email us


print version

The Taniwha of the Whanganui: How Far Is Heaven

By Laurence Simmons

“Let us have a heart big enough for everybody to find room in it.”
(Sister Mary Joseph [Suzanne Aubert])

“To move people not with images likely to move us, but with relations of images that render them both alive and moving.”
(Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer)

Process 1: Fiction
An aspect of the documentary tradition is not that it presumes to tell the truth, nor seeks to be objective, but that fundamentally it doesn’t fully know and in that sense is not in complete possession of its narrative; the sense of such documentaries is not the presentation of a known, but the investigation of a not-known, a yet-to-be-uncovered, and part of the technique of that investigation, given the uncertainty of the camera, and sometimes of the narrator/director, is to remain both reticent and external in relation to events, often coming upon them as they take shape, and for that reason not dominating them. I believe that How Far Is Heaven is an exceptional documentary in this mode.

Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith are partners, a filmmaking couple, like Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Johan van der Keuken and Nosh van der Lely, Raymond Depardon and Claudine Nougaret. Over the course of a year, they filmed a documentary, How Far Is Heaven, about a small isolated community (population 30), Hiruharama (Jerusalem), on the Whanganui River. Here local M?ori (Ngati Hau) live side by side with the Sisters of Compassion, an order of Catholic nuns founded there in 1892 by a French nun Sister Suzanne Aubert who also wrote the first M?ori-English dictionary.1 Over a century later the order is represented by Sister Anna Maria Shortall (aged 94 and resident in Jerusalem for 22 years), Sister Sue Cosgrove (resident for 10 years) and Sister Margaret Mary Murphy (a newcomer and volunteer teacher in the nearby Ranana school). The directors arrived in Hiruharama without any predetermined notion of the direction their story would take, other than the focus on the relationship between the Sisters and the community. In an interview with OnFilm, Miriam Smith declared: “We went in there trying to be as open as we could so the story would reveal itself to us rather than having any preconceived notions.”2

Nonetheless, Pryor and Smith carefully organised the shooting of the film. The settings have been selected as locations for ‘words’, laboratories for speaking: kitchens primarily, also living-rooms, a school music room, sometimes, less frequently, the road or the river’s edge, a garden and always the interior of the spectacular St Joseph’s Church. The settings are where the theatre of the film ‘takes place’, where the film is literally ‘performed’, where the ‘players’ assemble, where Pryor and Smith take their place and where the camera and sound recording apparatus take theirs, positioned, unseen, out of frame, but sometimes heard and obviously present. It may seem strange to call the participants in a documentary ‘players’ but this is what they are or become for us. Aside from the nuns, they are almost exclusively children: the oddball DJ obsessed with taniwha; Chevy the songstress with her guitar; Damien the cheeky, pint-sized musical prodigy. Smith (sometimes Pryor) engages the players in conversation, takes possession of the word and Pryor takes charge of the image to fit the sense of words, their duration and rhythms and to align them with the image, but also because the children acknowledge the presence of the filmmakers (although the spectator never sees them), the camera, the film and their own images, themselves and not themselves, here and elsewhere. Most often the Sisters sit at a table, or around in a group, facing the camera fixed in a central frontal position, at other times they are seen in profile. Sometimes, they address each other through shared Bible readings; more often, they address the filmmakers responding to their questions with candid responses:

Chris Pryor: How would you define compassion?
Sister Anna Maria: Suffering with others […]
Sister Sue: Not to be able to rescue or to solve any problems but to be fully present with another in their moments of sadness or grief or difficulty and also their moments of joy.

They address the camera whose view frames them from its fixed position, defining the borders of the shot and the distance between camera and subject. There is little if any ‘point of view’. All shots are at once ‘objective’ by their fixity, and ‘subjective’ by the clarity and presence of the mise en scène, the artifice of theatre (which always invokes a spectator), and, it might be added, the disturbance in the everyday life of the Sisters and the school, of the real, provoked by Pryor and Smith’s presence and the recording, the image-making in their kitchens and classrooms, choosing to whom to speak, who will listen, who will enter and who exit. To this extent, the film is stage-managed. This is the film’s fictional side.

