by NEVIL GIBSON
At their best, fly-on-the-wall documentaries reveal more about their subjects than they would
admit, while also reinforcing their own self-beliefs.
Kiwi husband and wife team Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith achieved this with How Far is Heaven (2012), about the Sisters of Compassion at Jerusalem in a remote part of the Whanganui River valley.
Their dedication went beyond what they could actually achieve among their unruly flock, who were depicted with unexpected naturalism.
Nothing looked stage-managed — the result of many hours of filming, but also a ruthless focus
on the bizarre and unusual in the editing room.
In the Pryor-Smith team’s latest production, The Ground We Won (NZ Film Commission), the subject
couldn’t be more different.
The distance from a religious order to that of devotion to rugby and beer may not be far in geographic terms — the setting moves to the central North Island — but the filmmakers must have sensed similar gold in another form of extreme behaviour.
Reporoa’s rugby club has a long history of being one centre of the community (others such as the
schools and churches are noticeably absent). Every Saturday afternoon, a team turns out, including
those who are barely older than teenagers, through to sturdy men heading towards middle age.
The training nights in the winter are often held in mist and followed by long bouts of horseplay and drinking. So are the games, which are rugged and borderline on fair play.
Filming starts with preparation for the 2013 season, in which the perennially losing team has moved down a grade and has many more members available.
This follows a drought in the heartland dairy district. Rugby is one way of easing financial distress and other pressures that are obvious in all involved.
Where once the team was known for losing every game, an effective coach and some classier players
have turned Reporoa into potential champions. This builds a tension into the narrative that is
familiar in all sports films.
But the on field action has only a limited role (and not just because it can only be a sideline view from a single camera).
The focus is on a handful of players, their home life and their work, which mainly shows the distinctly unglamorous side of dairying.
One stands out: single father of twin boys, Kelvin Thomas. He is overweight, unkempt and consumed by rugby as a player, kids’ team coach and club stalwart. (At the world premiere screening in Auckland he had slimmed down considerably and had a tidy haircut.)
Viewers unfamiliar with the rural scene will be shocked and horrified by much of what is revealed.
The film is shown in black and white, which elevates its realism to recall the rugby newsreels
of many decades ago. Judgments of what happens will be made and many will be unfavourable. But the
events cannot be denied and they received a rapturous reception at the premiere from those who were depicted up on the big screen.
Rating: Mature audiences (offensive language, sexual references, nudity and content that may offend); 90 minutes.