This Way of Life

BY GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 28/02/2010
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Peter Karena races along Waimarama Beach.
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The Karena family. 'I feel very rich. My kids are happy and my husband is a good man and provider. I feel blessed,' says Colleen Karena.

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IT'S A freezing cold Thursday morning in Berlin, and cultures are colliding head on in an inner-city movie theatre. Overwhelmed by a New Zealand-made documentary she's just seen, a wealthy middle-aged German woman walks up to speak to a young Ngati Maniapoto woman who appeared in the film. Her face is wet with tears.

"I know our lives are very different," says the woman. "I live here, in the middle of Berlin. I have a lot of money. But I've had my share of trouble, and I cried through most of your film. I just wanted to tell you that I share your pain very closely."

This kind of thing has been happening after every screening. "People are really moved by this film," says Barbara Sumner Burstyn, who made the documentary with her husband, Tom Burstyn. "It's amazing. We realised about halfway through making it that we were telling a small story that touched on universal themes. Whatever your experiences and wherever you may be from, there are things going on here that everyone can connect with their own lives."

A quietly profound, deeply poetic film about a Maori family from Hawke's Bay, This Way of Life was the only New Zealand documentary chosen to compete at this year's Berlin Film Festival. The festival is unique in that there's no separate documentary section, so this little self-funded independent release is up against feature films with huge budgets. But a meagre budget does not translate into poor attendences or a lack of visual and emotional impact. On each of its three Berlin screenings, This Way of Life sold out a 1000-seat theatre. As the credits rolled, some viewers were moved to tears while others stood up whooping and hollering, whistling and stamping their feet. Afterwards, the audience queued up to talk to two of the family featured in the film, 12-year-old narrator Llewelyn Karena-Otley and his mother Colleen, who have been flown in from rural Hawke's Bay by the festival organisers to support the opening. "People ask them questions, like, is it really true?" says Sumner Burstyn. "Did it all happen this way? Can you really ride a horse like that? And they say, 'Yes – this is my life."'

The film finished the festival with a coveted Jury Prize. The judges described This Way of Life as "a window opening to a wonderful different kind of world: A happy family living freely in nature. Respect for life and joy of being are what count in this film".

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This Way of Life was shot over four years in and around the rugged Ruahine mountains and Waimarama Beach. It follows the lives of Peter and Colleen Karena as they try to build a happy, stable life for their six children and 50 horses while engaging as little as possible with a consumer capitalist world they see as soul-sapping and corrupt.

"We used to see this guy riding a horse along the side of the road near where we lived in Hawke's Bay, looking very romantic and handsome and mysterious," says Sumner Burstyn. "Eventually we met him and discovered he was amazingly articulate, with a very profound philosophy about his life, and he had a beautiful wife and six amazing children, all of whom were also unusually intelligent and articulate. So we started filming, thinking we'd spend four weeks making a documentary on how to break a wild horse. Four years later we thought – we've filmed enough now!"

In those four years, the film-makers captured documentary gold. This film has it all: beauty, drama, wisdom, pain and triumph, all set against a backdrop of remote bush cabins and ramshackle rural hamlets, deep green rivers and beaches as empty as they are endless. Tiny six-year-old tots gallop bareback through golden hayfields, more sure-footed on a hurtling horse than many of us are on our own two feet. When the family needs food, father Peter shoots a deer or a wild pig, speaking solemnly to his children as he cuts it up about how they must respect this animal that has given up its life so they may eat. Pleasures are simple, abundant, and unreliant on the national grid. The kids have no TV, and are stangers to iPods and PlayStations, cellphones and laptops. When they crave fun, they climb trees, build huts, dam creeks, swim in the river with the horses. When they want to strengthen their feeling of connection to the past and to each other, they spend hours looking through family photos, delighting in the sight of cousins and uncles, nanas and long-dead dogs, most of the images depicting seven generations of relatives born and raised in the old house they now live in themselves. If the kids wander outside, many of these same people have carved their initials in the verandah post, a concrete reminder of family whakapapa.

At one point Peter sits in a tree, high above a river in the Ruahines, and describes the personalities of each of his children in great detail, and it's truly moving; while many of us are scrambling around trying to pay the mortgage, this thoughtful man has focused on getting closer to his family, and he knows his kids better than most hectic nine-to-fivers probably ever will.

It's clear that this is a family with little money but much love, but the film resists romanticising a life that is frequently hard and occasionally beset by tragedy. A Pakeha adopted into a Maori family while young, Peter has a poisoned relationship with his step-father, who floats like a dark cloud over the documentary before appearing in the final minutes to try and shut down the camera.

During the four years of observing the family there were also several unforeseen disasters, all of which add great poignancy to the finished film. Before the final curtain falls there is fire, death, theft and an attempt at violent eviction, but the film focuses on how the family deals with adversity rather than dwelling on the distressing events themselves.

