Testing kayak trip inadvertently generated award-winning film

Wanaka filmmaker Richard Sidey kayaks during a trip around Stewart Island last September. The...
Wanaka filmmaker Richard Sidey kayaks during a trip around Stewart Island last September. The adventure with photographer Chris Thompson eventually morphed into an unplanned film project which is this year’s New Zealand Mountain Film Festival best local made film. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER THOMPSON
It was a bit quiet in Wanaka after the Covid-19 lockdown lifted last year, so filmmaker Richard Sidey and photographer Chris Thompson decided to go on an adventure to New Zealand’s third-largest island, Stewart Island.

Although they had visited Stewart Island before, they had no idea what they were in for during their first visit to the uninhabited southern end of Rakiura National Park.

Their destination, a hut south of Port Pegasus, lies right in the path of the famed west-to-east flowing gale-force air currents, the Roaring Forties.

There were times when the men battled to stay in their small vessels or stand up straight on the peaks of Gog and Magog. But there were also times of sudden calm, sheer wonder and magic.

Fortunately, the men had lots of wet weather clothing.

Unsurprisingly for people who look at life through a lens, they also lugged more than 20kg of high quality camera equipment with them, in case they saw something that caught their eye.

Although they didn’t intend to make a film, the result of their art, In the Theatre of the Gogs, was this month announced the winner of the New Zealand Mountain Film Festival’s Hiddleston/MacQueen award of $2500, for best New Zealand-made film.

Sidey also won the award last year, with his film The KFC, which followed five New Zealand paragliders on Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Wanaka photographer Christopher Thompson captures a shot during a stormy trip to Stewart Island...
Wanaka photographer Christopher Thompson captures a shot during a stormy trip to Stewart Island in September 2020. PHOTO: RICHARD SIDEY
The 19-minute movie has its world premiere theatre screenings in Wanaka and Queenstown from June 25-July 3.

"There was not much going on and we felt like going away for a while to a place we had not been to before. We decided to take our gear and kayak to the southern reaches of Rakiura and see what happens. That’s the neat thing about having an adventure, not having a complete plan," Mr Sidey said.

It was September, when waves were big and storms were raging, so the men got all the wilderness they wanted.

"I guess what a lot of people don’t realise it how big the island is and the further south you go, the wilder it gets.

"We didn’t go down to make the film. We went down there for an adventure. But being artists and photographers, obviously our gear goes with us. Our arrival was extremely dramatic to say the least. There were 60- to 70-knot winds and high seas," Mr Thompson said.

The men and their gear had been dropped off by a charter boat at Port Pegasus,

From there, they had what some might expect to be a short, straightforward paddle of about 3km to the hut.

Christopher Thompson exhibits one of his photos from the trip in his Picture Lounge studio. PHOTO...
Christopher Thompson exhibits one of his photos from the trip in his Picture Lounge studio. PHOTO: RICHARD SIDEY
Once they got out of the lee of the peninsula and faced into the wind, things got a bit tricky.

"We didn’t fall out but we were extremely fatigued. We were going backwards at times. If we had fallen out, there would have been nothing to stop us before Patagonia," Mr Sidey said.

They spent 10 days at the hut, hiking and kayaking and exploring.

"It was stormy pretty much the whole time. But it’s two-minute weather down there. It is hailing and the next minute it is beautiful sunshine," Mr Thompson said.

As the men bush-bashed and paddled and climbed mountains, Mr Sidey got the idea of making a film about Mr Thompson photographing the landscape.

"I got in the way of his camera too much," Mr Thompson said.

"It happened organically. Chris didn’t know it at the time but I was gathering a lot of footage of what he was doing ... It is more about the adventure behind a piece of art work. Often people have no idea what happens to get a photo," Mr Sidey said.

Mr Sidey gave Mr Thompson the footage once they got home and he then wrote notes, which he used to narrate the film.

The film builds to a crescendo and on the final evening the men received a pummelling on the peaks of the "Gogs".

"It exploded into this amazing cinematic experience," Mr Thompson said.

Mr Sidey felt the film almost wrote itself and he was given an uncommon opportunity to tell a story in shot sequence, "something filmmakers purposely avoid".

"But that is how it happened. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. I don’t think I have ever made a film in that sequence before," he said.

Rakiura was wild and challenging but not Mr Sidey’s toughest experience to date.

That was five years ago, when he spent five days sitting still in one spot to get a shot of a spirit bear (a rare, white black-bear) in the Canadian rainforest.

He’s also been challenged by hostile environments in Antarctica and sub-Antarctic places.

"Stewart Island was along those lines," Mr Sidey said.

• Full details on the New Zealand Film and Book Festival can be found on its website.

- By Marjorie Cook

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