Film review: How far is Heaven

Directors: Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor
Rating: (M)
3 stars (out of 5)

Photo supplied.
Photo supplied.
In terms of difficulty, one of the toughest documentary tasks is setting out on a journey without a concrete idea of what you hope to achieve.

Though, as Hoop Dreams proved, sometimes a sniff of an idea is enough to yield magic.

First-time film-maker Miriam Smith and cinematographer partner Christopher Pryor embedded themselves for a year in the isolated town of Jerusalem/Hiruharama with a goal, to document three Pakeha nuns working within the tight-knit Maori community of less than 50 people.

Just gaining the trust of the locals to spend this amount of time there would have been no small feat, but without such devotion to their craft, the film-makers would have struggled to get anything with substance on screen.

The oddity of three Roman Catholic sisters continuing in the tradition of a mission that started in 1892 is quirky, but possibly not enough to hang a film on, especially when two of the three barely feature. That leaves Margaret Mary, an optimistic new arrival to the mission who sets about trying to teach the children music and life skills.

It's the children who are the trump card. Their wide-eyed exuberance for computer games, underage driving and hunting, is solemnly balanced with the harsh reality of a small community dealing with poverty and domestic abuse.

The Once Were Warriors realism is never critiqued as the film disappointingly side-steps any serious questions. Smith and Pryor show a keen editorial eye for nuance, but a general unwillingness to upset their hosts.

Best thing: the non-judgemental feel that the film-makers bestow on their subjects.

Worst thing: failing to really address what relevance the nuns and their belief systems have to the community today.

See it with: no urge to be anywhere else.

By Mark Orton.

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