The Edge of Tears: Vincent Ward's Rain of the Children and Postcolonial Trauma
By Olivia Maccassey“Tears from faces of stone.
They are our own tears.”
—James K Baxter,
Letter from the Mountains(1)
In Rain of the Children (2008) director Vincent Ward revisits the subject of his early film In Spring One Plants Alone (1980), a 45 minute observational documentary made in the late 1970s. The earlier work centred on the day to day activities of Te Puhi Materoa Tatu, an elderly kuia living in a remote Te Urewera settlement, and her son Niki Takao. Almost thirty years later, Ward re-examines the meaning of what he experienced and observed of Puhi, through a docudrama exploring her personal history. Chosen at 12 to marry Whatu, a son of the Tuhoe leader and prophet Rua Kenana, Puhi was present during the historic police raid on Rua’s community at the sacred mountain Maungapohatu. When Ward first met her, Niki was the only remaining one of her 14 children; the other 13 lost to illness and circumstance. Interviews with Tuhoe historians and Puhi’s extended family, and Ward’s direct address to camera, are blended in Rain of the Children with excerpts and outtakes from In Spring One Plants Alone, archival footage and rostrum shots of old photographs, and a large number of dramatisations and re-enactments, some in black and white, and others in (often desaturated) colour. Puhi is played by seven people: Miriama Rangi, Mikaira Tawhara, Harmony Wihapi, Melody Wihapi, Hine Boynton, Rena Owen, and of course Te Puhi Tatu herself. Continuity is given by narrative voiceovers, some by Ward and others by Rena Owen, (as the voice of Puhi), with occasional sound bridges from interviews. Ward also consults Judith Binney, whose 1979 book Mihaia covers the wider backdrop against which this film locates Puhi.(2) The film appears to have a solid foundation in consultation with Tuhoe historians. Three hundred Tuhoe people from the region attended the Auckland Film Festival premiere.(3)
This is personal film making: as much the story of Ward’s relationship with Puhi and his memory of her, as it is of her history. In places, Ward’s speech addresses Puhi directly. Ward helped fund the project, and his involvement extends to scriptwriting, producing (with Marg Slater, Tainui Stephens, and co-producers Catherine Fitzgerald and Kero Nancy Tait), and acting as both principle researcher and narrator. As a docudrama, Rain of the Children engages with the colonial past in a romantic, impressionistic way, one described as “part folk tale, part ballad, part mystery story.”(4) Yet in its motivation, it also seeks to bear witness, to tell Puhi’s story. Although focussing on the personal, Rain of the Children represents an indirect pakeha engagement with the colonial past and with the effects of that past in the present. This film is marked by several layers of haunting: diegetic, historical, and formal. Within the diegesis, there is both the haunting of Puhi (and by extension, her son Niki) by her past losses in the form of a curse, and the haunting of Ward by Puhi and his past experiences with her. The film shows how Puhi is affected by elements of the colonial past on which it touches, such as the violent assault on and occupation of Maungapohatu in 1916: historial events which continued to make themselves felt around the time of the film’s release in 2008. At a formal level, Ward’s other films seem to reappear within this one. Below, I want to suggest that the way Rain of the Children is structured in relation to history and memory reveals that these hauntings are characteristics of postcolonial trauma, and of Ward’s relation to that trauma as a pakeha film maker.
As narrator/film maker, Ward frames Rain of the Children as a response to the persistent thoughts he has had about Puhi over the years. He is, in a sense, haunted by both Puhi’s past and by her fate. Rain of the Children is structured as the progressive investigation of a mystery. In the main portion of the film, the geographical trajectory taken by Ward in his addresses to camera mimes a journey to Puhi’s house, as we see him first in a car, then on horseback, then outside her house, and finally inside it, before appearing again in an archive. The episode which deals with third husband Clark’s death includes dramatisations of Ward researching, using microfiche and enormous bound volumes. “I decided to unravel the mystery myself.” Progressive revelations are presented as solutions to the enigma of Puhi, explanations for various events and traits that manifest in the earlier film. For instance, her sotto voce karakia. “That explains the constant praying” Ward remarks at one point. Publicity surrounding the film emphasises its mystery component. Titles in the theatrical trailer promise us that “[t]he mystery unfolds” and delivery of the “secret revealed”, and the voiceover claims that “every family has a secret.” This angle is also taken by the New Zealand Film Commission website, the distributor’s website, and various interviews with Ward.(5)
The film itself unequivocally locates the origin of this mystery within the earlier scene of Ward’s contact with Puhi, framed as a kind of missed encounter with something that he was unable to understand at the time. In the opening of the film, he addresses Puhi directly: “I thought I knew so much about you when I was making that film, but really I knew very little.” Although comprehension was lacking, though, the film maker did realise that there was something there that he didn’t understand. “I could sense something,” he says, “I just didn’t know what it was.” The structure of this mystery in the film text, then, is that of trauma. According to Cathy Caruth, traumatic structure is marked by the combination of three things: an experience that is not fully understood at the time (and therefore missed), a period of latency, and a repetitive return of some mark or aspect of that experience. Trauma is not located in the traumatic event itself, but rather in the way what was not understood keeps coming back, in mysterious form.(6) As a response to Puhi – and framed as a response by her, that is, her speech – Rain of The Children represents the return of Ward’s earlier experience, but on a more fundamental level it also represents the return of Puhi’s trauma and, through her experience at Maungapohatu, the wider trauma of colonisation.
