The Christchurch documentary that celebrates doing small things in a great way

Peter Young's latest work explores the artistic recovery in post-quake Christchurch.
Peter Meecham

Peter Young's latest work explores the artistic recovery in post-quake Christchurch.

For filmmaker Peter Young, The Art of Recovery, a passionate snapshot of creative efforts to rebuild Christchurch is his farewell to a city where he's lived for 25 years, a settled base after a peripatetic working life that involved stints as an Antarctic dishwasher, a Seattle cab driver and a Molesworth Station cowboy.

Young's partner Tracey shifted to Matakana, north of Auckland, in January for family reasons. He followed as soon as his film was concluded. It was a rush to finish, but not so Young could head north, but because he felt his film had a tight window of relevance. "It needed to be told this year. I feel like Christchurch is at a crossroads and I feel like this could contribute in some way to the evaluation. Like [his last film] The Last Ocean, it needed to be told. Every story has its moment in time."

Young was away from Christchurch for most of the first year after the quakes, touring and promoting the Last Ocean, a personal plea for a special marine reserve to be established in the pristine Antarctic Ross Sea. On Labour Weekend three years ago, he was home to see the Festival for Transitional Architecture, and was inspired. He'd already recognised the visual potential in the shots of cranes ripping down buildings - now he realised that beneath them was a story to be told about the people claiming these newly-blank spaces to do something fresh.

Young's Art of Recovery follows his crusading work Last Ocean.
Peter Meecham

Young's Art of Recovery follows his crusading work Last Ocean.

For the first year, he worked alone, without funding, just taking his camera with him every time he drove from his home, two blocks outside the devastation, through the city centre – learning where the pockets of activity were, although they were always shifting. Young tried three times to secure funding for his story, but not until he cut a promo clip did he secure backing from the New Zealand Film Commission and TVNZ.

"It is a very solitary existence – even when you bring editors in to bring the story together, it is still really solitary," he says. "You go from, essentially, a darkened room with two or three of you into a room with 900 people watching for the first time and you feel very vulnerable." That first screening, at the Isaac Theatre Royal, drew a standing ovation.

The Art of Recovery follows the same model as the Last Ocean: intense, individual labour over a long period, with work for other directors paying the bills in between (he's recently worked on Grand Designs and the TVNZ doco Women of Pike River). Three years work and 120 hours of footage is then condensed into an 85-minute cinematic version, Young writing apologetic letters to those characters who didn't make the cut. "I don't find these projects, they find me," he says. "I felt this was a story strong enough for me to invest that amout of time into it."

What got Young excited, he says, was a feeling in those early days of the rebuild was that Christchurch was now "anybody's town".

One of the best shots shows swing dancers jiving on an outdoor coin-operated dance floor laid on an empty block, while three wannabe gangster watch, bemused. In the next shot, one, still wearing his bandanna, has joined in. "Not physically, but culturally, it levelled us and put everyone into the same space and shared experience," says Young. "What happened was the people who would normally occupy the fringes of society came to the fore and the central city was this place that was a lot more dynamic and interesting as a result."

But he's aware that the film is a snapshot of a moment. "I think as we gentrify and the new city comes, we will definitely lose that spirit but it is a challenge that Christchurch has, how to keep the best of that transition as part of the fabric of society.''  Because he arrived at the story a year into the rebuild, as CERA lumbered into town, he decided to juxtapose his street artists, entrepreneurs and dancers with CERA's corporate monolith to highlight their differing approaches. They need CERA, he says, "but I don't think central government should be rebuilding cities to the scale they are in Christchurch. It should be done by the people, for the people, and a lot more organically. Look at the Canberras and the Brasilias as well-known failures of over-designed cities."

The Art of Recovery begins with a quick precis of the quake itself, obviously designed for international festival audiences, and Young is also keen it finds a national audience here beyond Canterbury. "There is an inherent Christchurch fatigue – but this is a different story," he argues. There are bigger themes at work: not least how individuals can make a difference in an increasingly corporate world. There's one scene he nearly left on the floor with the other 118 hours that didn't make it, but he's glad he kept in. It seems to sum up the moral of the story - Gap Filler director Coralie Winn reading a quote: 'If you can't do great things, do small things in a great way'.

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The Art of Recovery is in cinemas now.

 - Sunday Star Times

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