A conversation about tackling rugby, male identity, and rural stoicism with filmmakers Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith.
In just two documentary films, Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith have managed the miraculous accomplishment of asserting a strong authorial voice while allowing their subjects to take centre stage and guide the movie. Their immersive, engaged working method first produced 2012’s How Far Is Heaven, taking us to Jerusalem (or Hiruharama, depending on your point of view) to spend time with elderly Pakeha nuns and imaginative Maori children. While a strong debut, their new film, The Ground We Won, eclipses both their earlier effort and any New Zealand film you can name from last year’s reputed bumper crop. The confidence they’ve gained as filmmakers is clear from the outset, allowing us to get to know the rugby club of Reporoa in the same immersive manner that they themselves worked, following the professional farmers and amateur athletes for a year in a disarmingly intimate fashion. Balancing humour, gorgeous black and white photography, and sporting drama with a quiet undercurrent of despair, The Ground We Won is an indispensable statement of Kiwi identity, and the rare film whose essential modesty makes the strong case for its immediate inclusion in the New Zealand canon—not just of great documentaries, but of great films.
I met with Miriam and Chris the week after their successful premiere at Auckland’s Civic Theatre as part of Autumn Events. They communicate in tandem, often completing each other’s ideas, and the below is very much edited for written clarity, as key ideas are often communicated clearly in words that are never spoken.
Their teamwork is evident in their entire approach to filmmaking. Miriam produces and operates sound, Christopher operates camera and edits. Christopher gets the director’s credit, but it’s clear they make their creative decisions collaboratively. And now they’re self-distributing their film nationwide, with plans to play in 40 theatres starting from May 7.
We start talking about the film before I’ve even sat down. When I hit record, we’ve been chatting about their decision to edit in Apple’s recent (and much-reviled) editing software, FCPX, which segues naturally into a discussion about how much footage they gathered in the service of creating the film.
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MIRIAM SMITH: It took us three months just to watch the footage. We shot 200 hours.
CHRISTOPHER PRYOR: It was less than the last one (How Far Is Heaven).
MS: But last time we might have shot three days in a marae and know that there’s no main characters and we don’t need to go through it, whereas this was cobbled together out of every little thing, so you had to watch every changing shed, every thing so closely because there might be one little comment.
DOUG DILLAMAN: Did you focus your shooting more as the shoot went on?
CP: From the outset, we knew we were following key characters, and certain themes. So if it’s not progressing these characters or these themes, we’re not going to bother. Through the last one, we learned that, whilst you need to be open, we’re way more confident in saying, “that’s great, but it’s not going to be in a film.”
MS: We knew that Kelvin and Peanut were going to be main characters because of their different stages of manhood. But it wasn’t until we started shooting that year that we met Broomie, who hadn’t played the year before because of an injury. But we instantly knew he was the third main character. So over the season, it was about those three men, and the team as a whole, and the men alone on their farm versus what they’re like as a team.
DD: And does the cut reflect the chronology of the year accurately?
MS: Pretty much exactly.
CP: A lot of that is determined through seasonal changes, you can’t move farming scenes too much. And beards. You can’t go to Broomie with a beard then without a beard and back. So there are a lot of constraints.
MS: And we were really careful to make sure that any farmer watching it would think, “that’s exactly when that happens in the year”.
DD: One of the striking qualities of the film is its intimacy. There’s no feeling of artificiality in the interactions on camera, despite your presence. How do you achieve that?
CP: It’s about spending time. And there’s no way around that. We had to live with the community to gain that trust and have that access. Having said that, the prelude section was –
MS: – the first thing we shot. That day, we’d gone down, we were still just feeling out the project, that it was the right place, and we wanted to see if we could get access. And they said “Yep. Not a problem.” And I think there’s something too about them being a group. They didn’t feel self-conscious. But it was amazing on that day. Especially being a woman in that changing shed, I’d never seen anything like that before.
DD: Were you in all the shoots?
MS: Well, I do the sound, but after that we decided to give them space in the changing shed and put in sound stuff there, and I didn’t go in after that. They used to be like, “Just come in, you’re going to watch it at home anyway!” [All laugh]
DD: So very quickly you vanished into the woodwork.
CP: There are little wise cracks to the camera in the first week maybe.
MS: And it’s terrible. They’ll say a joke and they’ll check that you’ve got the joke. [Laughs] We’re not going to put that in the film! And it just wears off.
CP: Yeah. So it’s not like we’re pretending we are not there, but we do want them to feel as comfortable as everyone else in the room.
MS: We are really low key as well. We get to know people but it’s a really quiet way. We might put our gear down for a bit when we are at the rugby club on a Saturday night and will just have a quiet chat with people. So we operate at the same level as them, like it feels just like normal life I think. When we film we don’t really interact.
DD: There’s set up interviews though.
MS: Those three, but that’s all we shot. We didn’t shoot more with those three either. And also because we know that we had what we needed within what we shot.
CP: We receive it and then shape it rather than going in to try and…
MS: Make something happen.
