Filmmaker Briar March talks about the creative and collaborative process behind her three-year project to document opposing housing projects in Glen Innes and Northland.
The path from directing one’s first feature to building a body of work is a fraught one, but over a decade after her first feature Allie Eagle and Me debuted at 2004’s New Zealand International Film Festival, Briar March is well on her way. Her third feature, A Place to Call Home, first emerged in a shorter version for Maori Television in 2014 as Whare Tapa Wha, then in full-fledged feature length under its current title at this year’s Documentary Edge festival. A simple summary would note that it covers the transformation of Auckland suburb Glen Innes, as state houses—or long occupied, much loved family homes, depending on your point of view—are removed to make way for new developments, some privately owned; meanwhile, those houses make their way to the Far North, where the He Korowai trust intends to put them to use locally in Kaitaia. But such a summary fails to encapsulate the spiky, complicated humanity that March captures, or the aesthetic eye that she and her collaborators bring to the film, extending the experience beyond mere agit-prop or talking-heads documentary into genuine cinema.
The path of getting a film into the world is a complicated one, and meanwhile the real life story behind the film continues to turn. I caught up with Briar in a series of emails from October to December 2015, as Auckland’s housing bubble continued to dominate the news and Glen Innes played the home of a major housing hikoi.
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DOUG DILLAMAN: I’d love to get a sketch of the life-cycle of the film, from its original conception to its television iteration to its theatrical version. And given that your film is following events that are ongoing, is there the possibility of another iteration of the film to come, or a freestanding epilogue?
BRIAR MARCH: The film began one spring afternoon in 2011, when Richard Riddiford (the producer) approached me with a newspaper article about the Kaitaia development that the He Korowai trust is responsible for. Richard knew the architect working on the project, Fleur Palmer, and thought it might make a good story. He was also aware of my previous work—I have made other films that explore the relationship to place and the theme of “home”—and so he decided to talk to me about the idea. I remember that day very well as it seemed that a film came to be that very afternoon. The article mentioned the opposition some Glen Innes State Housing tenants felt about the Kaitaia development. The houses being moved from Glen Innes were their houses, and many of the tenants were being told they would have to move out. So that afternoon, Richard and I decided to take a drive over to Glen Innes and see what was going on, and from there was really no looking back.
Over the course of the next two years we continued to document what was happening in Glen Innes and Kaitaia. For about the first nine months we had no funding, and then we got the go-ahead from Maori Television. The project was scheduled to be finished sometime in 2014. Then as 2014 approached, the broadcasters decided it would go well before the September election. This meant that I had to rush to get the project finished and tie up some of the unfinished aspects of the story—we were still waiting for the families to move into the houses in Kaitaia but it seemed it wasn’t happening anytime soon. In order to deliver on time, I had to find a way to finish the story a different way, and to change my direction somewhat.
But there was a tinge of regret for me. I could see that the story deserved a longer screen time. The version presented to Maori Television had been cut down from a rough cut of 80 minutes, so I knew the material was there. Meanwhile, we had also raised some funding from PBS, and as I had to cut an American version I decided I would make the feature cut that I had always wanted to make at the same time. There is no logic to this mad order of affairs, especially for an editor! But this was the only way I managed to make the film I really wanted to make. Sometimes you’ve got to run with these things even if it doesn’t follow any of the usual rules and order for releasing films and film distribution.
I definitely feel that another film could be made about this story since events are still unfolding even after we’ve finished the film. One of the things I am most proud about A Place to Call Home is its potential to be an important historical document for the communities that are filmed and for all New Zealanders into the future. I am very curious to see how people use this film in, say, five to ten years from now.
Will I be making an epilogue? No I don’t think so. I really want to move on and make something else after working on this for five years!
DD: I’m glad you brought up the multiple versions, as I’m curious both about the process and the rewards. On one hand, I imagine exponentially more viewers would have seen your film on TV instead of at screenings; on the other hand, you lose both the intimacy of the screening and the aesthetic sacrifices you noted. What would you prefer for future films—a single film version, multiple versions for different mediums? And what have you learned that would make life easier for next time?