Because of the time delay in its return, trauma is marked by a belatedness, a deferred action which Freud termed Nachträglichkeit. In a moving scene replaying the final shot of In Spring One Plants Alone, in which Puhi dispiritedly chops at firewood, Ward tells her: “looking at this now I realise you were chopping the wood against the grain. You weren’t even trying to split the wood.” He retrospectively understands the scene as one of anxiety and loss, a loss related to so many other losses in this woman’s life. Another example of the way different traumatic elements are linked by indirect reference is in the repetition of views between big tree trunks. Notably, during the scene of the police raid on the settlement at Maungapohatu, we see the women and children mysteriously running around in a stand of trees that doesn’t seem like it could be located nearby, before a voiceover tells us they hid by the side of the houses. Later, we watch through similar trunks as Puhi runs away from her husband’s violence, apparently hiding in a creek. Later still, the trees are prominently associated with Niki, his childhood accident, and encounters with patupaierehe; and finally they are the scene of reunion with the dead. Just as Ward sees his own earlier footage “through new eyes”, Rain of the Children encourages us to see cryptic links between these seemingly disparate elements.
The partial presentness of the past which is characteristic of trauma leads to a radical temporal instability, which can also be found in Rain of the Children. Although it is not unusual for narrated commentary to switch into the present tense while recounting dramatic events such as battles, the narrative of Rain of the Children sometimes slips quite rapidly between past, present and future tenses, without anchoring them to specific types of footage as a more conventional documentary might. For example, during a re-enactment scene in which Puhi cares for her children, cooking with an outdoor fire, Ward’s voiceover subtly changes tense several times: “She’ll soon bitterly regret her temper and the way she publicly humiliated [her husband]. Disease strikes Maungapohatu and it is her children that are hardest hit. Once again she will feel her actions brought this upon them. One by one her children began to die” – two rostrum shots are inserted at this point of a historical photograph of a health camp – “of typhoid, influenza, starvation.” Cut to Ward outside Puhi’s house, with what looks like smoke from the re-enactment cooking fire blowing in front of him, as he adds, “One of her children dies in 1927.”
The effect of this understated temporal instability is that the near-past, distant past, and present seem interrelated; the past-in-the-present. The significance of this past in the present for Tuhoe is emphasised in the casting: many of the characters in this film are played by their descendants.
Seeing through Tears
In order to understand the wider traumatic context of Puhi’s story, Rain of the Children insists, we must understand her imbrication in the colonial-era history of Maungapohatu. Ward has stated that the rain of the title represents Puhi’s children themselves, while Tainui Stephens has linked rain with tears.(7) There is also a strong resonance between Rain of the Children and Children of the Mist. Perhaps this rain represents, also, the tears of Ngai Tuhoe. Rain of the Children is haunted not just by April 2, 1916, but by October 15, 2007. As Gilbert Wong in The Listener remarks, it’s “hard not to” remember the incidents at Ruatoki in October of 2007 in connection with Rua Kenana’s Urewera camps.(8) The parallels between the events depicted in Rain of the Children and those at Ruatoki are a little uncanny. According to Judith Binney, police persecution of Rua Kenana was the product of war hysteria as New Zealand reacted to events in the Northern Hemisphere. One belief was that Rua was training people to participate in a war against New Zealand. He was indicted for conspiracy and sedition.(9) The Suppression of Terrorism Act which fuelled police raids on Ruatoki was the product of similar origins, as New Zealand responded to the anti-terror hysteria which accompanied the US-led wars in the Middle East. In both cases, the nation-state reacted to a perceived threat from without by imagining Tuhoe as a threat from within. In both cases, women and children, like Puhi, were detained without arrest under armed guard. I am not suggesting that this film deliberately references the events at Ruatoki; as Ward points out, the timing is wrong. “If there’s a resonance, it is because Tuhoe are still dealing with the same issues they were in 1916.”(10) But traumatic referentiality is not strictly linear. That is, the particular order of events is unimportant: events take on belated significance independently of their sequence.
