Christopher Pryor & Miriam Smith’s The Ground We Won hits the road today at the start of a national tour that takes in plenty of smaller centres on its way down to Gore.
As much as anything else about the film, the timing of the release demonstrates the level of connection with rural NZ the pair have developed over the course of the project.
NZIFF festival director Bill Gosden has championed both Pryor and Smith’s films, so one might have expected to see The Ground We Won open in a prime NZIFF slot rather than the Autumn Events premiere it enjoyed last month. The film wouldn’t have been out of place opening the NZIFF, as The Dark Horse did last year.
However, the July opening of the NZIFF didn’t suit Pryor and Smith, and they discussed Autumn Events with Gosden early on in the production process.
A July NZIFF premiere would have pushed a wider release of the film into late August or September. Even ignoring the other, less rural rugby competition slated to run in the UK at that time this year, late Winter/early Spring is not a great time to attract rural audiences. As one dairying calendar observcs, “This is just a time to put your head down and work towards the light at the end of the tunnel”.
Dairy farmers in particular, in the middle of calving, are in the busiest period of the year.
Those rural audiences, arguably not the average film festival-goers, are important for The Ground We Won. So now, as close to a lull as there is in the farming calendar, is the time to get the film out there.
Tonight, in Cambridge, Pryor and Smith get to present the film for the first time to a “disinterested” audience – not the funders, the subjects, the festival-goers mostly familiar with their previous How Far Is Heaven.
The pair is looking forward to it. Pryor and Smith enjoy the sharing, the post-screening conversations, the perspectives and opinions of people who aren’t film critics – the audience the film was made for, really.
The second half
The Ground We Won is the second feature doco the pair has made about rural communities (and religion, many would argue).
This is “man studies”, said Smith, explaining that when they’d been researching gender politics during development, they’d been able to find plenty of books about NZ women but only one about men in New Zealand.
In 2012, How Far is Heaven was nominated for all four doco categories at the inaugural Moas, coming away with the Best Cinematography gong.
What was different making The Ground We Won?
“We learned a lot from How Far Is Heaven,” Smith said, noting they’d been better able to be less sentimental during shooting The Ground We Won. There were, he said, plenty of occasions when they’d known they were getting great stuff – but knew it would never make it into the film they were aiming for.
There were also differences between the communities they were filming which made things easier when shooting The Ground We Won. While still rural, Reporoa is less remote than Jerusalem, the setting for How Far Is Heaven. Pryor and Smith sometimes had to communicate via walkie-talkies in Jerusalem; cell phones appear regularly throughout The Ground We Won.
Having their own space – a motel unit – for the shoot in Reporoa also made life and work easier. In Jerusalem they’d stayed in the convent, sometimes with other guests. Funding was also in place much earlier in the piece for The Ground We Won – something that was possible not least because of the success of How Far Is Heaven.
“The money was very stressful last time,” Smith said. With the demise of the CNZ-supported Independent Filmmaker Fund, it might have got even harder, but the NZFC is now a little more doco-friendly than it was in 2009 when Pryor and Smith were preparing for How Far Is Heaven.
“This time were able to focus on the job,” Smith said.
While the money has been easier to raise this time around, the process wasn’t perfect.
“We’d started shooting before we got confirmation,” Pryor said, referring to the NZFC’s production investment. The film also received early development funding from the Commission, in the period when the pair was still tripping back and forth between Auckland and Reporoa, developing the plan that would lead Pryor and Smith to embed themselves in the community for 10 months.
Many of the decisions that shaped the film were made early on.
The decision not to develop the characters of the women who were part of the lives of the men, three in particular, around whom the story builds. Women and rugby are still a thing, it seems, given some of the responses noted in this Herald article on a female rugby commentator, which published a couple of days before Pryor and Smith spoke to SCREENZ.
The decision to present the film in black and white came in response to challenges and opportunities. The rural settings and dominance of male characters recall old westerns; the black and white also references the lives of previous generations of rural New Zealanders, the culture of the “hard man”. For Pryor and Smith, it was fertile ground ot explore the culture.
Black and white also solved a few practical issues for the production – reducing the visual dominance of, for example, the large amount of alcohol advertising and branding material in the scenes shot around the rugby club.
It was one of the issues that challenged Pryor for a while, making it difficult for him to see how the film could become a cinematic experience. He also noted issues around lighting for some of the material they were gathering on their trips before the shoot proper began.
“I turned the gain all the way up on the camera,” he explained, admitting it still wasn’t really doing the business of making stuff look good in colour.
Having taken the decision, they stuck with it – trying to watch as little of what they’d shot in colour as possible. The result is a focus on the content of the images, rather than on distractions: another way in which almost a year of life is distilled into a feature.
Over the line
On the strength of the word that’s out there so far, Pryor and Smith have been receiving festival invitations for the film. The film is already confirmed for three international festivals (none of which are yet able to named). They’ve also received other invitations for the film here and overseas, notably for fundraiser screenings from rugby clubs. The pair is keen to find ways to get the film out there in that way, as well as through the more traditional theatrical followed by video release.
Some of the language in the film might make it a tricky one for TV – especially in some international markets – but VOD platforms are a possibility.
For The Ground We Won, all that is a little further down the track.
Chris Pryor & Miriam Smith’s The Ground We Won trailer.