This was maybe our fourth attempt to see this film, and having finally made it I think the only thing to say about this film is “go and see it”. It’s a subtle and fascinating documentary that, while not cinematic history, is a loving tale of the sort I think we’d all like to tell about someone we’ve known and loved.
The tale centres on Puhi, a Tuhoe woman born at the turn of the C20th deep in the Ureweras, and who eventually marries a son of the prophet Rua Kenana. The director, Vincent Ward, visited with her in the early 1980s on a naive mission to find some “authentic Maoris”, and captured a set of film that he gradually unravels for us, and brings us all into a deep acquaintence with Puhi.
And I loved it. In the telling of this story we are all brought close to a mystical world mostly lost to modern European culture, a world where explanations take many shapes, and where there are many things we simply cannot explain. It is a world where an old woman walks the boundary between life and death, and to whom the cost is the near-constant loss of life of those she loves most dearly.
It’s a fascinating watch. Ward uses the 1980s camera brutally as a young man. His lens is intrusive, capturing deeply significant events that his 21-year-old experience does not fully understand. The fear of an old woman. Her son’s ongoing battle to maintain his sanity, he having crossed the line into the world of the dead and paid an inevitable price.
All these events are wrapped in the history of the Tuhoe and the ongoing barbarism acted out upon them by the colonial government, injustices that carry on to this day, and which Puhi was near the centre of. Ward is unaware of this as a young man, and this tale is his redemption, to search out the hidden meaning and uncover it for us in a methodical penance.
It’s an understated film of untold depths, and one I recommend you go see.