Process 2: Documentary
On the other hand, the conversations, the gestures of the sisters and children have not been rehearsed, are not scripted, not dictated, nor their relations and words to each other. There is no attempt to illustrate words spoken or images pictured by these words nor are the words particularly dramatic or linked to the images (note the absence of points of view, of sharp angles, of a varied frame, of counter-shots), that is, the film does not offer, nor do the words, an ‘interpretation’, a weighting or hierarchy. In this regard the film is mute (pure vision) despite all the words spoken. This ‘side’ of the film belongs to a tradition of cinéma direct (Frederick Wiseman and others). It is essentially improvised within a preset mise-en-scène. Neither Pryor nor Smith, are aware in advance of what will be said and to where what is said might lead. This is the ‘documentary’ side of the film, nevertheless encased in a structure (fictional and natural) where each structural chapter reflects a new season, introduces a new cast of characters or is a return to a former group, each pause a rhyme with the others including those in earlier chapters. By so doing the film and its stories (of characters and place and time) are extended or resumed, they fan out like the swirls we observe on the surface of river water. It is important that the moments that are the most ecstatic — and the funniest — in How Far Is Heaven are the school music lessons of Sister Margaret Mary. For the order of the film is rhythmic, and essentially musical, and it owes its success, in part, to the collaboration of experimental sound artist Rachel Shearer. Part of this rhythm is the moving forward of the ‘narrative’ and the delays that temporarily halt it, like interludes or elaborations of a minor key or tone brought gracefully into prominence and the counterpointing of dominant and minor, neither of which is ever sustained, because nothing in How Far Is Heaven is ever concluded, because the past is never gone, and because the film endures into its future.

This form of documentarism, even when employed in fiction film, is marked by a number of formal signs: the extended shot-sequence, a flowing and uninterrupted temporality, an unfragmented space and an unobtrusive filming-at-a-distance. There is another feature: the presence of the camera seeking to find, and waiting to find, its subject. The narrative waits but it is not entirely clear what precisely for until the next event happens. Not once in How Far Is Heaven is the camera ‘in’ the fiction: it never adopts the classic technique of moving in and out between subjective views, as a result the spectator is neither bound by being caught in an identity, nor by being bound to an identity with a narrational point of view. Most narratives move forward consequentially, causatively, and within predetermined structures. How Far Is Heaven is different from this: it seems to move, or rather to oscillate, not between event and event, but between narrative and its absence, between the fullness of story and activity, and a waiting for something to happen (marked by landscape shots emptied of people). Sometimes an event takes up, even reverses, the preceding narrative sense in the film, as if a miracle has occurred or a conversion has taken place. Sister Margaret Mary conducts an early class on ‘trust’; by the end of the film she has won the trust of her students who enthusiastically perform a Christmas Nativity play. The children play a computer game in which a white-robed figure strides out to save the original city of Jerusalem, however, the Sisters make it clear this is not their mission with regard to Hiruharama (“At a major level they don’t need us here but they do appreciate having us,” Sister Sue declares while stirring a bubbling pot of jam).

Rather than a camera recording a subject, it is in search of a subject whose identity and outline elude it. That subject is both human subject and the ‘subject matter’ of ‘belonging to’ the land (the participants’ turangawaewae). Scenes of boisterous children are punctuated with a watchful camera that records the misty, moist autumnal-wintry landscape of the Jerusalem valley. From a distance the camera moves over a dark, elemental, forever forest not to be entered unless you know what you are doing. The play of sunlight through clouds slipping across patches of bush and down sheer river cliffs, the rustle of leaves in trees, a threatening storm, an exploding stream in flood. The landscape, though, has another quality, hard to define, or rather its quality is that of being enigmatic, slightly unreal. These are all the qualities of a landscape, which, as Geoff Park has noted, encompass the word whenua when used for land and placental connection alike. The camera also reflects a culture that identifies strongly with its country’s wild, natural beauty but which is aware how much of it has been taken away. So not just nature-as-scenery, but nature as at once distant yet accessible, viewed from the outside, yet deeply connected to daily lives. How Far Is Heaven’s nature is a close, reciprocal relationship. Often the landscape, which Pryor films so exquisitely, has been entirely cleared of human beings, but humans are also the reason the landscape appears as it does. This is a landscape we have settled, but it is also one capable of unsettling us. The film speaks a message of a primal ecology echoing Geoff Park’s point:

