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September 22, 2008 | by  | in Film |
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Rain of the Children

A discussion with Vincent Ward

Thirty years ago, young art student Vincent Ward spent 18 months in the Ureweras filming 80-year-old woman Puhi care for schizophrenic adult son Niki for the film In Spring One Plants Alone. Although historian Judith Binney managed to dig up information linking Puhi to the prophet Rua Kenana, whose community Maungapohatu was raided in 1916, Ward decided not to probe her on this at the time, as he was interested in how she lived in the present, rather than the factual details of his past.

But as Ward told Salient, there were always elements of Puhi’s story that just didn’t fit. When he asked locals why she always walked bent over, they told her she “walked with the dead” and appeared to feel that she lived under a curse. After a successful filmmaking career, stretching from gothic tales of New Zealand life in Vigil and The Navigator in the 1980s to big-budget fantasy What Dreams May Come (which accurately displays the Mormon afterlife) in the 1990s, Ward felt compelled to return to Puhi while working on his historical epic The River Queen. The personality clashes and budget issues of this film are now infamous, and Ward was able to take time out conducting interviews for his new documentary Rain of the Children.

Unlike the massive cast and crew used for The River Queen, Ward chose to film much of Rain of the Children with a tiny crew, at one stage dragging a mere six people up a snowy mountainside to film battle sequences. But this is surface detail: what is really compelling about Rain of the Children is its depiction of what Ward describes as mythological psychology – the examination of how historical grievances have led to contemporary ills. In the 1890s, Tuhoe felt they were under a curse due to interactions with Pakeha, as their population dropped by one third. Rua Kenana’s community was an attempt to address this curse, but opposition to conscription during the Great War gave authorities an excuse to raid Maungapohatu, so the curse continued.

Puhi’s father was one of Rua’s tohunga, and she was chosen (at age 12) to marry his son, her first husband, who was taken in the raid, which also killed her lover. Puhi went on to have other marriages with similarly unhappy endings, and give birth to 14 children, many of whom were taken from her. These facts led Ward to realise what her neighbours meant when they said she walked with the dead – a legacy of dead relatives lingered about her wherever she went, forcing her to bend under the weight of these dead generations.

This story of mythological psychology is one not often told, and perhaps never told in film. It makes me think back to something documented by Bill Payne in Staunch: Inside the Gangs of New Zealand, where he discusses the pain felt by Maori members of the Mongrel Mob who tattoo a bastard mix of moko and Nazi imagery on their faces. While they did so nominally to show their disdain for tikanga, Payne felt they believed they were intentionally cursing themselves. Puhi was forced to live with such a curse because of her inability to escape the past she’d lived.

Ward took Rain of the Children to small-town screenings, particularly for Tuhoe, before opening it up to general screening last Thursday, and says that reactions from Maori and Pakeha have been strong but different – from staunch Tuhoe hunters crying through screenings to Pakeha feeling, like Ward, that they had been granted privileged access to another way of life. But like In Spring One Plants Alone, this is not a documentary about history so much as a film about people, with Ward proclaiming “I haven’t tried to make an academic film, I’ve tried to make a humanistic film where you walk in her shoes for an hour and a half.”

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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