(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 3.)
You may have heard of “fly on the wall” filmmaking. It’s a technique in which documentary makers record their subjects unobtrusively, so as not to influence their behaviour.The object is to portray people as they really are. The subjects of the film become so accustomed to the presence of the camera that eventually they forget it’s there and allow the barricade of self-consciousness to drop, revealing their true selves.
A notable example was the Australian documentary Cunnamulla, released in 2000, for which the director spent a year filming and interviewing the inhabitants of a godforsaken town on the edge of the Queensland outback.The result was a dejecting portrayal of a town that seemed trapped in an aimless, hopeless, sullen torpor.
The participants became accustomed to the presence of the film-maker and spoke with surprising candour about their lives and attitudes (too much candour in the case of two teenage girls, who subsequently took the director to court alleging he had portrayed them as sluts).An earlier example of the same film-making genre, also Australian, was Rats in the Ranks, in which the film-makers observed the Machiavellian scheming behind the scenes during a mayoral election campaign in the Sydney suburb of Leichardt.
But New Zealanders are good at this game too. Last week I watched the documentary The Ground We Won, a study of a men’s rugby team in the central North Island farming town of Reporoa.I wanted to see whether it was as good the critics said it was. It is.
The Ground We Won is about much more than rugby, although that’s the central motif. The film is a revealing but strictly non-judgmental observation of male bonding and the role team sport plays in facilitating it.It also casts light on a macho rural male culture that has changed little in recent decades. Urban sophisticates watching it should brace themselves; they might not recognise this other New Zealand.
The film is superbly made. Producer Miriam Smith and director Christopher Pryor made a bold decision to shoot it entirely in black and white, and the result is unexpectedly beautiful.But liking the film is not quite the same as liking what it depicts. In some ways, The Ground We Won is disturbing.
Beer is central to the team’s rituals, and prodigious quantities of alcohol are drunk. Sensitive souls might be taken aback at some of the language too; you don’t often hear the C-word used with such vigour and relish.
Townies might also be shocked by a scene in which the main character, a dairy farmer and team kingpin nicknamed Slug, attaches a rope to a quad bike to pull a dead calf from the womb of a cow.Slug is then shown sitting nonchalantly on the motionless cow while he conducts a conversation on his cellphone. To urban sensibilities the scene is confronting, but it’s just another day on the farm
Women are virtually invisible. The Ground We Won depicts a world that seems exclusively male, although this doesn’t mean wives and girlfriends don’t feature in the men’s lives. They’re just not part of the film.The only woman who appears in more than an incidental role is a stripper, paid to perform at a boorish initiation rite for a hapless young English rugby enthusiast who has arrived in Reporoa and doesn’t know what’s hit him.
Does the film paint a complimentary picture of masculine culture in rural New Zealand? Not really. In fact it reinforces virtually every negative stereotype about Kiwi blokedom.For all their crudeness and vulgarity, though, the men are portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic light. You sense they’re genuinely concerned for each other. Occasionally some reveal a hint of sensitivity, even tenderness.
The film makers struck gold with the main characters. Slug is a rough-and-ready cockie of Friar Tuck-like physique and countenance, with an unruly mop of tousled blond hair. He’s a solo Dad bringing up lively twin boys and appearing to make a great job of it.Broomy, the handsome team captain, is thoughtful and articulate in his more reflective moments; Peanut is a charismatic teenager, good-looking and cocky but with an air of vulnerability that some women are likely to find irresistible.
Farming can be a lonely life, and rugby is important to these men for more reasons than you might imagine.
Quite by chance I later heard Slug (real name Kelvin) interviewed on the radio. He said that in the months leading up to the period when the film was made, Reporoa farmers had been through a tough drought and were under a lot of stress.
Slug reckoned that rugby, and the mateship that went with it, helped relieve the pressure. Presumably the distraction and camaraderie of the game will help them cope with the present milk-price slump too.I was reminded of an article I wrote years ago about heartland rugby in the Wairarapa. What came through then was that Saturday footy was the social glue that held isolated rural communities together.
That function is likely to become even more important as the country pub, another traditional social hub, edges toward extinction.And notwithstanding its unrelenting boozy machoism, I can’t help thinking that amateur rugby, Reporoa-style, is morally preferable to the greed and corruption of corporate international sport as exemplified by Sepp Blatter’s Fifa.