On the surface, director Armagan Ballantyne has little in common with the characters in her debut feature film, The Strength of Water. The leads are 10-year-old Maori twins Kimi and Melody, who live in a small coastal community and spend their days tending chickens.

Ballantyne, whose first name is Turkish and was taken from a close family friend, is a Wellington-born Pakeha, who has only lived there and Auckland - and knows little about chickens.

But when Maori scriptwriter Briar Grace-Smith wrote the story of Kimi and Melody, she was adamant Ballantyne should be the director.

"Because it was her story, I felt like if she was cool with it then I just felt really honoured to be invited into her world," explains Ballantyne, who first started working on the project with Grace-Smith nearly nine years ago.

The pair met through a mutual friend and took an instant liking to one another. Like many creative types, they began discussing a collaboration together. But unlike most, they actually followed through on the plan.

"We ended up going on holiday together," recalls Ballantyne. "We travelled around the West Coast of the South Island, neither of us had ever been there, and we just talked for three weeks basically.

"It rained a lot so we sat inside and watched movies and drank wine. We got to know each other really, really, really well."

Working on and off for several years, Grace-Smith eventually crafted the story of the Maori twins, who live in an isolated and rather desolate rural community, where a tragic accident changes their young lives forever.

"I hadn't specifically gone, 'I want to make a Maori film'," says Ballantyne. "I'd just gone 'hey, this is a really neat person and I have a lot in common with her'. When she started writing the film, the characters were all Maori, so I said, 'How do you feel about a Pakeha directing it?' She felt I was the right director.

"If she hadn't been into me doing it then I never would have wanted to. No matter how much I loved the story."

Ballantyne admits she had little experience of the lifestyle and community in which her film, made in Hokianga in the Far North, was set. But it was never an issue. "I think that storytelling is a lot about empathy and understanding. For me, I was deeply interested in the characters Briar was writing. I went in very open-heartedly to learn as much as I could.

"The great thing was the community up there, the kaumatua we approached to guide us in the film-making process were really great. They'd read the script and they loved the story. They wanted it to take place and they really supported us."

That support meant Ballantyne never felt far removed from the project or the story because people in the community became her friends.

"They became a part of my world very quickly."

The community support was essential on every level, especially as the crew had to be billeted with local families due to a shortage of accommodation. Townspeople featured as extras in the film and helped the crew.

But one of the biggest jobs took place before Ballantyne and her team reached Hokianga - casting.

With two pre-teen leads to cast, Ballantyne knew she was unlikely to find professional actors suitable for the roles - simply because there are so few professional child actors in New Zealand.

"I kind of embraced that. There have been great movies that have worked with non-professional actors before. It just becomes a matter of casting being a really important thing to get right," says Ballantyne.

In the end, only two of the roles were filled by professionals. Nancy Brunning and Jim Moriarty play the twins' parents; the rest were complete unknowns. Including cousins Hato Paparoa and Melanie Mayall-Nahi, who won the lead roles.

The unknown cast, isolated setting and intrinsically Maori story have caused inevitable comparisons between The Strength of Water and Whale Rider, which was partially funded by the same German production company that co-produced Ballantyne's film. But they are two separate enterprises, says Ballantyne.

"Whale Rider is a great film and our film is different. It has similarities but the actual themes of the story are very different. I like to think there's lots of room for lots of Maori films."

They may be different but Ballantyne's film has certainly emulated the success and international popularity of Witi Ihimaera's story.

The Strength of Water has become a favourite on the international festival circuit after premiering in Rotterdam last year.

After scoring high in the audience popularity polls in Holland, the film moved on to the Berlinale - one of the world's leading film festivals - where it featured in the Generation section, aimed at younger viewers. "They brought the kids [Paparoa and Mayall-Nahi] over and that was lovely for them. They just got mobbed by other young people.

"In Rotterdam, it had been older people who had seen the film and then in Berlin a lot of younger people came. Suddenly we realised it wasn't just for adults."

The film also found favour at the Seattle International Film Festival, at Sydney's festival and most recently, the Brisbane International Film Festival.

But it was the story's home premiere at Auckland's Civic Theatre last month that meant the most to Ballantyne.

"Obviously we're thrilled that it's had such a warm reception from the audiences overseas. But the most exciting thing - in a nervous way - was having the screening at the Civic for the film festival and getting a feeling from the local crowd."

That feeling was extremely positive, recalls Ballantyne, and the film is now set to enter general release next week, in cinemas throughout the country.

The film industry has acknowledged Ballantyne's efforts at this year's Qantas Film Awards, which will be held in September. The Strength of Water has been nominated for six awards, including a best screenplay nod for Grace-Smith and best supporting actress for Brunning.

It's an impressive achievement for a debut feature - and the ultimate pay-off for something that has taken nearly a decade in gestation.

But Ballantyne is in no rush to push out her next project.

"I don't have a whole bunch of things that I've been working on. I don't multi-task with films.

"I'm waiting for something that I really, really love. I don't feel ambitious to make lots of movies, I just want to really care about it and make something that I feel the audience will respond to.

"I don't mind taking the time to think about that and find that."

LOWDOWN
What: The Strength of Water

Who: Directed by Armagan Ballantyne (above right), written by Briar Grace-Smith

When: In cinemas nationwide from Thursday

Awards: Six nominations at the Qantas Film Awards; Nominated for the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival