Rain of the Children
Filmed on location deep in the heart of the rain soaked Urewera ranges, Vincent Ward’s 2008 biopic Rain of the Children is an evocative unearthing of personal and national memory. As a 21 year old art school graduate Ward made his film, In Spring One Plants Alone (1981), a documentary exploring traditional M_ori life through the lens of Puhi, an elderly Tuhoe woman, and her mentally ill son Niki. Ward spent two years living in the home of his subjects in their isolated rural community sharing in their way of life and in their story. Thirty years on Puhi and her son have passed away and Ward revisits their story to answer questions he has held throughout these intervening decades, to find closure to the mystery surrounding Puhi’s life.
The filmmaker’s search uncovers extraordinary details from Puhi’s long life; principally that she was at the heart of the community set up by Tuhoe Prophet/leader/activist Rua Kenana in the early 20th century on Maungapohatu, Tuhoe’s sacred mountain. She was married to Rua’s eldest son Whatu but very soon things turned sour. After a large number of her children died from disease she was deemed, and firmly believed herself, to be under a curse. It was a harsh life laboured under the fear of this curse that turned her into the continually praying sad and solitary figure that Ward came to know as a young man.
What surprised me most about Rain of the Children is how personal this story is for the director. It is plain while watching that making the picture was a process of finding peace and resolution for Ward. Indeed, the picture mixes reconstructions of Puhi’s history (and a version of significant parts of Tuhoe history), interviews with her living relatives and local community, and footage from Vincent’s original documentary In Spring One Plants Alone, with much direct to camera commentary from the filmmaker himself.
Visually Ward separates out the film strands by shooting the recreations in black and white. Clips from the older documentary are clearly distinguished by their grainy 16mm footage whereas the newer interviews and commentary are crisp and clear. Tuhoe Urewera country is almost a character in itself providing a dark and often forbidding backdrop to this heart breaking tale. The centrality of the landscape in the movie speaks to its fundamental place in the lives of the film’s subjects; although at times harsh and unforgiving, the land sustains them and anchors their sense of place in the world. The musical score of John Gibson and Jack Body (who also worked on In Spring One Plants Alone) nicely complements Ward’s footage, reminding occasionally of the compositions of Gustavo Santaolalla in Walter Salles’ 2004 Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries – a film equally shaped by its geographic setting.
An incredibly moving piece of cinema, the acting takes a back seat to the unfolding story of this mysterious lady. Although it may be a little too dark for some viewers, Rain of the Children is serious and emotionally satisfying New Zealand cinema that raises a raft of broader political and cultural questions as the narrative unfolds. Ultimately this project was for Ward himself and the fact that we have the opportunity to play audience to it is a privilege in which I hope many people will share.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: [M] violence, offensive language.
Director: Vincent Ward
Actors: Miriama Rangi, Taungaroa Emile, Temuera Morrison, Rena Owen, Waihoroi Shortland, Toby Morehu, Mahue Tawa, Mikaira Tawhara, and Harmony Wihapi.
Country: New Zealand
Language: English | Maori (with English subtitles)
Dur: 102 min