Film review: How Far Is Heavenby David Larsen
In its quiet way, this is a moving, challenging piece of work, says David Larsen.
Most people with any knowledge of history would agree that Christian missionaries have done a great deal of good and a great deal of harm over the centuries – although getting atheists, people of faith, liberals and conservatives to agree precisely where the good and the harm fall is a trickier question. The startling thing about Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor’s documentary How Far Is Heaven is that it presents a vision of missionary life that is likely to draw approval from all of these groups, and yet it isn’t a collection of bland nostrums. Smith and Pryor shot the film over the course of a year spent living in Hiruharama, also known as Jerusalem, the tiny Whanganui riverside village where James K Baxter set up his commune in the 70s. The camera is always a felt presence in the footage they collected – we don’t get the sense of being an invisible floating eye, seeing into the unmediated truth of people’s private lives – but it’s clear the film-makers have built a high degree of trust and blended somewhat into the
A few times, we hear one of them asking questions from out of shot, and opening titles explain the 120-year history of the Sisters of Compassion in the area. Subtitles help when snatches of dialogue risk being lost to ambient noise, of which there’s frequently rather a lot. Other than that, we’re left to find our way through the film without overt editorial comment. Most of that dialogue-swamping background noise is because we spend a lot of time with the local children. Three nuns from the Sisters of Compassion were living in Jerusalem when the film was made, and the youngest, Margaret Mary, teaches at the local school. The kids are a lively bunch. (Two in particular emerge as vibrant personalities.) Their hopes for the future allow the film an optimistic mood, but at the same time the children serve as windows into a drastically impoverished social reality. One boy talks heart-piercingly about his absent father, in jail for domestic violence, and the sisters make it clear they know there is “darkness as well as light” in this community.
They also make it clear they will not place themselves on a moral pedestal or patronise their neighbours with crusading attempts to “save the people of Jerusalem”. The phrase does occur in the film, spoken by one of the kids, whom we see playing a computer game in which a white-robed hero is striding towards the original city of Jerusalem – a nice example of Smith and Pryor’s sharp eyes and dry editorial wit. All three sisters are, indeed, white, and this is a Maori community. There’s a tacit commentary on racial politics past and present in the sisters’ humble desire to learn as much as they can and be of use where they can; there’s also a tacit statement about what it might really mean to live by Christian values. In its quiet way, this is a moving, challenging piece of work.
HOW FAR IS HEAVEN, directed by Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith
Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing
OPENS AUCKLAND AUGUST 23, ELSEWHERE AUGUST 30.
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