25 July, 2008

In spring, one plants alone

So here's the thing.

I had this foolish idea of trying to keep up with writing posts about each of the festival films I see. But really, when you see 8 films in the opening weekend, and then see another film most following days, I was always going to be behind. And on those odd nights when I'm not at a film, I'm trying to catch up on other stuff I haven't had time for - I spend enough time in front of a computer at work, I don't want to sit in front of my computer at home as well. So what I'm saying is, I'll try to carry on with these posts, but I'll basically just be really behind my actual screenings (for the record - festival films seen so far, 12; films written about, 3 including this post). And when I do manage to write something, my posts may not be quite as detailed as I would normally write.

Anyway, to the subject at hand.

In 1978, 21-year-old New Zealand director Vincent Ward travelled up to Tuhoe country looking to make a short documentary about Maori still living in a traditional manner. He found the subject of his film in an 80-year-old woman named Puhi, a woman who still took care of her now adult son, who suffered from mental illness. Puhi died a couple of years later, and her son died some time later. But the memory of Puhi really seems to have stuck with Ward, and so 30 years later he returned to make Rain of the Children (see the trailer here), in an attempt to try and fully tell the story of Puhi's life and discover who she really was.

There's a haunting image early in the film, documentary footage from Ward's first filming, of Puhi travelling into town in Ward's van. She apparently insisted in sitting in the back of the van, even though there were no seats, and as she sat on the floor of the van she prayed, non-stop, for the entire trip. It's a fascinating, somehow troubling image that gains great importance as we discover just why she prays so much.

The film is essentially an extremely personal documentary by Ward. He is the first person we see in the film, telling us about his earlier film, and he provides the narration throughout the entire film. The rest of the film consists of numerous talking heads, footage from the earlier documentary, and reenactments of scenes dating back over a hundred years. And it was those earliest scenes that for me weren't terribly interesting - hearing about how the tribe moved from this location to that, or about the rise of a local prophet honestly just didn't engage me. There was just something a little abstract about the events. While Puhi, as the central character of the film, may have been present, she was a child and wasn't really involved. It wasn't until Puhi became a teenager, married and pregnant at the age of 14, that I found the film start to get its focus, which it held for the rest of the film.

Ultimately, the film becomes something of a tragedy, as Puhi loses husband after husband, and child after child after child, until she starts to see herself as cursed. It becomes clear that by the time Vincent Ward first met Puhi, her life had been completely subsumed into her son's life, desperately trying to protect him from the curse waiting to take him if she ever let her guard down. And it is heartbreaking as we see the consequences of this on her son, left after her death in a world he was completely unprepared for.

I've sadly only seen a couple of Vincent Ward films, but what I do know is that Ward, as a filmaker, has an extraordinary visual sense, presenting images that remain in the mind years later. And Rain of the Children is no exception , with images of pure beauty, of sheer terror, of haunting power. In some ways, I wish the entire film had been a complete dramatisation, rather than a documentary/dramatisation mix, because as fascinating as the documentary elements were, the restaged moments were so beautiful and powerful (in a way that talking heads or footage shot in the moment cannot be) that it almost seemed a shame to leave the recreations.

Anyway, fascinating, powerful, and moving movie. There's no doubt that it will make its way back to the cinemas, so keep an eye out for it.

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