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How Far is Heaven has second coming

Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith’s How Far Is Heaven premiered at the NZIFF. Now, as the festival exits the major centres, the film slips back in for a second bite at the box office cherry.

How Far Is Heaven

How Far Is Heaven

While the festival screenings continue to roll through Palmerston North, Nelson, Hamilton and Tauranga, HFIH has confirmed screenings in Auckland and Wellington.
It kicks off this second life at a SDGNZ-supported FilmTalk session tomorrow (Thursday) evening at the Rialto in Auckland.

The festival reviews have been good so far, with The Listener, Sunday Star Times and Next all delivering 4-star responses. North & South called it a “cinematic treat”.

Smith had known of the Jerusalem community and its resident Sisters of Compassion presence from a childhood visit to the grave of one of Jerusalem’s best-known if short-term residents, poet James K Baxter.

How Far Is Heaven

How Far Is Heaven

While Pryor and Smith hoped to make a living, rather than historical, documentary about the community, circumstances changed following the completion of shooting. The three Sisters who feature strongly in the film, 94-year old Anna Marie, Sue and Margaret Mary, have now all moved on from the community, to be replaced by two other Sisters.

A considerable time in the making, Pryor and Smith lived in the remote Jerusalem community for 12 months over an 18-month period from late 2009 to mid-2011, shooting back to Auckland every three months or so. The initial approach to the community was made in late 2007, with Sister Sue “open to the idea” of a documentary being made about the Sisters’ presence and work in the area.

Over the next two years, Pryor and Smith researched the idea further and did some preliminary work in situ late the following year. The material shot at that time contributed to the pitch to Creative New Zealand, which granted the project $63,000 via the Independent Filmmakers Fund.

Smith isn’t the first filmmaker to comment on the schemee’s subsequent demise, noting how difficult it is now to find support for a prolonged shoot “allowing the story to reveal itself”.

She talked of “having to be around in case something happened” during the shoot, which captured around 300 hours of footage. It was, Smith said, “a case of being very ready,” and sometimes relying on walkie-talkies since the area has no cell coverage.

Pryor logged the footage over a two month period before the six-month edit began. Editor Cushla Dillon had been on board since the start of filming and, Smith said, proved a valuable external perspective during the filmmakers’ infrequent trips back to Auckland as the shoot advanced.

All the footage was shot “as it happened”, with no reconstructions. If something was captured, it was all good; if not, it was gone for good. While the finished film focuses strongly on the three Sisters and the community’s children – a couple in particular – Smith said that the footage had captured more representative view of the community’s makeup. When it came to editing, however, the children and Sisters seemed to offer the more compelling stories.

How Far Is Heaven

How Far Is Heaven

Pryor said he hoped the film would encourage people to “be willing to seek to understand before judging”, echoing a thread running through the film. The Sisters talk about their presence in the community and what value – if any – it has. As Sister Sue says at one point, “At a major level they do not need us … just simply being here, really.”

The same might be said of the filmmakers, although the result – in both the Sisters and filmmakers’ case – is that they add something to the mix.

Wanganui District Council came to the funding party part way through, which essentially contributed some living costs as the shoot went on. The NZFC provided additional support after seeing a rough cut somewhere between the initial 180-minute version and the final 99 minutes.

How Far Is Heaven opens in Auckland tomorrow (Thursday 23) and in Wellington next week (Thursday 30).

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