Premiering locally at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival and returning to cinemas this Thursday, The Strength of Water marks Kiwi filmmaker Armagan Ballantyne’s feature debut. She takes BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM behind the scenes.

The Strength of Water is the début film of Kiwi director Armagan Ballantyne, and has gained positive coverage at both the prestigious Rotterdam and Berlin Film Festivals. Recently highlighted at the New Zealand International Film Festival, the film is set in an inhospitable Hokianga, and is largely carried by an unprofessional cast. What could have been a really mawkish premise – it is after all, a slightly clichéd loss and redemption tale – is elevated by the camerawork which creates a character out of the surroundings, the intensity of the child acting, and unsentimental, hard-edged script. The story of the twins in particular is beautifully told (the love story though was a bit rushed), and ‘spirituality’ of the story manages to steer clear of the plastic tiki kind of narrative.

Ballantyne says “I can’t really remember not loving watching films and not having a movie fascination. When I left school I went and worked at a production company as a director’s assistant, and I found it really interesting, but I wanted to start making my own ones and also travel.” She had a particular interest with Eastern European cinema, so wrote to a film school in Prague, offering to help on student films. “They said ‘sure Mr Ballantyne’. I quit my job and went over, I was 19 and went to the film school over there.” She admits to enjoying filmmakers like legendary Czech puppeteer Jan Svankmajer, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, and the early Czech films of Milos Forman. While in Prague, she also caught up with some of the great, ‘lost’ Czechoslovakian films. “I was watching films in Prague that had been put in vaults since the 70s. I went there just after the Velvet Revolution. They’d been put in vaults and they’d bring them out for their first ever public screenings of films. That’s kinda amazing.”

The film’s script was written by noted playright Briar Grace-Smith. Ballantyne and Grace-Smith were introduced via a mutual friend, and the two were aware of each other’s work. “We had this beer together and got along really well. I went overseas, and won some money for a short film. When we’d hung out together we realised that neither of us had travelled to the West Coast of the South Island and I rang up and said ‘why don’t we go to the West Coast of the South Island and check out the Punakaiki Boulders and the white herons’, and she said ‘sweet’. The money that I’d won paid for the trip and we went for three weeks. It was like a holiday, a bonding thing, her and her three kids with us, who I’d never met before.”

The story came from that. “We had some ideas that [we] came up with, but nothing specific. Briar went away and developed it herself. It was more things we felt like we wanted to have in the movie, the tone, anything from the feeling of the landscape, and feeling of the characters we wanted to talk about. I guess her children being similar ages at that time was probably very inspiring.” Ballantyne and Grace-Smith split their roles into director and writer, but there was some collaboration as the project developed. “Because it was a feature film script, we’d often talk about the practicalities of shooting it, remind her of ways we can use cinema language to tell the story. Also I would even act out scenes just to give her a sense of how complicated something might be for the actors. She was on set a lot of the time, which I found really valuable which meant that she was this really great sounding board, because things change. It was like ‘oh my god, I thought we were going to be having a half an hour shoot but we don’t, we need to think about how we can do it’. Sometimes I’d go ‘hey Briar, what do you think about this’ and she would be the best person to do that with.”

For a début film, Ballantyne ends up breaking the supposed rule of not working with either kids or with animals. Instead, both are central to the film. “I’d work with both again. It wasn’t a hard thing actually. I think it requires when you’re working with non-professional actors, a lot of energy from the director because you’re having to coach them with the whole acting process, they’re not bringing their skill-set with them. Also you become their guardians when they were ten years old, even though their parents were there. You’re still very aware of the fact you’re dealing with a child’s psychological state. You want to protect that and get them to go to emotional places that have depths.”

Finding her non-professional actors in particular was quite a process, and she searched all over the country. “We found Hato [Paparoa] the main boy [who played Kimi], the casting director had spotted him in a running race. Then we lost him, he’d moved down the country, we were trying to track him down. We were struggling in the casting workshops going ‘we haven’t got the right boy, maybe we should get that boy’. We flew him up on instinct. He came in and walked in the room – he was interesting in that he was so focused, he met your eye, he was really ‘present’. We did this piece, this acting game, and he totally engaged in it.” Melanie Mayall-Nahi, who played Kimi’s twin Melody was found at a Maori festival. “I thought she looks really interesting and looks like Hato. I went up and talked to her and she had this electric charisma, and found out that her and Hato’s whakapapa went back to Motiti (which is where Hato lives now) which is right round the corner from where we shot a lot of the film, and that they were cousins.” The kids were very good, and maintained the distance needed for the story, but the particular highlight was the acting performance of Shayne Biddle, all bundled-up intensity as the twins’ guilt-addled, messed-up brother Gene.

Nature itself is a character in the film, from the spiders and rats which crawl around the tapu house, to the deforested forest which skulks in the background. “That was something Briar and I always talked about. In New Zealand you can’t, nature is so kind of present. You go to somewhere like Hokianga, it’s so intrinsically part of your life. We just wanted to include those characters.” A major theme of the film is loss/redemption, but the film manages to not present this in a contrived way. Ballantyne says “I think the thing to do is commit to it and really believe that is what is going on for the characters and that world, and believe in the depth of that feeling and really allow yourself to feel that and go there, so that you then can encourage the rest of the cast to go there too.”

She was also assisted by being welcomed in the Hokianga. “Briar started writing the story and the place before she had gone to the Hokianga. And then when she went there, she went oh my gosh, this is it. We shot the bulk of it up there because we also ended up casting – we casted from all around New Zealand – we ended up casting all these people who come from that area. Even though we shot some in Bethel’s, in West Auckland, the Hokianga community claimed this film and we were happy for them to do that.” She gained support from local kaumatua too. “Briar had a friend up there who runs the local school. She introduced us to kaumatua. We ended up having Joe Cooper, who’s Whina Cooper’s son – he was our kaumatua in Panguru. And then Malcolm Peri was our kaumatua in Pawarenga. We had these two really great men who were wonderful, a great sense of humour, very centred, and they read the script and loved the story, and they really thought it was a good thing for the community. That sort of set the tone. They led us through the Hokianga community. People just jumped on board and helped out.”

The film also gained positive coverage in Rotterdam and Berlin. “That was a blast. Of course, it’s exciting, and you’re nervous when you watch the film with an audience for the first time, especially a foreign audience and in their big cinema which is quite intimidating. We were voted very highly in the audience polls. That made us go ‘oh great’. People even so far away from the home of the film, actually really understanding this and finding this interesting. When we went to Berlin, the film festival flew over the kids, and they were like ‘it’s so exciting’. And then that’s when we really, really knew our audience got into the film, the younger people too, they were getting mobbed for their autographs too. I didn’t expect that kind of response from the audience.” And while the film has gained some international coverage, it is also due for theatrical release in New Zealand. This ultimately moving film should win favour in New Zealand too, and its compelling filmmaking hints at some considerable talent bubbling away.