The Making of “Rain of the Children”
Who was she really and how do we show this on film?
My latest feature film, ‘Rain of the Children’, is a mix of drama and documentary which tells the story of a (Tuhoe) Maori woman, Puhi and her extraordinary life: A woman who had become known as “the burdened one,” who was said “to walk in both worlds, the living and the dead” and who had come to believe she and her last remaining son were pursued by a curse.
Its starting point was a “here and now” documentary I made in 1978, ‘In Spring One Plants Alone’, where I observed the relationship between 80-year-old Puhi and her 40-year-old paranoid schizophrenic son, while living with them for nearly 18 months.
I was only 21 when I made the documentary, but over the years, Puhi seemed to haunt me. I think this was mainly because I had come to realize there were hidden incidents in her past, missing pieces to the jigsaw of her identity, which I had been unaware of when I made the first documentary. Why was she bent almost totally horizontal as if some great weight was pressing down upon her? Why was she praying almost continuously, talking to spirits? And why was she obsessed by her last remaining man-child son, to the degree that she would unwrap his ice-cream for him while he sat there still and indolent?
I would sit looking at photos of her, trying to decipher a life lived at the margins. In one photo of her at 80 (above), you can feel the weight of her burden, bent so low that the top half of her torso is almost horizontal.
|In another photo (left), she is 14 years old and pregnant. She seems so full of life. What drove this change? What was it that happened in between?
It was twenty-seven years on from that first film before I started to dig for the clues to the turmoil beneath the everyday events portrayed in my 1978 observational documentary. But by this time – 2004 – both Puhi and her son were long since dead. To uncover and portray what had lurked beneath these stories, I would have to take a fresh approach.
I went back and interviewed nearly 50 Elders. I learnt in more detail how she had grown up in a community ruled by the Maori prophet Rua Kenana, and how at the age of 12 she had married his eldest son. Believing an apocalyptic flood was coming, the prophet led the tribe, including Puhi, to his eyrie high in the remote Urewera mountain range. Most of all, I learnt the fate of many of her 14 children, which enabled me to understand the reason for her bowed back and continuous prayers to the dead.
From these interviews I went on to dramatize the stories of Puhi, to give them life. Some of these stories I knew of, some I would discover. The elders would talk, then I would have their children and their children’s children act out the drama of these tales. In other words, it became a film where the story grew out of the community. As a consequence, the film would only be as good as the strength of the relationships I had been able to establish within that community, since it affected their willingness to talk about what is normally kept private.
The result is a personal folkloric tale, a vision of their own world largely as they see it, given expression through a film-maker.
By responding to my earlier study of Puhi in ‘In Spring One Plants Alone’ and trying to uncover what was barely spoken about then, I have in effect re-told her story with a different kind of truth. Perhaps (hopefully) a more profound truth. Dramatic re-imagined sequences woven together with ‘actual’ footage from my original documentary, plus interviews with Maori Elders help to express this new truth. By re-creating scenes I was not present for, scenes that often took place in the distant past, I felt I could mine a different, more folkloric reality, and understand Puhi more deeply. I had six people play her at different ages; often they were relatives who sit side by side with the “real” Puhi in the final narrative.
We re-created the arduous trek of the tribe to Rua Kenana’s mountain retreat, the attack on the tribe by the police in 1916, as well as the more intimate moments of Puhi’s life as her vulnerability to a curse unfolded.
The challenge came in finding a frisson between the stories as they’re told in the film by the Elders and our re-created filmed dramas, which reflected these stories but had to give them life. To give but one example: at the moment when Puhi is getting married to the prophet’s son, or as she saw it the ‘son of God’s’ son, I felt that it should be both a joyful and mystical experience. In effect, she was becoming a princess to the son of a ‘god’. A simple visual effect of her in front of the prophet’s majestic round council house, with Puhi’s veil floating mysteriously in the air, and laughing joyfully helped convey this. Also achieved through the aid of green screen, photo enhancement of a period photo of the round house and a wind machine.
As a filmmaker from both documentary and fiction traditions, this use of opposing perspectives lead me to explore the question often asked: is documentary in the ‘cinema verite’ tradition better at revealing ‘truth’ than drama?
For me, it’s not so much that either drama or documentary reveals a truth greater or more revealing than the other. Each has its purpose, therefore I needed to diagnose what kinds of truth these two forms of telling stories reveal best? More importantly the question became, can one be used to augment the other to reveal varying and greater truths about the same person?
In order to achieve this I had to ensure the structure for the making of the film was fairly organic allowing the story to take shape as we filmed.
We used very small, customized crews assisting me over 14 separate shoots. Some of these shoots focused on the drama; others, on the interviews.
Through most of this period we would edit, then shoot, then edit again. So as the film gradually took shape, it reflected in many respects my own growing understanding of her story. As people came to trust us more and appeared out of the woodwork, the practical demands of filming these new interviewees meant that we had to remain open, knowing that each interview could lead to further short drama shoots. Especially as often the Elders would have wildly different interpretations of the same events. It was a customized, ’boutique’ approach.