Landscapes exist. They fascinate and entertain us. They reveal how the past produces the present. They nourish us and show us who we are, and who, culturally, we have been. Landscapes live — and are in constant flux, like all life systems. They disappear. They can be created, but only with great difficulty can they be re-created.3

For the most part, landscapes are present in many films but their presence is marginal. Essentially, landscape in film is an atmosphere for story, a setting for action, there, but in the background. There is no film genre called landscape, as there is in painting, no more than there is a film genre of self-portraiture. In painting, these genres have been crucial for modernism, landscape because it undermined classical rules, emphasised the uncertainty of a direct apprehension of nature and reality and dissolved a sureness of perspective and thereby the security of the viewer, and (self-)portraiture because of its attention to the act of painting and the presence of the artist in the frame, raising questions about perception, time, doubling, self-reflexivity, the relation of hand to eye, the point of view with which the subject was to be seen. In painting, self-portraiture and landscape called attention to an ambiguous regard that overlapped and was contradictory, that of the artist and that of the spectator. That attention has now passed to film.

How Far Is Heaven asks two questions. What is a portrait? What is a landscape? And in asking these, it asks another, what is a film? The images of the film represent events in time, events that take place: the sisters at prayer, Sister Anna Maria chopping wood in her slippers, Sister Sue making jam and swimming up to her neck in the swirling river waters, Sister Margaret Mary attending an Avon cosmetics party, conducting music lessons. But all these represented events have another time or times than their own. Though images follow each other, each seems irrelevant to the other. There is succession, but no continuity. It is a succession of differences without apparent accords of logic, reason or causation. The lack of continuity refers each image to a range of possible narratives, but to none in particular, because to limit the image to a fixed continuity would be to undermine its existence, its life and continuation. Each image seems not only irrelevant to the image before and after it, but even an interruption of these. Even strict succession is compromised because it seems arbitrary. It is perfectly possible that the events shown could occur or did occur in a different order than the order presented. Moreover, to even speak of an event is impossible because each image contains a series of events and locations for its images and sounds. In most cases, the images emerge from one place and time and the sounds from another, as separate as the tracks on which they are recorded. Sound is often ‘crossed-over’ from sequence to sequence to connect them. Because every event is dislocated from a continuity, though never completely, they appear as no more than themselves, at once immobilised, because they have been removed from continuous time but unfinished by the same token and also multiple, because they can be located in more than one space and in more than one manner. Tomorrow, the next day, the day after, they may return, slightly altered, but still there. How Far Is Heaven’s images in this way never perish. They contain other images that they have resurrected that these may live again.

Certainly, as we have seen, How Far Is Heaven is not a film made in the ordinary way which follows a plan, still less a script; not at all a story or a narrative, it is hardly an essay that seeks to answer specific questions, and it destroys most systems of reference in the usual sense. What then determines not simply the images and sounds that appear but their relations to each other? Many of these seem undirected, and though it is possible sometimes to perceive an association, for the most part these are extremely distant and obscure, even if such remote elements may ‘suddenly’ fuse and coalesce. The film is not a representation but a manifestation, a demonstration (but of what?), a collection of documents whose order can be stated but whose significance is hard to discern. Peter Calder in his Herald review criticised How Far Is Heaven for the fact “it never really gets to grips with the question that drives it”.4 But this, I think, is to misunderstand its method and its intention. Above all, the film seems to be a record of the direct experience of making the film itself, an immediacy which results in an abundance of metaphors and signs but outside of the logical or the significant, even beyond control, as if the film, in the instantaneities of its associations and linkages, has written itself.

