From cowboys and communists to compost and compassion.
Jess Feast has made a gem of a film with her latest documentary, Gardening With Soul. While it doesn’t sound like an easy-to-sell—a 90-year-old nun who gardens out in Island Bay, Wellington—Feast’s lovely tribute to Sister Loyola Galvin of the Sisters of Compassion manages to warm the heart and soul via its irrepressible protagonist and subtle account of a changing city and society. Feast, who initially made her name with the boisterous Cowboys and Communists, about a famous restaurant in East Berlin, has offered up something much more contemplative with Gardening With Soul. Following its New Zealand International Film Festival premiere, and ahead of its theatrical release, I sat down with Feast to discuss the film.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film, what got you into film?
JESS FEAST: I studied theatre, so I’ve always been really interested in storytelling. My Mum’s a documentary-maker so I suppose it was always in my world from quite a young age, and she took me out on shoots and got me one of my first jobs. I remember when I was working with her, she asked me to do interviews. It was my first job. Particularly with documentary-making, I found it a real privilege to find out about people’s lives and be creative about it. That combination stuck with me from the beginning and really grabbed me.
BG: You’ve had fairly eclectic subject matter throughout your career. Do you just know when you see a subject?
JF: I definitely have that moment, and obviously a lot of the stuff I do is not an option. That comes out of someone ringing you and saying I’ve got a job for you. Those stories and reasons for making films come from all kinds of different places. In terms of my own work, it has to really grab me. It’s usually about an interesting character within an interesting context.
BG: Were you surprised about how Cowboys and Communists got a bit of a global presence?
JF: In a way. Was I surprised? I don’t know. It wasn’t a huge film. It definitely went on a journey. It fell through quite a few gaps. It was about a New Zealander making a film about Germans being released in New Zealand. What I really enjoyed about Cowboys and Communists was that Germans really got it. It screened in a couple of film festivals in Germany and won an award there, and it screened on ARD, a German channel, which to me was a success [insofar] as I was able to come a foreign country and tell a story about their culture that they could respond to. It’s quite good being an outsider in those situations because you’re allowed to go in there and ask dumb questions, and especially in a situation like that where you’ve got an East/West thing, and you’re not coming from one side or the other—whereas any German doing that story is going to be one or the other.
BG: It’s so obviously there in Berlin.
JF: One of the big reasons for going and living there, was not only being fascinated by the culture and the history, but how a culture like that exists 20 years on from that massive shift.
BG: Have you been back?
JF: I’ve been back to show the film. We had a great screening when the film was released to show the people. The White Trash fast food [restaurant] has been through a few iterations. When I went back it was a gallery space and it had been whited out, and screened it in there. I brought everyone back and had Horst, who was the protagonist from upstairs, come down.
BG: There’s a real tension in Berlin about gentrification; you captured a time when that real shift was happening.
JF: Yes, those people being displaced, and that simplistic idea of that regime and that shift that ‘happened’ when the Wall fell. I wanted to expand on people’s understanding of how that was for individuals, not just on a political scale, but how it affected individual people.
BG: And moving onto Gardening with Soul, with Sister Loyola, you first heard her on the radio?
JF: Yeah, and a friend of mine had done an article on her in the Dominion Post as well. I heard her story, I had recovered from making Cowboys, and I was looking for a story. At that time, I was particularly focused on storytelling around sustainability, not so much from a feature documentary point of view, but in my small company doing film work for Oxfam and different organisations. I was after people who could articulate that, particularly in a positive way. That was one of the reasons why I connected with her initially and her story and it grew from there when I got to know her. Initially, I was going to do a book with her, and then a short film. It really did evolve as a project quite organically. It grew in the way the project dictated it. It’s a real privilege that you don’t get when you’re making stuff commercially to have that time to grow stuff.
BG: Do you think she would have signed up if it was a feature project from the outset?
JF: That was actually a crucial part of the process, for myself and for her. If we had known from the beginning, I don’t think we would have embarked on it. If I had knocked on her door and said, “I’m going to make a feature documentary about you,” there’s no way she would have agreed with that. It’s not like I was being subversive, it genuinely did evolve so in that sense we both hooked into that process.
BG: Did you knock on her door and ask her to be in the film?
JF: Initially, I thought here’s a person who’s going to contribute to where we’re at on all kinds of levels. I was very open when I first met her. I introduced myself and told her who I was. And I said, “can I come see you?” We got together quite a few times; just cups of tea and just walks around the garden and talked about her life. Quite a few meetings before I said this is what I’m thinking—it was the book at the time. By the time we had the funding from the Independent Filmmakers Fund to make the short film, we were friends, we had talked enough, and I can go with you on this.
BG: This is not a pejorative use of the word, but it’s a banal story with no conflict. Were you worried?
JF: Totally, that’s why initially I rejected the idea of a film, and then only a short film. Very much so. It’s one person, one location. Visually and narratively, I really seriously questioned at the beginning if it would evolve. It’s a great question because it was a big concern for me, even right through to when we were in the edit suite. From the outset, I never wanted it to be other people being interviewed about her. I wanted it to be her story told by her. Keeping it very contained and mining that and diving deeper. It’s a sensitive thing. How long can I push that, when watching it? These things are emotional, you can’t plan it.
BG: Rhythm then would have been key?
JF: Rhythm was really important. We talked a lot about pace in the edit and it’s not about how long a film is in its duration; it’s perceived length. A 90 minute film can feel like a three hour film. Or it can feel like it’s only just started and that’s all about pacing and leaving space.
BG: The seasonal structure, was that the case once you decided to make a feature?