CP: And we never do anything like tell someone “we are going to get a shot of you walking into the door there, can you just stop and I will move the camera around.” There’s none of that sort of intervention. So if you miss it you’ve missed it.
MS: And that kills us, when we miss it.
DD: Did you have multiple cameras at the final game for that reason?
CP: Yeah, I was shooting the games and we had one on the sidelines.
MS: So I’d be with the camera on the sideline.
DD: Can you speak to the lack—intentional, obviously—of developed female characters within the film?
MS: That was a conscious decision from the start, to show it from a male perspective. Also, if we brought them in, you couldn’t just have one, and it got very complicated.
CP: But even if there was one, they’d have to be fully developed, and the film was always about what it means to be a man. When we started researching, dutifully, we got out Jock Phillips’s book A Man’s Country, and you go to the library, and on the shelf of gender studies –
MS: The woman’s studies shelves are like this (expansive arm gesture), and there was only this one book on male identity in New Zealand.
CP: So the point was to take a male perspective but do it consciously, hopefully showing at the same time that there are women who are part of the club and are very active in the club—but that is beyond the scope of this film.
MS: With rugby, it’s a time of communion amongst men, when they come together, so let’s explore those relationships. And I’ve always had an fascination with male friendships—like watching my dad and his friends. They are a lovely bunch of friends. They wouldn’t make any noises of sympathy if the other one had a broken leg, but they are still real friends. It mostly all just happens under the surface and for me that’s beautifully cinematic too because you’ve got this connection that’s non-spoken and I love that.
DD: Very early on, one player wonders aloud how many more farmers are going to have to hang themselves until they admit there’s a drought? The question is left unanswered, and it gives you this brief painful window—you don’t know, you assume that he’s talking about somebody specific and I don’t know if you know, but to me it felt like they stay quiet because words couldn’t help.
MS: I think that’s it. That drought was so stressful. It was a huge drought, like the worst in 70 years. They are under so much pressure, and I think that’s part of being a man in this culture, to generalise, they have to bear that and so rugby is a time when they can come together and support one another. It was amazing to see that this was a place where they kind of needed to be around each other.
CP: It’s that stoicism. I don’t think it’s specifically just New Zealand, but it’s more a denial of the circumstances than an acceptance. And actually the Sisters (from How Far Is Heaven) were very much stoic in their acceptance. Anna Maria was always saying whatever is, is best.
But I think the way we do it, I mean talking about Pakeha New Zealand culture, is that you deny your pain. You don’t show your internal or external pain literally, you don’t show your wound, don’t show your hurt and I don’t know that it’s that surprising in a way that alcohol is sort of part and parcel of this.
MS: It’s where the valve can blow.
CP: And a kind of numbing agent, actually.
DD: In addition to the physical violence of rugby.
MS: I think it’s not easy being a man in this context. They are up from before dawn working these huge hours, and then for their recreation they are going into battle on the field, and then partying all night, and then being seedy the next day. It’s really not easy. Everything is intense.
CP: But you don’t show your weakness. You wouldn’t have seen them cry.
MS: I’ve got lovely men in my family but I don’t think I’ve probably ever seen my dad cry. And my dad is getting more in touch with his emotions now that he’s older.
CP: He’s becoming great at that now.
MS: He’s really good but I’ve only heard him once—just the other day—saying he felt unwell. He had the flu or something. You just carry on, and so somehow rugby is this amazing metaphor for all of that too, supporting one another, doing all that in the field but also you play on with a broken arm.
CP: For me, the film was born out of not understanding this part of our culture and certainly not really identifying with that set of male values, so that made me curious, as well as the fact that it’s not been done in a cinematic sense. Through doing this, I’ve made peace with that part of my culture. Whilst I won’t be getting in the scrum anytime soon…
DD: Is that something in common then with How Far is Heaven? Because neither of you are religious, right?
CP: Right, we’re not religious ourselves.
DD: And so you are drawn to these things that you don’t understand.
CP: I guess it’s about the codes that we live our lives by. And we both have this inherent fascination with both the sacred and the profane, I think it’s fair to say we are quite interested in that.
MS: Yeah, that would be true, because Jerusalem had that as well.
CP: There’s this recurring question: how do we live a good life? Which is not to say we subscribe to any of these things we document on-screen.
MS: And I guess it’s about looking into something, a very specific place in the present day, but something that really touches a nerve in terms of our culture about who we think we are and what it’s about, and just exploring it in all its complexity. Let’s get in there and explore it, not with judgment, and figure this thing out.
DD: You know now having made two of these what a big commitment each of them are. Does make it easier or harder when you are thinking about film number three?
MS: I just feel like there’s something wrong with us! [All laugh] Every stage is so challenging. When you are developing an idea and then trying to get the funding, and then you get the funding and go yay!
And then you’ve got to make this thing and make it well, and then you are filming and you don’t know what’s going to happen next, and then you are editing and that’s like torture, and then the second we are finished we just can’t wait to do the next one.