BM: There are both advantages and disadvantages to having multiple versions of a film, and I guess it really comes down to what the central motivation is for making it. In most of my work I am exploring important social issues, and there is a part of me that feels I have a social responsibility to share these stories with as many people as possible. While in principle I would much rather the audience experience my films at the exact rhythm and pacing I have designed them to be, the opportunity of having my work reach a mass audience is something I can’t help but embrace. For instance, when we created two different versions of my documentary There Once Was an Island, we discovered that the TV cut was much more suited to school groups and I was happy that we were able to connect with young people who might otherwise not watch a film like this. Having different versions can also be out of necessity as usually it’s the only way I can get my work funded. This was the case for A Place to Call Home, which was financed through M?ori Television and Pacific Islanders In Communication (for American Public Television).
But your question has got me wondering about my future projects. I do think that there will be times when I feel a film is best seen in the cinema and I won’t try to achieve more than one version for the fact that I want to preserve the original vision of the project. I personally prefer my work being watched in the cinema as opposed to on TV. This is because of the intimate experience and concentration it demands from an audience, and it’s likely I will try to make more work for this medium if I can. And if I am making a film for both TV and the cinema I will be more reluctant to get funding from broadcasters unless I can negotiate a specific window of time to release the film theatrically before it goes to air.
DD: The nature of making this film required a long-term commitment, with events often occurring on short notice. How did that affect your filmmaking process?
BM: I think it’s more interesting watching the story unfold over a reasonable length of time to see what the real impact of the government’s social policy has been for people living in Glen Innes, whether the promises made by politicians are actually kept, and how the families and individuals living in these communities are impacted on a deeper psychological level. Really, we could have continued to film for another few years, as since finishing the documentary one of our characters has been asked to move out a second time, and in Kaitaia, families are about to move into the houses after multiple hiccups including fears that the Trust could lose its charitable status and put an end to the project completely.
It was a difficult film to make in the sense that events did occur on short notice, and often I wasn’t there at the right time to film them. Some events never happened—for instance, I never got to see the Kaitaia development finished. I also had a baby during shooting and editing and so sometimes I just had to get other people to go out and film on my behalf. I learned that I had to let go of my usual perfectionism and my original vision as to how I wanted to make the film, accepting that sometimes it is just better to get the film made and finished rather than holding onto an ideal that might never be reached. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are times when being uncompromising is important and essential, but other times I feel that as a filmmaker you’ve got to accept that this is one of many films you are going to make over your life time and it’s better to get it out when it’s current and important—rather than striving for some sense of ultimate perfection that takes years of financing and time.
DD: It sounds like you prefer to make films over long periods of time, because of the depth it allows you. But as you note, it takes time—five years, in this case, with a life that’s still continuing. Do you see that as the length of time all your films will take, out of necessity? And are you okay with that? (I know, for my part, it’s quite daunting, having made one film, committing to another idea that I’ll have to love for five-plus years.)
BM: I don’t think I am always okay with the idea of making films over a long period of time. It’s fine if that’s what it takes to tell the story well, but it’s frustrating if the reason for the duration is not to do with the storytelling process but more a budget constraint. The best thing is to have more than one project on at a time, that way when one is in a holding pattern you can continue on with the other one. Even during the making of A Place to Call Home I completed around seven other television documentaries and a few other corporate gigs. It didn’t feel like all my life was invested in one project and it’s more manageable if you can do it that way.
With that said, I am quite keen to make shorter pieces with a faster turnaround before embarking on my next big project. In the way an artist does sketches or maquettes, why not make some two-three minute films that explore ideas and concepts that can be carried further later on? It’s important to do this, as otherwise we can feel too bogged down with projects that never feel like they are going to end. I met one filmmaker who makes a two-minute film every week. He sends them out to his fans via email and each one of them is different, fresh, and funny. I can see that he uses this process as a way of getting ideas out, and also as a way of continuing to make stuff without the constraints of funding.
DD: Balancing aesthetic concerns with political ones is always tricky in filmmaking, one that many “issues documentaries” flounder on. Some of the most memorable moments of your film are where the images speak alone—months after my first screening, the light passing through the house as it’s being transported at night lingers. How do you find the balance between these two, and did you find yourself making sacrifices on one side or the other as you worked towards a final cut?