Peter and Colleen Karena display almost biblical levels of stoicism throughout, reacting with calm integrity to the gravest misfortunes, drawing closer together whenever outside forces threaten their safety or emotional wellbeing. It's amusing to note that the Berlin Festival programme describes it as a film about "family life in New Zealand", which may give some credulous German viewers the notion that all of us live this way. But no. This is a very unusual and inspiring family.

IN THE course of making this movie, barriers between observers and observed broke down. The film-makers and the family became very close. Some might suggest such a relationship compromises the project's integrity, but anyone who's seen it will testify that the opposite is true.

That close bond means the film-makers were permitted to keep filming through the bad times, and the trust the family feels towards their unseen interviewers is evident in every frame.

"As documentary makers, you're supposed to maintain a distance," says Sumner Burstyn, "but these people became good friends over the four years we filmed them. Some might say that leads to a loss of objectivity, but really, objectivity is completely bogus in most documentaries, and it's an arrogance to say that you're objective just because you're behind a camera. Tom and I can't separate ourselves from the subjects of our work, and our own beliefs are evident in the choices we make in all our films."

Sumner Burstyn is also a veteran print journalist, who won a Qantas Award in 2004 for her work as a social issues columnist. Like many documentary makers, she is motivated in part by a strong political consciousness.

"In everything I do, in writing or in film, I want to look at a bigger situation and find the human component within it that everyone can connect with. This film is about physical and emotional self-sufficiency, and the idea that we really do choose our lives. We don't have to be victims, and we are far more than cogs in the economy. The people in this film have chosen to live simply and they do not define themselves by their power in the market. They choose to live without much money, but as human beings, they're extremely wealthy."

Before showing in Berlin, This Way of Life screened to sell-out houses at the New Zealand and Vancouver International Film Festivals. It has since been picked up by a European distributor and a Canadian broadcaster, and begins a wider theatrical release in New Zealand cinemas next month.

Several follow-up projects are underway. Sumner Burstyn and her husband recently completed filming Yolanda's Last Portrait, about an ageing artist living out her last days in a disintegrating mansion in London, and later in the year they head to Canada to begin filming Leonard's Lovers, a film about ageing and sexuality told through the intimate stories of women who all slept with Leonard Cohen when they were young.

"All of these films are socially relevant, though we certainly don't want to tell anybody how they should live. I'm interested in people having opportunities to look at other sorts of lives to make more informed decisions about their own. In this film, Peter and Colleen are just talking with great clarity about what they believe and how they live, but if people take something from that that's useful to their own lives, all good."

This Way of Life opens in cinemas across New Zealand on March 11.


Colleen Karena from the Berlin Film Festival:

How's Berlin?

I'm such a country girl. Llewelyn and I have only ever been to Australia before, so Berlin feels enormous. But we've met lots of lovely people, and Llewelyn loves it here. He gets up in the morning and plays outside in the snow. After the festival we're going to do a train trip to Poland and Austria and Spain, so that Llewelyn can experience those places.

What has the audience reaction been like?

It's been amazing, and a bit scary. It's hard watching our lives and some of the difficult things that have happened to us. People have been coming up crying afterwards, wanting to talk to me and hold my hand. They get very emotional, especially about the relationship between Peter and his dad. They're also amazed to see our kids on their horses. They say – isn't this dangerous, with no helmet on, and no saddle? But I've always believed that you grow by experiencing things, and learning to deal with risk is important for kids.

Two striking things about the film are how calmly you and Peter deal with major setbacks, and how respectfully you interact with your kids.

I was blessed with a mother who was very soft. She raised 10 of us kids as a single mum, and she never yelled at us. We lived in a loving and peaceful home and always talked through problems together, and all us kids treated her with respect because we knew she loved us and we didn't want to disappoint her. Peter had a very different background with lots of yelling and hitting, and he grew up determined that he wouldn't be like that with his own kids. Right from the beginning, we decided we would talk to each other and work hard to resolve things. If something terrible happens, we both think about it over the night and then talk about it in the morning, which gives you time to clarify your feelings and not act out of anger.

That approach seems to have really paid off with your kids.

Yes, I think so. They're really well behaved and thoughtful and brave, and they all look after each other and teach each other things. They're really imaginative, too, always creating and building things. They never complain about the fact that we have no telly. They love the outdoors. In the holidays, they just get up, go outside and catch their horses and then they're gone!

Your family manages to survive, or even thrive, with very little money, though someone looking in from the outside would say you were living below the poverty line.

I would never consider us poor. We don't own any property, but we have lots of horses. We've never wanted a big house. One day maybe we'll own a place where we can have all our horses and a cow and so on, but in the meantime, I feel very rich. I watch my kids and see all the joy they're constantly experiencing, and it makes my heart leap. My kids are happy and my husband is a good man and a good provider. I feel blessed.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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