Film-makers explore rural river community

RURAL LIFE: Jerusalem resident DJ, aged 12 during filming, is one of the children who shine in the film about the isolated Whanganui River community.
RURAL LIFE: Jerusalem resident DJ, aged 12 during filming, is one of the children who shine in the film about the isolated Whanganui River community.

Film-makers Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith did not do things by halves for their feature documentary How Far is Heaven.

Driving in and out each day from the isolated Jerusalem community on the Whanganui River for stints of filming wasn't an option. Instead, the two moved in and lived and breathed Jerusalem for a year.

That meant no mobile phone coverage, no internet, no television and no electric heating.

"It was mind-changing. It was a completely different way to live, but it was really rewarding," says Smith. "I think what surprises people is that while it is isolated, it's hugely social. The kids would visit us every day after school or hang out, or there'd be something on the marae. So we were busy."

The result is an eye-opening, moving, funny, charming and surprisingly beautiful film about the 120-year-old Sisters of Compassion convent, the three Pakeha nuns who lived there and the local Maori community that embraced them.

In 1892, Suzanne Aubert founded the Sisters of Compassion order in Jerusalem, the only Catholic order founded in New Zealand. Today, only a few nuns live at the convent. During the 12 months while Pryor and Smith were filming it was just three - the newest arrival, Sister Margaret Mary Murphy, a volunteer at the local school, Sister Sue Cosgrove, who had been there for 10 years, and Sister Anna Maria Shortall, then 94, who had been living in Jerusalem for 22 years.

When Smith was a child she visited Jerusalem.

"It lived on in my mind since then. I visited it again a few times when I was older. It just grew in my mind as an idea, I suppose."

Smith broached the idea of making a film with Sister Sue in 2007 and "she was open to the idea". Pryor was keen to be involved and in 2008 he and Smith arrived with a camera.

"We felt it was a story that had to be told, especially because the sisters may not be there for too much longer because of the aging of the order," says Smith.

All three nuns have since left Jerusalem, so Smith says they were fortunate to have filmed when they did, because Sister Sue and Sister Anna Maria had built deep links with the local community where they had been there a long time.

While the nuns were happy for the two to film, Pryor and Smith also needed the permission of the community.

"It did take time. We just communicated as we went and it was a really smooth process."

How Far is Heaven runs for 99 minutes, edited down from more than 300 hours of footage. Neither Pryor or Smith knew when they started filming what the final shape would be - or even whether it would work as a feature documentary.

"It could easily have been the case," says Pryor. "Five months in, we were starting to have those jitters, actually. It was a real act of faith. For most creative things you have to take risks like that. You have to be prepared to get a bit lost."

"We did have anxiety throughout [filming] and when we put it together," says Smith.

Pryor says while some people know of Jerusalem because poet J K Baxter lived there in the late 1960s and early 70s, today many people don't know much about it and have never visited the region.

"Some haven't even heard of Baxter."

While the film centres on Jerusalem as a community, it also captures the natural grandeur of the place. One of the unexpected highlights of the film is Jerusalem's children and teenagers, especially the good natured 13-year-old Chevy and 12-year-old DJ - whose comments are the source of the film's title. They are funny and surprisingly philosophical.

The community saw a rough edit of the film prior to the final cut that screens in cinemas from today.

But getting the residents to open up, or to forget that the camera was even there, took time.

The film-makers found that while some people got used to their presence very quickly, others took a while to accept the filming. "Relationships deepened over the course of the year. You'll notice that the camera also gets closer and closer over the course of the year until you're a foot away from people's faces," says Pryor. "They became more relaxed and comfortable with it and people got good at saying things like 'oh just stop filming and come and play'."

The Dominion Post