BM: I wouldn’t be satisfied if I made purely issue driven films which only cover an event and solely aim to provide information or uncover a story. I am more interested in the way cinema has the potential to allow us to feel and experience things on a deep visceral level—and to invite us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. You can’t have a cinematic experience like that if the audience is told what to think, or is too busy digesting information. That’s why the aesthetics of my documentaries are so important. What drew me to this subject was the image of a house moving on a truck. To me that’s such a potent and loaded image, and I felt that I could use it to say a lot of things—without literally saying them. When I make a film I’m always looking for what visual material I can use that has the power to speak louder than words.
Finding the balance between the issue and the aesthetics was a new challenge for me. Usually my films are less political and more character driven and so there isn’t such a need to balance different documentary styles. In this instance I felt that it was important to explain some of the politics around the issues I was exploring, and to examine these things in more detail through interviews. This was because I was often feeling confused about what was really going on in my story, and I wondered if my audience would be feeling the same way. While I don’t feel like I had to make too many sacrifices in the longer cut, in the shorter broadcast versions the amount of information to include in the story made it hard to find room for all the lingering poetic sequences that rely on the audience’s emotions and create the essential breathing spaces they require in order to have a real emotional response. So in that sense, I felt that I had to make sacrifices.
DD: How did your pre-conceptions regarding housing and development change in the making of the film?
BM: I started off having a more black and white view of the situation in Glen Innes, but as I learned more, I became open to different points of view and political arguments. I think that there is a place for social housing in New Zealand in addition to state housing, and that essentially we need lots more of both. I feel that state housing has been neglected for a long time and that it’s not just the fault of the current government. I agree that it requires immediate attention and some kind of overhaul, but I don’t think it should be sold and become less of the government’s responsibility. In addition to this, we have a housing crisis and so new housing developments like the one happening in Glen Innes are necessary. It’s just the way that these new developments are being handled, the lack of consultation and due process, and the impact they are having on the communities that are affected, sound too much like a classic story of state sponsored gentrification. The poor people living on valuable land are asked to move out and make way for those that can afford, and a community is broken as a consequence.
What I hope my film can do for audiences is allow them to see the bigger picture—the good and the bad of New Zealand’s housing situation, and also be reminded about the kiwi values we all hold around housing. This includes the importance of belonging to a community, having a connection to a place, feeling a sense of security knowing that you won’t have to move against your will and that your children can stay in their school until they graduate, and living in a dry and healthy home. At the moment it feels like we are not living up to these basic human rights and which are fundamental to the happiness of our lives and our communities as a whole. And I believe it is social policy that really can make a difference. It seems like the current government is failing us on some of these principles.
DD: I’ve been thinking a lot about collaboration (the theme of this year’s Big Screen Symposium, as it happens). On one hand, as the creative engine of the film, you have to be a leader; on the other hand, you have to engage other creative people and find a balance between communicating your own vision and allowing them to explore theirs. As you note, circumstances forced you to perhaps cede more control than you might have otherwise, but do you find that more of a sacrifice or a liberating opportunity? Has your ideal approach to collaboration changed over your films? And do you (like me) struggle with the desire to work with certain collaborators versus the inability to fund them properly?
BM: Ideally I like to develop ongoing relationships with crew members and work with them on multiple projects. It can take a while to understand one another’s working processes and so if we can keep on working together it can make the next project move a lot more seamlessly. I think that a really deep collaboration between the director and cinematographer, editor, or creative producer usually makes my work better too, as having that outside input and perspective adds to the complexity and richness of a film. But it really needs to be with the right people who understand and most likely share my vision. What I find so tricky about all of this is that it is not that easy to just cast your crew and expect that you will get the perfect mix of people or find that collaborator you’ve always been dreaming about. Relationships like these are built over time and they are completely organic. That’s why it’s so important to take care of them and it’s equally tragic if you lose a key collaborator… because they are pretty much a part of your filmmaking tool kit!
