Personal stories are at the heart of a local sheep shearing documentary - the first of its kind. Chris Schulz meets the cast and crew.

When Georgina Conder was first pitched the idea for a documentary about female sheep shearers, she thought that particular story might have already been told.

It hadn't.

"It's crazy. It seemed so wrong," she says. "It's a world I knew nothing about: I didn't know wool handling existed, and I did not know [shearing] was a competitive sport.


"It's fascinating. So we started shooting to see if we had something. And we did."

The result is a 79-minute documentary called She Shears, one that scored glowing reviews during the film festival earlier this year and this weekend hits theatres nationwide.

It follows five shearers - King Country's Catherine Mullooly, Ruawai's Hazel Wood, Central Otago's Pagan Karauria, barrister Angus Burney and student Anne Maree - in their quest for gold at the national competitions, the Golden Shears.

Why do they shear? Each has different drivers, but the story at the heart of the film is that of Pagan Karauria, a shearer from Alexandra who suffered major injuries in a car accident at the age of 16.

"I had a T6 fracture and I had a broken sternum," she says. "I had lots of torn tendons on my hips and shoulders. In my stomach I had lacerations on my liver, a hole in my bowel. My intestines had burst. I had tonnes of stuff wrong with me."

Her worst injury was a broken back, which meant she couldn't walk. Sheep shearing? That was out of the question. But, just two weeks after the accident, Karauria's dad started rehab by taking her to the woolshed.

"He'd stick me in the car at 4am. I'd take half an hour to get from the van to the shed. After a few weeks I could skirt a few fleeces," she says.

Pagan Karauria in action.
Pagan Karauria in action.

Now 29, it took It took her five years to return to wool handling full-time, nearly nine to return to shearing. Despite her time off, she's won 25 competitions and says she isn't done yet.

But She Shears shows the toll shearing still takes on Karauria's body, with constant core strengthening exercises and physio required to handle the brutal 15-hour days.

Conder, the film's producer, says Karauria's threshold for pain is "incredibly high".

"They're running a marathon every single day, and they're getting up at 5am to do it. It's insanity. It's a tough life."

Wool sheds around the country are full of stories like hers, says Conder, which is why she decided to help director Jack Nicol get his film made.

"It's such a tight-knit community. There's this incredible comraderie. There are 100 and something competitions, almost every weekend, somewhere around the country, there's a competition. It's a foreign world ... and they're fascinating characters."

Ask Karauria why she keeps shearing, and she'll reply: "I don't know what it is."

In the film, she describes it as an "art form," but shearing runs in her veins: her grandparents, and her parents, are record holders. And she's the only one in her family keeping the tradition going, with her brother and sister choosing different careers.

But push her, and she'll admit: "I love it. I get to shear in front of my husband most days. We work together, travel together. I think I'm really lucky like that."

And she's not done yet. There's one more thing to tick off on her sheep shearing bucket list: the wool handling champs in France.

They're in July next year, and Karauria will find out if she's selected later this month. This, it seems, is one shearer who isn't ready to give up anytime soon.

• She Shears is screening in cinemas nationwide.