I think you do learn from each project as well. We were just talking about this morning [how] we learnt so much from the first film—you just get clear on what it is that you need to film. You get better at spotting what’s going to work and not going to work.
CP: Each film is so risky. This mode of observational storytelling is easily the riskiest approach to filmmaking that I’ve undertaken but it’s also the most rewarding.
MS: Because when the magic starts to happen—like you have days that are so boring in terms of what’s happening, but then you get those moments of magic and it just makes it all worth it.
CP: And you could so easily walk away. We had several months of thinking “are we going to have a film?”
DD: When you finish shooting, presumably you know you have a film. but how do you find it?
CP: We came to this approach whereby I’m cutting it, but we have a story consultant who we met on Script to Screen’s excellent Film Up programme, Julie Alp, who is an editor with lots of storytelling experience. Because for something that is so slight on narrative as our films, especially the last one, you’ve just got to bring everything you’ve got in terms of story skills to the party.
MS: And also you do need to make sure that you’ve got an outside perspective, because we know the world internally so well. With the editing we did seven drafts after the assembly, and that’s why having someone like Julie was invaluable, because she watched all of the drafts and so she could remember, and say “you’ve lost some of the magic by taking out that.” You would pull one thing out and it shifts how you feel, or realise there’s something that shouldn’t be there at the start that has a weird impact at the end of the film.
DD: I love the long lap dissolves. I was wondering at what point they came into the process and what filmic influences you might have drawn from.
CP: That was something that I was toying with right from the beginning actually. It’s building on all that mythology and being able to have this and that happening at the same point in time.
MS: It’s to do with creating a sense of timelessness, like with the black and white, where the story is set in the present day but the men also stand for generations past. And I think also in a world where the emotion isn’t on the surface, it helps create a deeper layer of understanding.
CP: We were asked before in an interview about influences and at the time I couldn’t think of anything. I wasn’t setting out to replicate something, it was more about actually trying to create something that I hadn’t seen before, would want to see myself. But I do now realise [laughs] that there are some key influences. One being Wings of Desire with Henri Alekan’s effects—in-camera effects, no less!
And the other film was in the festival about five or six years ago, called The Hired Hand. A psychedelic Western directed by Peter Fonda. I love it. They made use of those long dissolves, I felt it was used to real emotional effect, like it wasn’t just a music video, it wasn’t just being freaky or funky or whatever. It had a real emotional part to play.
DD: In the interview that we did before, you mentioned how the mornings reminded you of Bela Tarr, who popped into my head with the fog onscreen.
CP: Absolutely. I’d set the viewfinder to black and white, and it was just like, “Oh my God. I’m in a Bela Tarr film with the cows!”
DD: Have you ever watched your film in colour?
CP: We try not to. All the rushes are in colour but it’s the most ghastly, ghastly thing and that’s another important reason why we made it black and white is because you see it in colour and it’s like it’s, I don’t know, you’re complicit…
MS: Black and white makes you step back and consider the world more.
CP: It’s an insider’s view. We are so used to all this representation of rugby and I would say we eschewed this position of loving rugby, understanding what it’s all about, and waving the flag.
MS: And I think it would lose so much of its poetry, that timelessness. And these men, for generations, their way of life has been very much similar to the men who went before them. And I think if it wasn’t black and white you wouldn’t have that reading. You’d just be watching it like it’s this thing from last year.
DD: I hadn’t realized until the premiere that the club had already seen the film.
MS: Because these are people’s real lives and they’ve shared with you so openly, we show them before we lock the cut, just in case there’s any problems. If there’s problems we need to know how significant they are too, like whether we have to address them in the edit or not. And it’s always terrifying for us because we’ve spent a year editing. So we went down and we set it up on the projection in the rugby club and the guys are so sweet. They turned up, and I’ve never seen them so quiet and polite. They are probably thinking oh God, what’s in the thing but watching it they were just delightful. They were mostly joking at one another’s expense and sometimes completely silent, like watching the farming and just loved it.
CP: Which is great because it’s not the sort of film I think they are used to seeing. I think that’s fair to say.
DD: It’s aestheticizing something that’s very ordinary to them.
MS: And I would say they would have probably imagined Country Calendar or something, and so to our delight afterwards they just loved it, and there was nothing that they had a problem with. They felt like it was them.
DD: It was entertaining listening to the different reactions at the premiere, where you could hear knowing laughs from the Reporoans, and then visceral reactions from other audience members at the farming material.
MS: Kelvin’s sister was at the premiere, and she was loving hearing the townies gasping. She thought it was really funny. But it’s just part of life for them.
CP: It has been slightly interesting, surprising how confronting calving has been for some people.
MS: I was perfectly comfortable watching it, but thinking “gosh, if I actually had to do it myself I don’t know if I’d be very good.” We were at a safe distance. Although once when Chris was in filming them doing the milking, a cow shat inside his gumboots. That was disgusting. [Laughs]
CP: As long as the camera is all right, I don’t mind.