Just as this film encapsulates both the haunting of Puhi and the haunting of Ward by Puhi, it also represents pakeha engagement with Indigenous trauma, and perhaps, pakeha trauma in the face of Indigenous trauma. Ward, as narrator, seems to be haunted by more than his encounter with Puhi: it is the colonial past itself that haunts him, as a pakeha film maker. It is not unusual to suggest that the fact of colonisation is a constitutive trauma for Aotearoa New Zealand as a settler nation. Repressed colonialism is seen as an uncanny, repetitive presence which haunts settlers.(11) In the realm of cinema, Merata Mita has argued that mainstream film here is marked by a white neurosis that has its origin in settler displacement and repression.(12) Sam Neill’s documentary Cinema of Unease (1995) has traced a brooding unease through various films, citing Ward’s work as exemplary of this tendency. Writing in 2005, Allen Meek argues that the Niki of In Spring One Plants Alone “evokes a repressed history of colonial violence.” Meek points out the link between Puhi and Rua Kenana, and notes that the film was shot in a valley, Matahi, which had been the subject of colonial attack in the 1870s.(13) Meek sees in Ward’s depiction of Niki an example of the repetition of images of giants in certain pakeha films. Such figures represent the primordial other of mythic time, a figure “developed in its spectacular form only by the repression of the historical actuality of indigenous peoples.” For Meek, they are suggestive of a mixed response to lost Maori agency and plenitude: “an ambivalent desire to support indigenous resistance to colonialism while also exorcising a certain fear that those who have been violently repressed will return to take their vengeance.”(14)
Meek’s points could equally apply to Rain of the Children. Its introduction ends with an early shot from In Spring One Plants Alone which gives the view from a van travelling up a country driveway at night, before coming to rest in front of the figure of Niki, illuminated in the headlights. “[O]ut of the blackness a massive figure loomed” as Ward would later describe a similar incident.(15) Writing in 1990, Ward describes an altercation in which Niki appeared in his hut one night with, significantly, an axe. (16) During the police raids in 1916, too, there was an altercation with an axe taken up by Whatu.(17 )And trauma certainly repeats through Niki. The mental disturbance that he suffered from is accounted for in the film both as a genetically inherited disease and as a potential consequence of an encounter with patupaerehe, linking him to Puhi’s curse. Her “ongoing sense of loss” at her third husband’s death is also passed on to Niki. But I think the way Rain of the Children circles around Puhi’s life, echoing her trauma in its own traumatic structure, suggests that in this film, Ward is attempting to bear witness to another’s trauma, one that has touched him too by virtue of his closeness to Puhi and his time with her.
The Limit of Vision
As a text, Rain of the Children is quite literally punctuated by the insistent return of the earlier documentary. Rain of the Children is also haunted by the referential return of Ward’s oeuvre. With its strong emphasis on distinctive visuals, Ward’s filmic style provides aesthetically beautiful imagery (aided by cinematographers Leon Narbey and Adam Clark). It also leads to the recurrence of images reminiscent of his other films. I was taken aback by a scene in which a horse is shot: a mid close up of a child wearing a hood, another woman behind her. The child closes her eyes as blood from the horse squirts over her face. It’s as if Griffin from The Navigator (1988) is receiving the blood from Toss’s lamb in Vigil (1984). The latter film also makes itself felt during one of Ward’s addresses to camera, as a bleak land looms behind him with a bent tree half-silhouetted against the sky. A scene of fires lit on Maungapohatu reminds me of Ingmar Bergman’s influence on Ward’s early work, while scenes near the beginning of bush fighting, although shot in black and white, look suspiciously like others from River Queen (2005). Shots of a young Puhi laughing on a riverbank at four boys on horseback are reminiscent of a scene near the beginning of River Queen in which Sarah meets Boy’s father. Incongruous wedding dress scenes remind me of both River Queen and Jane Campion’s The Piano (2003). Twice in The Rain of the Children we see Puhi in full wedding clothes, an improbably long white veil flying into the air behind her as she laughs. In returning to what Bruce Babington calls “oneiric and mythic latitudes,” shots such as this situate the film in continuity with Ward’s overtly fictional films.(18)
The sheer beauty of imagery for which Ward is known seems occasionally to work against the kaupapa of the film. A notable example is the glamorous long-shot which dramatises how Niki was “beaten up in a pub brawl, found lying in the street.” A naked man lies in the middle of the main street of a small town, his skin almost luminous in the twilight. The shot is framed so that the street recedes in linear perspective; his body, with one leg artistically cocked, is near the foreground, while in the background the nearest of a line of streetlamps provides an ersatz moon. Coming down this street is a shining white horse, its progress toward Niki made ethereal through the use of dissolves and nervous hoof-beats in the silence. Aesthetically this is a beautiful, striking image, but for me the disjunction between what its formal properties suggest, and what it narrates, is jarring. Its function within the logic of the film is to frame this harsh scenario – a vulnerable man beaten and alone – in spiritual terms. He is almost a martyr. Symbolising Niki’s kaitiaki, the white horse, who recurs in the film, is metaphorical. But in representing the circumstances of Niki’s life in a mythologised way, the film seems to deny their material historical reality. Ward’s signature visuality and references to earlier films are well realised, and perhaps enjoyable for viewers, but sometimes the subject matter primarily serves Ward’s aesthetic rather than vice versa.
