Q&A with director of Ever The Land: film doco about NZ’s first Living Building

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Ever The Land is a documentary of Tūhoe undertaking the Living Building Challenge, a challenge to create a first-of-its-kind building in New Zealand that lives and breathes in its environment.

Directed by Sarah Grohnert, formally of Monsoon Pictures International, the film captures Tūhoe’s move towards sustainable architecture, the challenges they faced and what they were able to give back to the land. The observational documentary has been filmed right in the heart of Te Urewera and captures the bond between a people and their land and the journey to reclaim that land and build a community centre using radically sustainable methods.

A living building is a building that is designed to have a net positive impact in everything it does – from the actual building of it, to the materials used, to the community that it’s based in and the actual usage of the building (for example net positive energy generation and water use).  It is also meant to be beautiful. To achieve this the Living Futures Institute have rigorous standards which you can read more about here.

Wharehouo Tūhoe, a community building, is in the process of going through the Living Building Certification process.

In this Q&A Sarah talks about taking on the project, her hopes for the film and deep connections that she hopes to inspire between people and the land.

You’d only been in New Zealand for a year, having moved from Germany, so what drew you to this project?

The starting point for this project was an interest in sustainable architecture. About four years ago film and TV producer Alexander Behse and I started looking into this, initially with a view to potentially developing a TV series on sustainable architecture and design in New Zealand.

We were introduced to the sustainability manager of Jasmax Architects, Jerome Partington. He’s a passionate ambassador of the international Living Building Challenge and told us Tūhoe were attempting the challenge and were the first to do so in New Zealand.

I met Ivan Mercep, who was the lead designer on the project, and he opened the door for us to be able to meet Tūhoe and suggested the idea of documenting the design and construction of this landmark building on film.

From the first time I stepped into Tūhoe country and witnessed the beginnings of a beautiful collaboration between this legendary Pakeha architect and an iwi on the brink of making history and looking to move into a positive future I was hooked. Everything about it just resonated with me and indicated a deeply human story.

What do you want the film to achieve?

I would like people to watch this film and feel like they’re really there, in and around Te Urewera, among the Tūhoe people and the architects, immersed into witnessing an intensely moving yet, perhaps, little known chapter of New Zealand history and human achievement.  I can only express my hope that this film connects with people on a deeply human level, moves them, makes them laugh, inspires them and also encourages people to make bold decisions.

I think the film looks at something more and more of us are becoming increasingly aware of, our relationship with land and its natural resources and our place and responsibility in this relationship. However, instead of doom ‘n’ gloom this film gives a really uplifting example of a people standing by their integrity to land and culture and how the two are inextricably linked and powerfully dependent on each other.

When you’re telling the story of the land and relationships to it, how do you frame the narrative to give it the best voice?

With a film like this you say ‘the film tells you what it wants to be’. In other words, you don’t so much impose a narrative onto it as attune yourself so finely that you let a place and people speak for themselves, at least that was my approach and one that the film’s wonderful editor Prisca Bouchet shared with me. We knew that we wanted the land and the building to emerge as central characters of the film.  The people we meet on screen are in a way enabling this relationship of the central characters – through fighting, through caring, and by coming together as one. The narrative weaves those elements together very finely: place, people and building take their turns, are juxtaposed in flowing or sometimes starkly contrasting ways. Layer after layer is added and quite naturally results in a wonderfully rich narrative which I have been told offers a new discovery with each viewing.

What’s an example of the layering and the effect it has on the narrative?

The soundscape, the rhythm and feel of daily life and work on the building site are given centre-stage in this film, as is the land. You could forget that someone is even filming, the technical side of filmmaking is never drawing attention to itself and I think this makes for an experience that people would call very cinematic – it’s a film that works best on the big screen because it fully draws you into the world you see and hear right in front of you, making you part of it.

We did have some unforgettable screenings at the recent NZ International Film Festival, one at Auckland Sky City Theatre and at Wellington Te Papa, and both sold out. Many Tūhoe attended and their presence and blessings made it very, very special for everyone in the cinema.

Reaching a national audience

Ever the Land is also breaking new ground with Cinema-On-Demand (an Australian platform that allows fans, community groups and film makers to screen films in commercial cinemas without the financial risk) as the first film to launch FanForce, which uses the power of social media to get independent films into cinemas.  Screenings only go ahead if enough tickets are sold and the platform can include a comprehensive marketing strategy and outreach as well as providing award winning marketing materials for campaigns.

Ever The Land distribution manager Geraldene Peters notes that the distribution strategy for the film is many-sided and believes that FanForce has the necessary flexibility to accommodate the needs of Ever The Land’s different audiences in Aotearoa New Zealand as well as Australia – ranging across specialist gatherings, film festivals, schools, marae, rest homes and local group screenings.

“Producing small independent films carries a lot of financial and resource risk for filmmakers. Fanforce increases the viability of independent distribution strategies by sustaining the reach of the film across different audiences or communities over a long period of time,” says Geraldene.

Screenings can also be used as a method to fundraise or spread awareness about a cause with the host achieving a percentage of the box office takings from the screening. Hosts simply book in at the website https://fan-force.com/films/evertheland/ and FanForce organises everything with the cinema, working with the host to promote the screening.

Ever the Land is playing in cinemas nationwide until mid-November. Cinema locations and screening details can be found on: www.facebook.com/evertheland and www.evertheland.com

It is currently screening in Auckland, Whakatane, Taupo, Nelson, Motueka, Picton, Russell, Kawakawa and Hokitika

From October 8th:  Wellington Central, Petone and Christchurch

From October 15th: Waikanae, Christchurch, Napier, Havelock North, Waipukarau, Akaroa, Timaru, Methven, Taihape, Methven, Pahiatua and Te Anau

From October 22nd: Feilding, Palmerston North, Whangarei and Auckland

From November 5th: Kaikoura and Hawera

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