August 5, 2008

No miracles, only curses

Vincent Ward’s marvellous and involving Rain of the Children is an essay film in which Ward is in conversation with the work of his younger self – the precocious, talented, long-haired and too-serious fine arts student who, three decades ago, spent 18 months living in a remote Maori settlement in the Ureweras with an 80-year-old woman and her schizophrenic adult son. They became the subjects of his documentary In Spring One Plants Alone (pictured), his last film before the international critical breakthrough that was Vigil. The woman’s name was Puhi and her son was Niki; both are dead now, but Ward wants to know who they were. The premise of this film is that he missed something – indeed, it seems he wasn’t really aware of the troubled history of her tribe, Tuhoe, but that’s understandable. In the late 1970s, few in the Pakeha world had much knowledge of individual iwi; that came later, with the Treaty settlements of the 80s and 90s. In this sense, then, Ward’s timing for his In Spring Redux is impeccable – not only did last year’s terror raids strike many as an uncanny replay of one of the darker chapters in Tuhoe history, one which naturally gets illustrated here, but the iwi is in the middle of its own settlement, as are the equally marginalised Moriori (Tuhoe and Moriori were the only tribes not to sign the Treaty of Waitangi – but for very different reasons).

But Tuhoe history isn’t what Ward says he missed in 1978, or not directly. He’s been wondering about his old footage of Puhi, wondering why she prayed to herself constantly, as a steady muttering under her breath. He learns that she believed that she suffered under a curse, and to find out why we have to rewind back to the start of the 20th century when Tuhoe were at their most threatened, initially by European diseases such as tuberculosis. A messianic movement came out of this cultural turmoil, led by the prophet Rua Kenana, who styled himself along Old Testament lines – and this use of Christian apocalyptic imagery by an endangered indigenous people had remarkable similarities to the Ghost Dance movement among Native Americans, which was another desperate act to keep the culture alive. Tuhoe were believers in signs, wonders, omens, portents, curses, miracles – they made Zion the name of their spiritual base and understood that Rua was communicating with the Christian angel St Michael. But when Rua ruled that Tuhoe could no longer sell land to the New Zealand government, that was too much: the police devised a pretext to raid the Tuhoe community.Where does Puhi fit into this? She was married – and pregnant – at 14 to a son of the prophet. That child was the first of many and we soon learn that there’s a vast, tragic backstory to the hunched old woman of In Spring One Plants Alone; a story that Ward weaves with great care and sensitivity, seamlessly blending live action recreations (including Rena Owen as an adult Puhi), archival photos, interviews with Tuhoe historians, pieces-to-camera and clips from the original documentary without ever, as in his last film, River Queen, overburdening it.

To look at In Spring now – and Vigil – is to see a sparse, elemental poetry to Ward’s film-making that disappeared around the time of Map of the Human Heart; he hasn’t quite gone back to that earlier simplicity, but there’s a humility and emotional directness about this film that seems touching and genuine. When I reviewed River Queen, I worried that its worst excesses confirmed Ward as a “diehard sentimentalist” and that “the famously kitsch scenes in the last two films – sex atop a hot-air balloon in Map of the Human Heart, the drippy new-age afterlife of What Dreams May Come – are not the anomalies we hoped they were at the time, but the norm; Vigil and The Navigator now look like the anomalies." On the basis of this film, I can step back from that. Here there’s only a couple of quick shots that seem like kitsch heart-tuggers – a child’s doll sinking in the mud when the Pakeha police raid the Tuhoe village, a boy's face splattered with blood when a horse is killed – but mostly Ward has control over what seemed like his worst impulses.

At one point, Rua Kenana is played by Temuera Morrison, which connects the new film back to River Queen – was his doomed, omen-seeing prophet Te Kai Po in that film modelled on this historical original? And where does Ward stand on the supernatural material in this story anyway? I think he’s more ambivalent than he once might have been. “The Ward worldview is a romantic and superstitious model: signs and omens, icons and loaded dreams.” I wrote that about The Navigator, a story which only works if you take its apocalyptic-supernatural logic at face value (also, I’m still pretty sure it’s Ward’s best film), but Ward doesn’t swallow the Tuhoe view about curses – to accept it would be to believe that an incidence of mental illness in one generation follows the sins of an earlier one. But he can accept that the Tuhoe have felt cursed, and forsaken, that they struggled to understand why so many of their tribe died so quickly after European contact, and he can see that the barrier between the material world and the ghost world seems to be that much thinner in the Ureweras than elsewhere, which means that some later scenes with Niki make very poignant use of that eerie Tuhoe mythology about patupaiarehe, the laughing, fairy-like people who live deep in the forests and still seem to scare any Tuhoe who think for too long about them. The Tuhoe were always a people apart – it’s to Ward’s credit that this very moving film now brings them that much closer.