Being able to pay your crew is so important, and I don’t think it is realistic to keep making films on low budgets forever and expect that the people you work with will want to continue supporting your projects without proper payment of their time. Ideally you want to use your first few films as a calling card to get more funding so the next time around you can pay your crew properly. This is of course in an ideal world. And it’s not always been the case for me. Sometimes I’ve ended up working in more than one role as a way of getting around funding constraints. It’s a compromise for sure, but I have become skilled in most areas of filmmaking now; shooting, editing, directing, and producing my work at various times. I guess I am lucky in that I don’t always require a large crew to achieve the results I am after. But it can also mean that I miss out on the opportunity to collaborate with others.
DD: Do you feel part of a filmmaking community here in New Zealand?
BM: For a few years I worked and lived in the United States and there I connected with a warm and collaborative documentary scene which I am still part of today. In New Zealand I have also got many filmmaker friends who I appreciate and love to work with, but I am not sure if I feel as much a part of a community here as I did in America. This is probably because over there I was also involved in a filmmaking co-op, which meant I had constant interaction with local filmmakers (working on projects together and sharing information).
What I would like to encourage in my own community is more connection with filmmakers who are trying to make similar kinds of films, and sharing ideas about our visions and working processes. Throughout history we can see how groups of filmmakers have created new movements and cinema revolutions just by being in close proximity to one another and working on each other’s work. I think it would be interesting to consider what types of independent documentaries and films are being made here locally, and ask each other if there are themes running through our work that could be developed further as a group. Aside from this I must say we do have some great guilds and organisations working to help strengthen our industry and I am really grateful for that.
DD: I’m curious what other politically minded, aesthetically concerned filmmakers you look to as inspiration.
BM: I really have a wide taste in films, but as for documentaries I mostly seek out the ones that break conventions, mix mediums, and tell stories in unique and fresh ways. I am especially inspired by documentaries that have a raw and honest quality to them, and make us feel deeply moved in some way. The way the filmmaker is able to achieve this effect can be by all manner of stylistic approaches but it is the feeling that the film inspires in us that I am most interested in. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of making documentaries that appear scripted or follow typical storytelling conventions without allowing space for things to just happen and unfold before the camera. It should be more than just a good story. It should force us to think about the way we are watching the film, or challenge our personal relationship with the subject matter. A good example of this is the documentary Enjoy Poverty by the artist/filmmaker Renzo Martin. Even though I first watched this film many years ago I still think about often. While it has little in common with my own work, it has the authenticity and rawness that I strive to capture. Same goes for the film Good Women of Bangkok by Dennis O’Rourke.
Other filmmakers that I can think of that have this same quality in their work include Kim Longinotto. She manages to capture such candid and authentic material from her characters (mostly empowered women) that after watching her documentaries I feel like I have personally met her characters. Equally great is the work of Heddy Honigmann: a film like El Olvido captures the essence and mood of her environment as much as it uncovers an important social issue, and it is told through the poetry of images and sound. Werner Herzog and Victor Kossakovsky also have this effect on me. One lesson I have learned from these directors is that sometimes it is best to not have a plan, or a clear direction as to how you will tell the story. The more you impose a story structure on your subject matter, the less you are able to capture the essence of reality that gives us this feeling of authenticity that I am talking about.
DD: As we conclude this interview, you’ve just returned from your film’s international premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival. How well did your film translate to an international audience in Honolulu?
BM: I was really nervous about how my film would be received outside of New Zealand as I was not sure how much it would resonate with international audiences being such a local story. But in Hawaii it was really well received. I discovered that the level of poverty and homelessness there is at another extreme than what we see in New Zealand. There are literally tent cities throughout Honolulu. Unaffordable house prices are also a major concern for many residents who tell me that every famous person in America owns a house in Hawaii, forcing the local people out of their neighbourhoods. So Hawaiian audiences were familiar with the issues in my film and they were eager to talk about them. After the film screening some people told me that for them to see a film about housing in another part of the world was really encouraging, as it made them realise that the problems they are facing are not parochial but universal ones. This has given me some confidence that the film will have a life outside of New Zealand, and my hope is that it can contribute to a global conversation on housing rights in major cities throughout the world.