Man of Verse: Sam Hunt—Purple Balloon and Other Stories

FILM, Film Festivals,

In portrait, New Zealand’s most recognisable poet.

What better way to begin National Poetry Day than with a film about one of this country’s favourite poets? Possibly more than any other local writer, Sam Hunt has been the subject of numerous articles, television items, documentaries, and (more recently) books. You may ask what more is there to learn about the man, and to be honest, I’m not sure this documentary tells us anything new. What Sam Hunt: Purple Balloon and Other Stories does do very well though is present a mighty portrait of a personable poet.

Mythology looms large in Sam Hunt, one he has largely created himself, whether deliberately or not. As with Janet Frame, the line between the public writer and private person can sometimes be blurred. Hunt says he separates the two though, and one can’t help but wonder which version we are seeing on film.

That said, the public Sam Hunt is a fascinating, intelligent character with a renowned recall, and makes for good watching. A few weeks ago, I was driving around Lake Taupo catching up on old podcasts, listening to Kim Hill’s interview with Hunt which aired earlier this year. It was Hill at her best, extracting stories from her subject that other journalists couldn’t (or wouldn’t). While there was a lot of similar ground covered in that interview and this documentary, there is as much pleasure in watching Hunt talk as there is in hearing him.

At one point Hunt describes writing poems as “gate-crashing the past”, which is a great description for this film. Thanks to the large archive of Hunt-related material at TVNZ, we get see 40 years of Hunt the roving poet. Interwoven throughout are contemporary interviews with Hunt, friends, and family. The most surprising of these was Hunt’s two older brothers, Stephen and Jonathan—clearly quite different people from Sam, and who seem to belong to another family entirely.

Somewhat remarkably, that notorious grump CK Stead even has a number of nice things to say about Hunt, although naturally with some qualification (great poet, though stylistically limited). Hunt’s old friend, Gary McCormack, comments that Hunt is “committed to the word”, and this comes through strongly. Even when talking Hunt is poetic, with his rather deliberate words painting beautiful pictures.

The film covers Hunt’s childhood, family life, and discovery of poetry. From there we follow his career as poet, touring the country’s bars (sometimes performing). Relationships are touched on: with women, with other poets, with the bottle. A couple of nice scenes include the directors’ daughters chatting to Hunt; clearly interested in the man and his work, their inquisitiveness presents the subject with a few odd, unexpected questions.

Despite not opening any new doors into Hunt’s well-documented life, Purple Balloon and Other Stories is a solid, unflashy telling, and a beautifully put together piece, with archival footage fitted neatly around more recent material. Hunt is a true New Zealand icon, and though soon to be released on DVD, this is a film that deserves theatrical lifespan beyond the New Zealand International Film Festival. As a bonus, the film’s soundtrack is culled largely from the 2009 Sam Hunt/David Kilgour album, Falling Debris—arguably the best 30 minutes of ‘solo’ Kilgour for some time.

In a Q&A following the screening, directors Tim Rose and Jim Scott revealed that the documentary wasn’t the initial plan for Sam, but rather, a film centred on Hunt in a studio delivering his poems to camera. Some of these are still in the documentary, however I’m not sure I’d want to see more than a few minutes of them at any one time—the performances being largely static in a way that Hunt never seems to be. While the recitals will apparently be included on the DVD release, but it is the documentary itself that will be the selling point.

With a man like Sam Hunt, any film that attempts to capture him is only going to touch on aspects, but Purple Balloon and Other Stories touches those aspects with a wonderful sense of balance. In some ways it is like a Sam Hunt poem: unpretentious, approachable, and often insightful.

Dir. Tim Rose, Jim Scott
NZ, 2010; 83 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.