Such textual hauntings serve to remind us of the extent to which Puhi’s story is mediated through Ward. In an address to camera, he speaks of Puhi in the third person, while behind him on the right hand side of the screen appears the ghostly face representing Puhi in old age. Switching to the second person, he tells his subject “So now I have to conjure you up […] Will you tell me your story?” The actress then obediently commences with the conventional line “I was born in 1898…” That the elder Puhi, played by Rena Owen, voices lines apparently scripted by Ward works well in general, but in some places it seems clumsily aetiological, for example when asserting that the root cause of the older Puhi’s interest in firewood lies in the first difficult winter at Maungapohatu (“I never forget the need for dry wood to make the fire.”) Once or twice, the voiceover for Puhi is overburdened by documentary exposition, for instance when she implausibly describes their school at Maungapohatu as the most remote school in the country. When a scripted re-enactment voiceover explaining her feelings is juxtaposed over footage of the real Puhi at a funeral, it leaves me with the uncanny sense that Ward is placing words in her mouth, and in doing so, speaking for Puhi rather than with her. Such a strategy works to position him in the tradition whereby the speech of Indigenous women is ventriloquised by white men (recent successes in this vein include Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip).(19) The danger here is that indigenous women figure primarily as tools for white male self exploration and expression.
Despite the traumatic structure of this film, Ward remains the pakeha observer – the privileged observer, say some – of Maori experiences.(20) In a sense, then, Rain of the Children resembles River Queen and even Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003) in placing a white observer – whether Samantha Morton’s Sarah or Tom Cruise’s Nathan Algren – at the centre of another culture thrown into turmoil at a point of contact with the West. While many people in Rain of the Children are subtitled, whether speaking English or Te Reo Maori, Ward himself never is (one quirk of this choice is that the noun “bush” is invariably subtitled as “forest” unless spoken by Ward himself). His is the authoritative voice, the centre of both knowledge and emotion in the film. I am not suggesting for a moment that Ward should have elided his own presence, or tried to conceal his central role in how this story is seen and how it is told. As David Larsen notes, “Ward’s insistence on his own mediating presence often seems a distancing distraction, but that forced acknowledgement of the gulf between us and Puhi amounts to honest viewing.”(21) As the film maker, it is important that he acknowledge his own positionality. The fidelity with which he does this is one of the film’s strengths, and its address of history is an important step beyond the romantic fictions of River Queen. But I do think that, simultaneously and productively, Rain of the Children reveals the discursive limit point of pakeha engagement with Maori experiences of that history.
If, as Ward hypothesises, Niki is the key to understanding Puhi, Niki might also be the key to understanding Ward’s own role in Rain of the Children. Firstly, Niki is the means by which Ward attempts to resolve the mystery he has set up in the film. In the sequence after Puhi chops wood against the grain, Ward tells her that he senses her presence in her house, that although she has died her spirit can’t rest “and to let you go, I have to find out what happened to Niki.” In service to this resolution, those episodes of the film which deal with Niki’s later life are characterised by an elegiac quality, as the example of the white horse demonstrates, and absent is any mention of Ward’s own actual encounter with Niki in Auckland in later life, which he has written of elsewhere.(22) After detailing Niki’s trials and, later, growing independence within his own community, Ward hypothesises that this independence may have set Puhi free, and Rain of the Children ends by dramatising her reunion, in death, with all of her children. He states, “in the making of this film, I feel I can now say goodbye.” Because trauma entails the belated and partial return of the ungraspable, I find this attempt at closure a little unconvincing. A dream about freedom and independence (perhaps significantly). Perhaps one reason for circumspection is that this ending seems a repetition – a return – of a closure Ward thought he’d found at least once before. In a book published in 1990, he described how, “[m]ore than seven years after her death I finally made my peace with Puhi.” On a misty day in Auckland, in the presence of three Tuhoe elders, “the house was finally swept, the air cleared, and the old spirits laid to rest:”(23) For Tuhoe elder Matu Te Pou, this new film brings a sense of completion and a sense that Puhi can rest, her mana restored, particularly as the story is told by her mokopuna.(24) But can it do the same for Ward? Or for us? The wider question the film raises – that is, the question of the enigmatic ways in which the colonial past haunts the present, and the ways in which our encounters with that past in turn haunt us – remain open.
1. James K Baxter, “Letter from the Mountains”, in John E. Weir (ed.). Collected Poems of James K Baxter, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p.415.