All that heaven entails (Sunday Star Times interview)
This article first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 19th August 2012
Miriam Smith’s enchantment with Jerusalem began when she was 12.
Not the city in Israel, but Hiruharama on the banks of the Whanganui river, where she went with family to visit the grave of James K. Baxter. Recognising the 30-person town with its resident convent for its unique bi-cultural, bi-spiritual environment, Smith visited several more times as a student before deciding in 2007, with partner and cinematographer Christopher Pryor, to make a documentary about this world where taniwha and God live side by side.
The Order of the Sisters of Compassion was formed in 1892 by a French nun, Sister Suzanne Aubert, who pioneered Maori-Pakeha relations, writing the first Maori-English dictionary and promoting both cultures’ medicines. Over a century later, a rolling team of three nuns continues to reside in Jerusalem, seeking to “live alongside and be led” by the Maori community, eschewing the traditional missionary M.O. of aiming to lead the indigenous population. What is evident from Smith and Pryor’s film is the succcess with which tolerance and openness, as well as the enormous benefits derived by all parties, are borne out of this ethos.
Having gained approval from the incumbent Sisters, the filmmakers made various preparatory trips before living among the local people for the best part of a year, staying at the convent where they had daily interactions with Sister Anna-Maria, still chopping wood in her slippers at age 94, jam-maker Sister Sue, and the newest nun and volunteer teacher, Sister Margaret Mary.
Pryor and Smith were drawn to record the community’s “special relationship”, though not from personal religious fervour. “They are a very liberal order,” says Smith, “but also Suzanne Aubert would never ask anyone what their religion was and would work with people of all faiths, which is actually quite radical, especially at that time because lots of Catholics would only work with Catholics – so [nowadays] they are incredible open-minded… they didn’t even ask and it’s irrelevant.”
The directors didn’t have a preconceived notion of what direction the story would take, other than its focus being on the relationship between the Sisters and the community. Having given up their Auckland flats and moved south, they showed true commitment to the project, having countless cups of tea with no camera present, just getting to know and be trusted by their subjects before filming even began. Once underway, Pryor (known for his photography on four Kiwi documentaries including Florian Habicht’s Rubbings from a Live Man) shot over 300 hours of footage of school lessons, swimming trips and spectacular scenery from which to paint an exquisite portrait of a little-known world.
Portrayal of the religious aspects of the story is notable for being well-handled, avoiding judgement and affecting a largely fly-on-the-wall perspective. Being allowed to film the nuns’ normally private rituals required time and patience, but the Sisters appreciated the filmmakers’ respectful intentions. “It was quite a privilege – and it’s a beautiful way to start the day” says Pryor, who got up early most mornings to capture the nuns in their moments of prayer, Bible study and contemplation.
“It is amazing how much judgement people who aren’t religious place on religion” says Smith, acknowledging that the film shows in a broader sense how important spirituality can be in people’s lives, in whatever form. The coexistence of a community which believes in its kaitiaki (guardian) taniwha as an ancestor, and the Sisters who believe in their omnipresent God, is striking both for its acceptance and matter-of-factness, and the similarities in faith. As the children go down to the river to swim, they throw an offering under the bridge where the taniwha is said to live, and say a karakia of thanks post-bathe. Back at the convent, the Sisters discuss a Bible reading that seems to speak straight to any viewer who may only moments earlier have been projecting his own prejudiced assumptions onto the locals.
Though the narrative follows the experience of the newest nun as its thread, the story simply reveals itself in the faces and the words of those interviewed (though Sister Anna-Maria apparently prayed that the filmmakers would find “whatever they were looking for” so we can’t discount divine intervention).
The film is largely observational rather than a traditional “interview-based” documentary, which allows the viewer to experience life in Jerusalem as opposed to learn about it. Having a spontaneous cast, the light-hearted moments are manifold, in particular a delightful scene where Sister Margaret Mary gamely attends a perfume party to boost numbers. Side by side on the couch with two young women who coax her to try different fragrances, Pryor says that filming such a scene felt completely natural, despite his camera being so close, and that everything we see is pure and true.
With a nod to the belief in Maori culture that “heaven” isn’t another world, but right here where we are, the result is stunning: a quiet, authentic portrait of two communities sharing one piece of Godzone and a common journey through life.