named Puhi, who was living in a run-down house on the outskirts of a village, together with her adult son Nikki, who seemed to be mentally challenged. Ward thought there was a spare, simple documentary in their story and lived with them on and off for the next two years. Puhi let him film, he gave her rides into town. Puhi can be often be seen praying to herself, and is not particularly forthcoming with crucial information about her 80 or so years, or what exactly is wrong with Nikki, why she is so particularly devoted to him. Puhi also insists that she is cursed, and speaks of other children, but not of their whereabouts. At a certain point, Ward left them to do some traveling, during which time Puhi passed away. Ward edited his footage to a 50 minute documentary called ‘In Spring One Plants Alone’, and left it at that.
Approximately 25 years later, after learning some new facts and feeling drawn to find some resolution to the mystery, Ward returned to the subject, finding a mass of new information and a slew of people to interview. With his original documentary as a touchstone, Ward went ahead to forge an epic, intensely felt film, about this Maori woman’s life. Her childhood and adolescence/adulthood (the line is not very clear in Maori culture) is recreated using a combination of archival material (photographs, newspapers), interviews, and, most vividly, by imaginatively conceived of recreations, using a large cast of actors to portray Puhi at different ages, with Ward often having actress Rena Owen narrate with words culled from recollections of conversations with Puhi.
Her tale, and the tale of her village, is one that is not easy to describe. At times the details of the story often took a back seat to the setting; I was so entranced by this entirely foreign culture. I knew practically nothing about the Maori people coming into this film, and being plunged into it was a rather unique film-experience. I was fascinated by the language, the beliefs, and particularly the relationship to the European New Zealanders, and modernity in general.
The story takes place in the early part of the last century, when a member of Puhi’s tribe has a vision, in which he sees himself as Moses, and his tribe a lost tribe of Israel. He leads the tribe in creating a flourishing community, with Puhi’s father becoming one of his disciples. When Puhi is 14, the tribe’s prophet chooses her to wed his son. Her first child is handicapped, and Puhi is pegged as having a curse. Thus begins a tumultuous series of events, which include a violent police raid on the community, Puhi marrying twice more and giving birth to 14 children, all of whom either perish from disease or are taken away from her, aside from the youngest, Nikki. The extensive interviews with descendants of other tribe-members repeatedly mention a curse as the possible cause of her misfortune. Ward is convinced that this is the reason, and surmises that the perceived curse is the reason for Puhi’s devotion to her remaining child, and the reason for her constant praying. Ward also discovers why Nikki is the way he is, and what happens to him after his mother’s death.
That summary of course doesn’t do the storytelling justice at all. It is rather thrillingly laid out, with engaging interviewees, well-shot (by John Gibson and Leon Narbey) dramatizations, and a superb score (by Jack Body and John Gibson), with Ward guiding the film the entire way with his narration. That actually ties in with the only real quibble I had with this film- Ward’s presence in the film should have been limited to narration. He appears every once in a while on screen, and his scenes seem to be part of another documentary, one about his experience in making the film, and his fascination with the concept of the curse. It served to somewhat confuse the goal of the film. His passion for the subject is innate in the film. Ward actually talked about this in the brief Q&A he had after the film, and said how he himself would rather not be in the film, but apparently a European New Zealander entering a Maori world is a hot topic in New Zealand, and Ward said he felt the need to put himself on the line with the film, to be inseparable from it (The Q&A alone offered an eye-opening view into Maori culture, with Ward trying to give the Israeli audience some idea of the circumstances amongst Kiwis).
A superb opening to this festival, “Rain of the Children” is a film that gives a unique and fascinating glimpse into its home country. The festival will be going on for two weeks at the three Cinematheques, and will be featuring seven additional films. Although eight films may not sound like much, Dr. Conrich, an expert on New Zealand film, said in his introduction that there have been, roughly, 270 films produced in New Zealand, and that this festival is actually the second-largest ever devoted solely to Kiwi film outside of the Asian south-pacific.