The slippery nature of the film, the liquidity of its surface, is tied to its fascination with water, with a swirling surface, which swallows things up, without a trace, into a nothingness. The Whanganui River, and its mists and fogs, distorts shapes and surfaces, blurs and alters perspectives, creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and fragility. Its changing tones provide a landscape for the emotions. The river is not simply the background, atmosphere in which the drama of everyday lives takes place but the (unspoken) subject of the drama, or at least as much the centre of the film as the events within it. The verticals of the trees, the church spire, lining its banks play against the horizontals of the river, its waters sliding rapidly past downstream. Water, as prerequisite to human life, is perhaps the most basic element to the conceivable community of any society. Beyond things and bodies, a body of water constitutes a body of truth that is both historicisable and subjectivisable, an object of commitment and faith for those who draw upon it in its more local world, and whose future depends upon it. Hiruharama’s children understand this. Chevy declares: “The river is powerful. You have got to look after the river.” As we know, recently and painfully for our political process, an acknowledgement of the river’s truth, however, requires rethinking property rights, and a sense that the users and communities of the river are all served, above and beyond their individualised property holdings along the river banks, by respecting its mauri, both as life-force and source of life for all local people of the area, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. The Whanganui has long had its rights and mauri abused.5

In 1955 someone with a camera documented a strange phenomenon near Upokongaro on the Whanganui River. Today the photograph is found in the Whanganui Regional Museum and it contains an anonymous inscription on its back:

On many occasions a large flow of water gushes up from the head of the Wanganui River below the bluff of Buckthaughts Redoubt just past the village of Upokongaro. This phenomenon is accompanied by a loud bubbling noise and small pieces of waterlogged wood and debris are brought to the surface. Few people have ever seen this occurrence and this photograph was taken in 1955 by one of a party of Wellington visitors camping at Mosquito Point.

Such events were often read as signs (for M?ori and Pakeha) that taniwha were present in the Whanganui River. Further upstream at Hiruharama the community believes in its kaitiaki (guardian) taniwha. In How Far Is Heaven when the children go down to the river to swim they throw an offering under the bridge where the taniwha is said to live and as they emerge from the water they offer a karakia (prayer) of thanks. Taniwha, spirit creatures and guardians of place, generate great anger from Pakeha at ‘M?ori superstition’ and in the past they have held up the construction of roads and public institutions (most recently Takauere, guardian of the waters, at Ngawha in the far north). Stephen Turner, following the reflections of filmmaker Barry Barclay in his book Mana Tuturu (2005), acknowledges that “a taniwha is many things: an ancestor (tupuna), a story on which the future of the people depends, and an active and valid principle of community subsistence.” “Taniwha,” Turner continues, “indicate the peopled landscape in M?ori memory of their own earlier settlement, but remain opaque to white settler history”.6 This film suggests another story, even intimates that we might think of it (the film) in M?ori terms, as a taniwha, both a guardian of its community, a protection of its subsistence and a story on which its future depends. Another figure — in the history of Hiruharama something of a taniwha — also haunts How Far Is Heaven: James K. Baxter who experimented with a bicultural commune on the site in the early 1970s.7 It was a visit to Baxter’s grave as a child that caused Hiruharama to “live on as an amazing place in my mind” declares Miriam Smith.8 But, perhaps wisely, Baxter’s name is not mentioned in How Far Is Heaven, nor are the historical repercussions of his sojourn at Jerusalem opened up. In the one image we see of him, a framed drawing on the kitchen wall, he glares down at us, his mana palpable. It was a mana and a vision forged under the tutelage of Ngati Hau leaders, the sisters at the convent and the protection of Hiruharama’s taniwha, as Baxter himself was to acknowledge in one of his last poems:

And I can lie down at the end of the road
Like an old horse in his own paddock
Among the tribe of Te Hau. Then my heart will be light
To be in the place where the hard road ends
And my soul can walk the rainbow bridge
That binds earth to sky. In his cave below the bridge
Where big eels can be taken
With the hinaki, and the ends
Of willow branches trail from the edge of the road
Onto the water, the dark one rises to the light,
The taniwha who guards the tribal paddock
And saves men from drowning.
(James K. Baxter, “Sestina of the River Road”, 1972)

