Film Festival: Only game in town

By Peter Calder

The world premiere of a black-and-white documentary about a small-town rugby club is the centrepiece of the New Zealand International Film Festival's Autumn Events programme next week. Peter Calder spoke to the film's makers.
A scene from the movie The Ground We Won.
A scene from the movie The Ground We Won.

The road less travelled took Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor to Reporoa. Driving from Auckland to Jerusalem/Hiruharama on the Whanganui River during the making of their 2012 documentary How Far is Heaven, they had no reason to be so far east, in the small town midway between Rotorua and Taupo on SH5. But, explains Smith, "Chris is obsessed with different roads".

The place immediately struck them as a potential location for a film they had long been thinking about making, one that would explore the world of small-town rugby.

"We had been keeping our eye out for the right club and Reporoa felt really good," Pryor said, as we sat at the kitchen table in the couple's pin-neat flat in Auckland's East Coast Bays. "Bizarrely, it has never been done even though rugby is such a pivotal part of New Zealand culture."

The world they wanted to capture is one in transition, Pryor explains, and they wanted townies to see it.

"Reporoa would have had four or five teams 20 or 30 years ago and now they can barely field one. So it's part of our tradition, but it's changing as the world changes."

Surprisingly, perhaps, when they raised the idea at the Reporoa Rugby Club they were welcomed, rather than viewed with suspicion as arty townies. One bloke, who would turn out to be a major, even heroic, character in the finished film, told Smith that "I always thought that someone should make a film about us". Their major concern was whether they would have to help raise the money for the production.

They didn't. On the back of their impressive debut with the Whanganui film, Pryor and Smith had enough Film Commission money to undertake a project whose modest style belies its epic scope: they would spend the thick end of a year in the community, long-term residents of the Golden Springs Holiday Park taking a constant interest in the goings-on at the club and in the lives of its members, most of whom are local farmers.

A scene from The Ground We Won.
A scene from The Ground We Won.

The result, The Ground We Won, is a visually ravishing record (in black and white, which lends the film a timeless, even mythic quality) of a very Kiwi slice of life that mixes the poetic with the prosaic, the everyday with the quasi-mythological and introduces us to a memorable cast of characters with names like Peanut, Slug, Horse and Pom.

The couple's two films belong to a sub-genre of observational cinema with no precedent in this country (except perhaps for Vincent Ward's In Spring One Plants Alone), that might be described as infinitely patient. Few documentarians shoot over the course of a year - the pair mention Nicolas Philibert's sublime To Be and To Have which charts the life of a small one-class village school over the course of an academic year as a particular inspiration, but that time-frame was the essence of the story Smith and Pryor wanted to tell.

It's the story of the team's progress through the season and the district's progress through the seasons, and there are no short cuts.

"We had to live there," says Smith, "because we didn't have a fixed schedule. We knew when the games were, and the practices, but it was a story about a community. So we would just call people up and ask, 'What are you doing now?', or 'What are you doing tomorrow?'.

Filmmakers Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor and Reporoa local, Peanut. Photo /  Alistair Guthrie
Filmmakers Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor and Reporoa local, Peanut. Photo / Alistair Guthrie

"And a lot of making a film like this is spending time with people without the camera as well, at quiz nights and so on.'

From the 200 hours of footage they shot emerged a 90-minute film that depicts provincial male culture with sometimes eye-watering directness. Banter that tips over into humiliation and episodes of perilous drinking are intricately interwoven with scenes of the men's domestic and farming life.

At times, it may seem to veer close to romanticising some pretty toxic behaviour, but the film-makers are unrepentant. "We wanted to explore the world and hold it up to the light," says Smith. "We can see the good things about it - communication and camaraderie - but the flip side is all that other stuff and if you leave that out, it wouldn't be being truthful.

"It's complex: it's rowdy and bawdy, but at least there is a sort of togetherness."

A decent contingent from Reporoa will be in attendance for the world premiere screening at the Civic next Saturday, though they had a first look at the film when Smith and Pryor showed it at the club.

"It was very sweet," Smith recalls. "Everyone was a bit nervous but it blew their minds. They were laughing and smiling and making wisecracks.

"Everybody was expecting it to be like Country Calendar or something. But they were just mesmerised by the quiet moments. They were just buzzing."

What: The Ground We Won directed by Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor
When and where: Screening at The New Zealand International Film Festival's Autumn Events season. New Zealand premiere Saturday April 18, Civic Theatre, 6:15pm

Sweetly insidious honey trap detailed in terrifying documentary

That Sugar Film.
That Sugar Film.

A sibling in both style and intent to Morgan Spurlock's McDonald's-diet documentary Super Size Me, Damon Gameau's That Sugar Film is not quite so contrived.

Anyone knows that an unrelieved Macca diet isn't good for you, but Gameau (an actor whose credits include Underbelly and Balibo) embarked on a two-month campaign to consume the Australian teenager's daily average of 40 teaspoons of sugar (the recommended adult maximum is 6-9).

The kicker is that he avoided the obvious lollies and icecream and ate only products that purported to be healthy, such as juices, muesli bars, smoothies and yoghurt.

Some don't need to read the small print to know that big-brand liquid breakfast in a Tetra Pak is sugar-loaded, but not everyone realises that. The tragedy is that Gameau's film - as jaunty in tone as it is horrifying in content - is not likely to reach the mass audience that needs to hear its message, but that doesn't make its message any less important.

The film is sprinkled with alarming statistics: before the titles roll we learn that an average Australian family eats 6kg of sugar a week and that sugar laces 80 per cent of the products on supermarket shelves.

More disturbing is the revelation that the sugar industry has used our phobia about fat as a Trojan horse for getting more and more sugar into our diet. The measurable impact on Gameau's health is eerily similar to that sustained by Spurlock and the film powerfully makes the case that not all calories are created equal.

Ranging from an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory to various points in the US (where he learns about food optimisation and bliss points), Gameau never gets lost in the numbers, but his film contains dozens of stats that will make even the most food-savvy viewer's blood run cold.

It's hard to think of a recent film more deserving of mainstream television exposure - and less likely to get it.

• The mini film festival Autumn Events, which runs from Thursday to Sunday, also offers audiences the chance to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with big screen versions of five very different masterpieces: Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey; the Walt Disney classic Pinocchio; and, in new digital restorations, the guerrilla-style 1963 Beatles gem A Hard Day's Night and Bertolucci's landmark political and psychological drama The Conformist.

- TimeOut

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