REVIEW: This New Zealand-made and focused documentary is as impressive for its provenance as its exquisite photography and delightful subject matter. Co-directors Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith spent a year living with the community at Jerusalem/Hiruharama on the Whanganui river, but even before that they visited many times over a period of years, to gain trust and receive permission, not even knowing exactly what they would film or what story would eventually be revealed.
Their faith, patience and hard yards paid off, as How Far is Heaven paints a stunning portrait of a village, a people, and three devoted nuns who "accompany" the community in its daily life. The Sisters of Compassion have lived in Jerusalem since the 1880s, and these Pakeha women of God continue to live alongside the Maori families, teaching at the school, encouraging kindness and fairness, and learning their own lessons about life.
The film gently follows a selection of children, a couple of adults, and one nun in particular, Sister Margaret Mary, who is newest to the village and speaks hopefully about her calling and her openess to learning from the locals. The handling of religious subject matter is pitch-perfect, filming prayers, Bible readings and candid discussions between the nuns so we see how natural, unpressured and gracious their received wisdom can be. Almost more importantly, the Maori community is treated without judgement or condescension - while we laugh at DJ's hypotheses about heaven's distance from earth and the existence of the local taniwha, there is a matter-of-fact solemness when another child talks fondly of his father in jail.
Pryor and Smith must surely have had thousands of hours from which to sew this patchwork quilt, and they have created a magical picture of what will be, to many of us, an almost mystical world. Without the need for a crazy central character or dramatic narrative arc, How Far is Heaven's grace and subtlety lends weight to how we can justify calling our country Godzone.
* Sarah Watt is the Sunday Star Times film reviewer. Read her blog here.
- © Fairfax NZ News