JF: Always. From the time it was a short film, it was structured around seasons. That was a really solid structure on which to hang the film. There was quite a lot of planning that went on before we started shooting, because I had the seasonal structure. I knew how the life story was going to fit into that, and that provided a great framework to then just let it flow and let the more observational spontaneous moments to happen. But also knowing that I was going to do the interview around her leaving home during spring because spring is about vulnerability and stepping out and planting seedlings. Then you have this magic character who just turns it on when the camera starts rolling, so it’s a matter of having that freedom to grow but having a plan.
BG: Was it lucky having the one-off snow storm [in August 2011] to start the film?
JF: Amazing. It’s funny, the first day, we weren’t shooting. We planned to shoot the next day and I remember we got up in the morning and it wasn’t snowing, and I was thinking we’d missed it. We were out on the South Coast taking in the opening shots, and I thought about going up to the home and see if would happen. When we arrived, the blizzard arrived. It was lucky—a bit of planning and a bit of luck.
BG: She’s a great character and really compelling. Was there quite a lot you had to cut out?
JF: So much. She’s quite tangential. Containing her so she’s not going off in five different ideas in one paragraph, that’s challenging, and that’s the beauty of the editing process. I also wanted to do those interviews to have a sense of her in location for those interviews. Rather than doing sit down interviews and then covering it with cutaways, I wanted for us to be talking while she was doing stuff. That’s challenging from a film point of view and in an interviewing point of view. Your cutting options are not as loose as they would be if you’re cutting sound and putting pictures on top of it.
BG: I got a real sense of Wellington from the film through her. The history that comes through was interesting—were you aware her story would have this wider resonance?
JF: Very much so. I’ve got three grandparents in their nineties, and one of the things is they’re all very lucid and engaging. The sense of history in the personal form is really valuable and one of the things we can gain from listening to our elders. The sense of change, the sense of where we’re going, where we’ve come from. In many ways, the Sisters of Compassion have been touchstones along the way. Even right back from Mother Aubert, they have been at the forefront of social change in some capacity. That was interesting for me, as a female as well—there’s a strong female influence and personality for New Zealand. And they’re continuing that tradition from those early feminist ideals and how feminism translates in a Catholic setting. You think, Catholicism, how can that exist? But these nuns have been doing it on the ground.
BG: Regarding some of the controversial elements with the Catholic Church—Sister Loyola talked about it throughout the film—was she willing to open up about it?
JF: Interestingly, she was very open. It was really interesting making the film during the time we did because it was about that time that all of that stuff about the Catholic Church was coming to the fore. Being in the car on the way to the shoot and listening to National Radio and hearing about the latest priest around the world who had been outed. It was hanging there in the air. I didn’t even really have to ask the question, she had to respond.
BG: I suppose if you’ve devoted your life to that cause…
JF: How upsetting that was. I’m not Catholic, but I have a lot of friends who come from a Catholic upbringing, and just how terrible it must be for people who placed their faith in an organisation that reveals itself to be so failing. That was part of it. She is an open person. She’s got nothing to hide, which is obviously important when making a documentary.
BG: How much had you shot? Did you have a lot of material?
JF: We did. We had over 60 hours of material. That seems like a lot, but in documentary terms, it’s not. It was quite planned and contained with one person and a basic story structure already. I knew what I wanted. It was already quite structured.
BG: Do you have any documentary filmmakers you look towards for inspiration?
JF: I watch a fair number of documentary films. I would certainly like to watch more. What I’m inspired by comes from different schools. That’s one of the things I love about documentary, there are these different genres within the genre. Frederick Wiseman is definitely one of my absolute heroes. Also, this idea of a body of work. I love his films. The idea of pure observation. I would never make a film like that because I’m too much of a talker, but that’s observational filmmaking at its best.
BG: Could you have made this as an observational film? Could you have left Sister Loyola alone?
JF: I think she probably could have and that would be an interesting exercise.
BG: Wiseman makes the really banal really interesting.
JF: Yeah, amazing. I think she probably would, as she lives her philosophy. When you watch the observational things in the film, you don’t need to have her explaining it.
BG: She’s very sharp. Did she keep you on your toes?
JF: Someone wrote about the film that it’s like the camera is always chasing her. I really like that observation. I never thought about it, but in reality, I could barely keep up with this 90-year-old woman whose legs are half the length of mine. She’s busy and strong, and her physicality is really interesting. She seems relatively frail and she gets blown over by the wind, and on a strong day you have to hold her hand so she doesn’t get blown over. She’s brilliant.
BG: It’s funny, I never got the sense she was frail in the film, but you do see her struggling up stairs. What’s the plan for the film now? It has a wider release now—is it hard to market?
JF: Actually not. Kind of by chance. It has a lot of points that I can get across. There are religious elements, there’s a market there, and there’s a wider spirituality there for people who have that connection but don’t quite know how to define it. There’s gardening, very popular in New Zealand. The sustainability element taps into a younger audience. It’s about ageing. There are actually more and more films being made about older people because they are the ones going to the cinema, and it taps into an older market if you’re interested in that. It has quite a broad range. It’s easy to market.
BG: It’s quite rare to see a film about an older person which gives them a voice and not be patronised.
BG: And a history of New Zealand, and a social history.
JF: It’s been so well received at the New Zealand International Film Festival. People have genuinely connected emotionally to it, and that has created word of mouth marketing. That’s what you want. People are connecting to it because of where we’re at as a society. There has been a financial crisis, and we’re looking for ways in which we can engage with things and come back to a basic place. She embodies that and provides a path; a really simple path to understanding a deeper more spiritual side of ourselves that has been shut off for a while. I think there’s an opening out that people experience when they watch the film. That’s what we felt when we were editing it—it’s not just about telling her story and putting it out, it’s allowing people to go inside themselves and have some reflection time, and allowing a bit of breathing space. I think people enjoy having a bit of time out from their life and going there.