Sunday, August 12, 2012

How Far is Heaven?

How Far is Heaven is a slice-of-life documentary set in the tiny settlement of Jerusalem on the Whanganui river. Jerusalem is rather more well-known than you'd expect for an isolated town of its size, partly because James K Baxter (one of New Zealand's more famous poets) lived on a commune there and partly because it has a very beautiful catholic church which is cared for by the Sisters of Compassion who have been running a mission there since 1892.

The life that the film follows is that of Sister Margaret Mary who is the newest arrival and the youngest of the three sisters that live at Jerusalem. Following in the educational footsteps of Mission founder Suzanne Aubert, Margaret Mary has a close association with the local primary school and teaches religious education and music as a volunteer. The sisters seem a trusted and well-liked part of the community. We get to know some of children quite well,  too - they seem remarkably happy to talk on camera, and seem frank and natural. The contrast between ordered existence of the articulate Sister Margaret Mary and the somewhat unregulated lives of her charges is well-drawn.

I was left slightly dissatisfied with How Far is Heaven. Once you've watched the Last Dogs of Winter you could send some money to help the dogs' upkeep, or you could resolve to go to Churchill if you got the opportunity. If you were inspired by Song of the Kauri you could go and buy a musical instrument made from native timber, or look into planting some trees, but How Far is Heaven doesn't seem aimed to inspire you to do much - it just causes the viewer to admire the landscape of the Whanganui River and  to wonder whether elderly pakeha nuns are achieving anything useful in an isolated maori community. It's not that there's anything wrong with either of those things but it just seems wishy-washy. The other two films were self-funded whereas How Far is Heaven was made with Film Commission funding and this allowed the makers to potter about in Jerusalem for a whole year, and I'm not sure the subject matter justified the time spent.

My rating 2.5/5

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