Movie review: How Far Is Heaven

By Peter Calder

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Landscapes play a major role in 'How Far Is Heaven.' Photo / Supplied
Landscapes play a major role in 'How Far Is Heaven.' Photo / Supplied

A beguiling calmness sustains this watchful documentary shot in the remote village of Jerusalem/Hiruharama, which nestles in a green valley on the upper reaches of the Whanganui River.

The settlement (population 30) is celebrated as the site of James K. Baxter's brief experiment in bicultural communalism in the early 1970s, but its much longer-established Pakeha occupants are the Sisters of Compassion, who set up almost 130 years ago.

The inheritors of that tradition - in particular the most recent arrival, Sister Margaret Mary - are the film's main characters, though the brooding landscape plays a major role too.

The play of light across the soaring riverside bluffs, which will be familiar to anyone who has spent time on the river, is among the many visual pleasures the film-makers have culled from hundreds of hours of footage.

Smith, a first-time film-maker and Pryor, who shot and cut several films for Florian Habicht, impose an episodic structure on their material using the four seasons, and they struggle to find a narrative spine.

Amid its observational sequences, the film never really gets to grips with the question that drives it: what is the place of the nuns today? The remark by one that "[the community] don't need us but they do appreciate having us here" doesn't seem enough, and a brief glimpse in the distance of a gang party is one of many moments that raises questions the film-makers fail to address.

That said, incidental pleasures abound, such as an Avon party at which Sister Margaret marvels at a perfume called Opium, and a 13-year-old who rejoices in being able to drive, "because you don't need a licence up here".

Best of all is DJ, a charmingly offbeat teen, and self-appointed guide to the film-makers, one of whose lines gives the film its title. When you hear him say it, you realise that the absence of a question mark is no mistake: it's not a question but an utterance of awe, really, an ecstatic rumination on how nothing is really ever knowable.

Stars: 3.5/5
Directors: Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor
Running time: 99 mins
Rating: M (offensive language)
Verdict: Handsome and meditative documentary

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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