Reviews and notes
2008 Sydney, Wellington
Vincent Ward's (River Queen
, Map of the Human Heart
) deeply personal and incredibly moving film unravels and re-imagines the story of Puhi, the Tuhoe woman he documented in 1978 for his early film In Spring One Plants Alone
. Then she was 80 and caring for her schizophrenic adult son, and Ward was 21, a young art student capturing her way of life. While not the subject of his earlier film, Puhi believed herself to be cursed, and this unknowable curse is what preoccupies Ward now. Puhi, he discovers, was an extraordinary woman. Chosen by Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana to marry his son, she survived the 1916 police raid on Rua's Maungapohatu community and went on to have 14 children. Cutting between early footage, his own to-camera narration, contemporary interviews with Tuhoe descendents, and magnificently recreated historical sequences (featuring Rena Owen as the older Puhi among a superb cast of Maori actors); Ward reveals both the heartrending background of Puhi's belief in the curse, and her lasting power over him.
ó Clare Stewart, Sydney Film Festival 2008.
"Maybe you can never really know someoneÖand maybe thatís all right." So concludes New Zealander Vincent Ward in RAIN OF THE CHILDREN
, narrating the docudrama he wrote, directed, produced, appears in ó and already made 30 years earlier. Ward enters into a seamless co-production with himself, recapitulating In Spring One Plants Alone
, the 1978 documentary in which he recorded the daily existence of Puhi, an elderly Maori woman from the Tuhoe tribe. Acknowledging sensitive youthís bluster and certitude, Ward realizes how little his younger self understood Puhi, and he now undertakes an artistic archaeology. RAIN OF THE CHILDREN
excavates newsreels, still photographs, and his own prior work, melding it with breathlessly gorgeous images shot in the last few years, including dramatic re-enactments of pivotal moments in Puhiís life and nonfiction footage. Itís all designed to essay a fuller understanding of his now-deceased subject, but as Wardís own epilogue suggests, itís an ingenuous act that ultimately proves futile.
By indirection, Ward finds direction out, plumbing the depths of New Zealandís lamentable history with its natives. North America has dealt with its centuries-old native past by fobbing them off on casinos; in this part of the world, the legacy of oppression and murder is still very raw and close to the surface, because the elemental tragedies perpetrated by white folks are still remembered by living Indigenous individuals. The lead-in to Puhiís story begins around the turn of the last century, following a particularly vicious bout of European-inflicted genocide. Rua, a Tuhoe bolstered by particular charisma and belief in his own divine prophecy, emerged to give his tribe new hope and identity. Melding Maori beliefs concerning the land with Old Testament Jewish Messianism, Rua led an "insodus" (as opposed to an exodus) up to their promised land, Mount Maungapohatu, in order to establish an isolated commune. Puhi was a spiritual descendent of that enclave, selected by Rua to marry one of his sons, but her life was beset by more privation and tragedy than any three people could endure.
Puhiís first eleven children die before they reach the age of ten ó Miki, the eleventh, appears in Spring
, but is non compus mentis
ó and she becomes the scapegoat for the sickness and starvation that besets her tribe. This unfathomable suffering causes her to believe sheís cursed, an idea to which Vincent Ward becomes credulous witness and excavator. Interviewing Puhiís descendants and relatives, Ward, slightly greying and handsome, is as much as a star as his actors, re-treading the "insodus" on horseback, and revisiting the stark and beautiful landscape that framed Puhiís life. Itís an earnest, honest plumbing of memory and loss, butting up against the ineluctable barriers to understanding people in all their full weight and messy complexity. Ward knew Puhi only as this frail figure, perpetually bent over like a question mark from the worldís persecution. Only after all those interviews does he come to grips with the fact that part of her social exile was earned; and only from reviewing his prior footage does he realize the full meaning of her many tortured gestures.
Given the apparent impossibility of full comprehension, Wardís solution ó to re-enact events according to conjecture ó is just as truthful as any other, because all attempts to comprehend require creative inference. This curse, taking up a good half of RAIN OF THE CHILDREN
is a pivot where Ward is able to turn some revelations back on his own complicity in bringing Phuiís life to screen, but never at the expense of what is in actuality some very astute ethnographic filmmaking. Ward frames a tantalizing question that elicits speculation as wild and varied as the countryside that frames its narrative. With his softly spoken lilt, Ward seems eager to recede into the background, and as such has an uncanny knack to get his interviewees to tell things that ought not to be spoken of, wheedling taboo out of the elders because his emotional connection and dedication to this story is genuine. Ward leaves himself open to the potentials of the supernatural, and so emerges as a fitting spokesperson for a people whose stories too often remain untold.
ó James Crawford, IndiWire, 11 June 2008.
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