Each shoot lasted only a short time so a few people, with good planning, could achieve a lot. If it was longer than 4-6 days, the whole thing would fall apart, as so few people did not have the resources or the management structure to forward plan or resource. This meant the choice of people was critical and varied according to the needs of each shoot. After a completed shoot, we made sure we had time to digest and edit the material – even if sometimes only on paper (a ‘paper edit’). Then we would allow ourselves the time to plan for the needs of the next shoot. Too often this kind of film doesn’t allow itself sufficient time in the editing room when in fact this is one of the more economical aspects of the film-making process. We spent 39 weeks editing.
I started off with a treatment. The script was essentially created as we went along, carved out through editing and fresh interviews, showing sequences to locals, and then responding with re-shoots if a better idea came along. It was an organic approach. It meant you could stay alive to new material, new interview information, new relatives and descendants coming forward. More like peeling the layers of an onion than going from the conventional A to B.
Always I was searching for the arc of her life. What seemed to guide it, shape it and where was it going and changing? What was the spine of her story?
Here is a still from the film. It suggests hope. It is of young Puhi (played by one of her descendants) on her horse making the journey to the sacred Mountain and conveys the action of one of the many journeys she will undertake. It came out of the elders’ descriptions of that journey and was influenced by the optimism of these tales and of an actual small photo of her taken several years later.
Over the course of her life the hope she felt, changed…
… the optimism had gone by the time she was 80 years old… In this photo she looks inward, suggesting that she fears for her son. It is not dramatised footage; rather it was one of the actual photos taken during the last of my original shoots in 1979. Much of my search was to find out why there was so much of an inner change between this photo and the one from her youth. What had happened in the interim and why had she become so marked, so stooped over?
And what became of her son?
In the still below (which is from a dramatized scene), her son, now in his 50’s is lying in the main street of a small town, naked. The story of him being beaten up and found naked in the street was described by the health care worker that found him.
It is everything his mother would have feared. Her ultimate fear had been that she would not be there to protect him. It is this fear that ultimately consumed her final years.
In dramatizing this I felt I was getting closer to showing the basis of her fear. Niki believed that in death she was still with him and could come in the form of an animal. So in a sense her fear had survived her death, so that she would be there, in one form or another to guide him.
It was not unusual to see horses on the street and back roads, sometimes roaming wild. The horse itself was there to suggest the otherworldly presence of a mother who could not physically be there. Puhi’s son loved the neighbour’s white horse, and animals were his closest friends giving him comfort. It was eerie the way the horse just walked up to our actor from over a hundred yards away and we were able to film it in just one take. The two Elders watching, who had known Niki and his mother well, burst into tears.
It seemed to convey a truth about him that wasn’t literal (in reality no horse had come up to him) but the locals recognized a truth in this recreation which was more about how he lived his life.
It’s very seldom that we are able, as film-makers, to engage with this kind of process with locals and have them involved day to day in helping tell the story. Through the telling of their stories and using ‘folk tales’, Puhi and Niki’s story was pieced together from these different views and beliefs of what local people perceive happened in the realm of the living and the junction with that of the dead. Somehow these stories capture something underneath the everyday reality.
On a practical front the hardest thing is to create a space that allows the maximum of creative freedom to make this kind of film. The most critical element is time, the time to get what you need and shape it.
In this instance we made time, by keeping the shoots small. We strove for a freedom, to engage in telling a story with many creative means (though very little money), dramatizing events, using documentary interview, historical footage, photos, and most importantly we had the unique position of having a whole previously filmed documentary to draw on, made some 30 years previously by me.
Although it is part of the documentary tradition to go out to shoot not knowing what will evolve, this open, more improvised approach is more unusual when drama is involved, partly because of the cost. The film is unique and has a compelling form partially because it did not arise out of the usual script development process but was shaped more organically. This meant that we were able to stay more open to our growing understanding of the truth of Puhi and Niki’s lives as they had lived them. Inevitably this kind of approach requires a much greater financial and creative risk from the film maker. However, the result is far less predictable and therefore more original and in my mind much more exciting. By keeping the drama shoots short, and small in crew numbers, we were able to shoot them in an adhoc manner and often stage large events, battle scenes and large police raids – and do it to a modest budget.
For me producing, directing and writing this has been liberating, as it has meant I have been able to really “grow” the material, ultimately allowing it to find its own form, knowing there would be no interference. It was only during this process that I was able to discover my own understanding of her truth and, in a way, put her troubled spirit to rest.
– Written by Vincent Ward, dated 28th February 2008
Rain of the Children had a successful New Zealand release in 2008 to good reviews from press locally and in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety. It also won the grand prix by audience vote at the largest film festival in Poland (Era New Horizons).