Rural life in Reporoa: a representation

ROBERT STEVEN/stuff.co.nz

Kelvin Thomas, one of many colourful characters introduced in Kiwi documentary The Ground We Won, speaks about constantly being filmed and playing rugby.

Brazen and beautiful, a new documentary sheds light on three pillars of rural men's lives – rugby, farming and mateship.

Filmmaking couple Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith spent 2013 filming in Reporoa - a town halfway between Rotorua and Taupo with around 450 residents. 

From the footage captured, the pair created The Ground We Won - an observational-mode documentary that showcases club rugby, team bonding sessions, country scenery and the lessons a farming father teaches his twin boys.

The film is shot in luminous black and white and focuses on three Reporoa men – solo father Kelvin Thomas, team captain Phillip Broomfield, and 17-year-old "Peanut" Hawthorne – and follows their rugby team through the season.

Its national premiere at Auckand's Civic theatre on April 18 screened to an audience of more than 750 people, and brought around 100 Reporoa residents to the big smoke, too.

Leanne Thomas, younger sister to documentary subject Kelvin Thomas, said it was funny to see the differing responses the "townies" from Auckland had to the film.

"During the scene where the calves were being born, you could hear gasps in the audience," she said

Farmer, rugby coach and dad Kelvin Thomas with his two 8-year-old boys Troy and Luke at his farm in Reporoa.
Robert Steven

Farmer, rugby coach and dad Kelvin Thomas with his two 8-year-old boys Troy and Luke at his farm in Reporoa.

The scene shows a farmer using a length of rope and a four-wheel farm bike to assist a cow in giving birth.

"For us, that was just part and parcel of being a farmer," she said.

Filmmakers Pryor and Smith each grew up in Hamilton and Auckland, and had little knowledge of club rugby before the project.

Director Chris Pryor and producer Miriam Smith at the premiere of The Ground We Won in Auckland
Michael Braid

Director Chris Pryor and producer Miriam Smith at the premiere of The Ground We Won in Auckland

Smith said they knew the rugby club's winter season would be the spine of the story, and they would focus on three men who agreed to take part, but the script was unwritten beyond that.

"The whole time we're filming, we're thinking, 'what's going to happen next'," Smith said.

Pryor said the couple had used the observational mode of documentary making in their 2012 film How Far is Heaven, which focused on a Catholic community living beside the Whanganui river in Jerusalem.

"You've got a camera, you've got a microphone, and you're trying to work out where you're going to put them.

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"It is a very risky approach, because you could easily come away with nothing.  But when it works, it's something quite magical," Pryor said.

The couple spent 2014 editing more than 200 hours of footage down to 90 minutes. 

Much of the film shows after-match beer drinking at the rugby club – often shoulder-to-shoulder with the opposing team of the day.

Smith said she had underestimated the amount of socialising that went on in rural towns like Reporoa.

"When you're from the city, you think there's this idea that you'll get lonely living in the country.

"But we found the opposite is true – it is a remarkably social scene," she said.

Farmer and solo dad Kelvin Thomas said meeting for rugby and beers was an important way for farming folk to unwind, purely because farm work was so physical and often done in isolation.

 "After a hard day's work, you go down to the rugby club and see your mates – you tell a few lies, have a few beers and get a bit of release.

"But if you don't work hard, you don't feel like it," Thomas said.

"That's why the rugby club is so important – it's like a church we congregate to."

- The Ground We Won is screening at Starlight Cinemas from May 7. Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith take part in a question and answer session after the 8pm, May 7, screening at Starlight.

- A fundraising evening at Starlight will screen the film on May 6 to raise funds for Broadlands School in Reporoa. Tickets, $25, include a drink and nibbles. Contact Broadlands School on (07) 333 8576.

 - Stuff

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