Michelle Hewitson: Reality ruins romance of hermit life

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"Beansprout" Long had "set ideas" about how he was to be portrayed.
"Beansprout" Long had "set ideas" about how he was to be portrayed.

What an odd documentary Wednesday's Inside New Zealand: Wildman was. The documentary-maker, Paul Roy, visited the Long family - New Zealand's most famous recluses (yes, that contradiction is given a fair amount of play) - over an 18-month period.

The Longs are Robert, known as Beansprout; his wife, Catherine, formerly an auto-immunologist; and their two children. Their home is in the remote and inhospitable mouth of the Gorge River in South Westland. Robert has lived there for more than 30 years, in a Forest Service hut, eking out a subsistence hard-scrabble existence a two-day walk from the nearest road.

It is a nasty place to live: the wind never stops, and it is cold and the sea is wild. It is also beautiful, in the way that wild places are.

The sort-of hermit was later joined by Catherine, who he somehow met on one of his forays into civilisation, and she somehow made a decision to marry him. She doesn't seem particularly eccentric. Beansprout, as he is known locally, fled Australia and medical school and an angry father and washed up here, and has never left.

On some of his occasional forays out of the wild, he'd turn up at a mate's place and eat all his spuds and never leave a cent. His mate got fed up and told Beansprout he had to contribute: 50c would do.

He last saw Beansprout 20-odd years ago. Nobody said recluses were easy to get along with.

In the intervening years, the two kids came along and were home-schooled until their final school years when they opted to go to the local school. The daughter refused to be interviewed for the doco; the son seems a nice, articulate and decent young fella. He said: "Being different is good. I don't mind that at all."

Something seems to have gone haywire in the relationship between the doco-maker and Beansprout. Roy says in his introduction that Beansprout had precise ideas about what was to be included and wanted to control the process, down to particular shots. He had "very set ideas" about how he was to be portrayed.

But there is no footage of these wrangles, which is a shame because they might have helped explain the tone of the thing - which seems to be of disappointment.

Roy thought, "perhaps naively", that he'd find an "engaging, insightful ... family living alone with nature". The "reality" of the family he found was "different in about every respect". In other words, he seems not to have liked Beansprout much, and the implication is that this was mutual.

The Longs are now celebrity recluses. But are they really? After the kids came along, Beansprout and Catherine realised they had a responsibility to make money for the necessities of life. He taught himself to paint and sculpt, and now his paintings (landscapes) sell for a lot of money, apparently. They have also written best-selling books. They go to book launches and flog their wares.

Some locals don't much care for Beansprout and paint him as a sort of humourless bludger. The documentary-maker found the lives of Beansprout and Catherine to be without music or banter, and surprisingly claustrophobic.

This is an interesting documentary about a strange man, but perhaps the most interesting aspect is the unexplored one: the chasm between its maker's expectations of his subject and his disillusionment.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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