Review: The Ground We Won

Rave reviews for Kiwi rugby documentary The Ground We Won are completely warranted.

Rave reviews for Kiwi rugby documentary The Ground We Won are completely warranted.


For SST Culture May 10

The Ground We Won (M)

90 mins  ★★★★★

Accolades have been pouring in ever since new local documentary The Ground We Won premiered at Auckland's Civic Theatre last month, but let me reassure anyone who fears the collective acclaim is merely parochial purple prose – the raves are completely warranted.

Filmmakers Miriam Smith and Chris Pryor were embedded in the community of Reporoa for a year, following discreetly the seasonal tribulations of a local farming community whose menfolk bond over rugby, calving and beer. Rapidly accepted by their subjects as innocuous flies on the changing shed wall, Smith and Pryor's observations have been pieced together into a perfect slice of cinema: one that brings the real world to life in ways unseen, transporting its audience into the game to laugh along with (though not at) this community of compatriots.

As with their previous film about a community of nuns living by the Whanganui River, How Far is Heaven, the filmmakers' gentle compassion is evident. Neither religious nor sporty, Smith and Pryor have a knack for throwing themselves wholeheartedly into an unfamiliar world, settling in to soak it up, and bringing it back to us to experience. As a result, those of us not raised so close to the land still feel a proud resonance with the subjects rather than cultural cringe.

The film kicks off with a prayer circle full of curse words, as Reporoa prepares to fight. Without sub-titles or voiceover, we are unobtrusively introduced to a cast of characters ripe for a (probably ballsed-up) Hollywood remake; men and boys for whom rugby is the tension release at the end of a busy day, or as hypothesised by one reluctant player: "the point of rugby is to work up a thirst for afterwards".

And these lads sure can drink. And swear. And bond – for many viewers, this will be a one-off peek into a masculine world we couldn't otherwise be privy to (spare a thought for Smith as the sole sound-checking female in that changing room). Carrying on oblivious to the camera's benevolent eye, it makes for some candid moments of pure gold, from Peanut mouthing the words to Dave Dobbyn at the pub, to Kelvin's twin boys learning a hilarious lesson in negotiation. 

Pryor's exquisite black and white photography is an inspired choice, giving the familiar New Zealand landscape and experience an otherworldliness – never will you have seen local rugby matches, or the pre-dawn birth of calves, in this ethereal light. One particularly beautiful scene depicts training in the rain set to a soporific soundtrack of drone and strings.

No matter where in Aotearoa you live, and whatever your daily grind, The Ground We Won is universally moving and resonant as a sublime portrait of what it is to be Kiwi.

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