The filmmakers take no position about the change of seasons, certainly not a position of regret. Change simply is, like the seasons, and it is not something to denounce or lament, instead they exist to celebrate in their difference. The purpose of making a film is to discover things, but the film is not the consequence of that discovery, rather the process of it. The image is not a consequence of thought, but of the thought itself taking place, finding itself. One of the functions of the introduction of space (the landscape interludes) not caught up in the immediate events, and of the time that is rescued from ‘continuity’ is to provide a time and space for the spectator and filmmakers to look. The film, which seems to be seeking a centre, at the same time decentres itself by structuring alternative narratives, it multiplies centres, each autonomous, none more important than the other. How Far Is Heaven’s view of Jerusalem is not sentimental; it is not nostalgic for a deeply religious world that has rapidly disappeared. Instead, the ordinary, the trivial, the seemingly tangential become transformed into the enchanted and invested with a halo of wonder.

Above all, as I claim, the film seems to be a record of the direct experience of making the film itself. So film becomes a language to reflect and reveal itself. But we do not know while viewing How Far Is Heaven how things will turn out — and it is this uncertainty that Pryor and Smith aim to bring out in their particular visualisation of the story. The images may be concrete but they represent variable things in uncertain perspectives. And this is, I would say, because of the film’s adoption of an intensely religious structure within the religious neutrality of its filmmakers’ stated positions. This structure is that of resurrection where what dies is born again, what is destroyed preserves itself, what slips away is retained. Here resurrection has to do not with a supernatural operation (as figured, say, in the biblical story of Lazarus) but with the undecidability that inheres in the art of filming. How the filmed image like most images, particularly photographic images, repeatedly registers the trace of something no longer there. The new appears within what is sure and established as a present yet hidden surface. How filming registers both the image in its passing and its capacity for revival, the loss and then resurrection of figuration.

This explains the completeness, but also the promise, of the film’s final image of a young child attempting to catch a darting fantail (piwakawaka) in the grass. At the moment the image seems to revert to the most tangential (what has this to do with the story of Hiruharama?), at that moment it becomes most visually full, a reflected trace of itself. It marks a subtle response to 94-year-old Sister Anna Maria’s assertion in the previous sequence that “Whatever is — is best.”9 The child’s extended hands are hands always moving, reaching out, in search of something, seeking to capture that which can never be caught. The qualities in this movement — of rapt attention, tenuousness, softness, exquisite observance of nature and of self — are the same qualities which characterise the movement of the camera in How Far Is Heaven. And it is a camera that has now come full circle, as if the camera had finally captured the wake of its own movement, as if the hand which moves the camera finally manages to find the rationale of its own movements. How far is heaven? Making a film it now tells us is a way of finding out.

1. On Suzanne Aubert see Jessie Munro, The Story of Suzanne Aubert, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books, 1996.
2. “How far is heaven” Interview with Miriam Smith and Chris Pryor, OnFilm, August 2012, p.16. See also Sarah Watt, “All that heaven entails,” Sunday Star Times August 19, 2012, E35.
3. Geoff Park, Theatre Country: Essays on Landscape and Whenua, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006, pp.10, 196.
4. Peter Calder, “Landscapes play a major role in How Far Is Heaven”, New Zealand Herald, 25 August 2012.
5. For an account of these histories see David Young, Woven By Water: Histories from the Whanganui River, Wellington: Huia Publishers, 1998.
6. Stephen Turner, “Reenacting Aotearoa, New Zealand”, in Settler and Creole Reenactment, edited by Vanessa Agnew and Jonathan Lamb with Daniel Spoth, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 252.
7. On Baxter at Jerusalem see John Newton, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009.
8. “How far is heaven” Interview with Miriam Smith and Chris Pryor, OnFilm, August 2012, p.16.
9. Sister Anna Maria is in fact quoting from a popular religious poem with the same title by Ella Wheeler Wilcox.