The documentary has become the defining art form of the Covid era, writes the director of the first film made in New Zealand since the pandemic began.
I’ve flirted with telling the story of our Rakino Island neighbour Colin McLaren for a dozen years. His story has always intrigued me – once part of the bustling art and café scene in downtown Auckland, he gave it all up to retreat to a remote island. Why? How has he survived there for 30 years in isolation? And what does he do all day?
He’s a happy recluse and it wasn’t easy to convince him to take part. Why would someone who likes being by himself in a self-constructed Eden by the sea let me in to tell his life story to the world?
I didn’t want to talk Colin into it – I needed him to be a willing participant.
Over the years we had bonded over our shared interests in art, film and architecture and I finally felt confident enough to ask. This year the stars finally aligned. My production partners and I had a gap in our schedule after getting our last film, The Seat at the Table, away for international distribution, it was perfect weather, we had the island to ourselves and Colin was at his most effusive.
We fit the filming in just before Covid-19, and did a few pick-ups and the edit during lockdown. The end result is a portrait of one man, philosophical and erudite, and one island, Rakino, isolated with its own small community in the Hauraki Gulf, off the grid, challenging, and stunningly beautiful.
I’m not sure the film answers my original questions, but it does provide a line on Colin’s unique understanding of the world. And as Covid-19 overtook the planet, that story seemed even more relevant.
Colin fled to Rakino Island in 1990. He was retreating from an Auckland scene with roots in art and design. He purchased a plot of land on the remote island with just 19 permanent residents. There were dreams realised and abandoned, projects started and unfinished. The film tells those stories in his own words, with humour and insight.
Colin’s perspective is hedged in his reclusive lifestyle and his own path from society to isolation. It unwittingly shines a light on the plight of the Covid-19 world.
There is a glorious tension in getting this view of Colin’s life. On one level he has everything that billionaires dream of – self-contained, fertile land down to the water’s edge, with his own beach, and azure sea as far as the eye can see. The dream. But on the other hand, the disarray of the property, the tumbling down house, the collections of detritus, the lack of facilities, the aloneness and no discernible income are also many people’s nightmares.
But maybe Colin has it sussed? The dream lifestyle with such a tiny carbon footprint. Such a small demand on the planet’s resources. No need for things, the opposite of the average consumerist lifestyle most of us have found ourselves trapped with. Sustainable. Never lonely. Happily self-contained.
This is why I love documentaries – they are the purest form of filmmaking. They magically appear to the film maker rather than the film maker forcing them out on the page. You start with an idea and after some time shooting a dozen or so carefully thought out questions, an entire story forms as you go deeper. Then in the edit process the story truly reveals itself as you sift for the nuggets. Often the end result is quite different to the idea you started with – but that is the alchemy, the truth, the delight of documentaries.
As the world continues to suffer even more under the malaise of consumerism, greed, inequality, expansion – and now death, disease and pestilence – the documentary is becoming the age’s golden art form.
This is a Kiwi story, but mainly it is a human story. There are Colins all over the planet and I’ve no doubt all their stories are pretty interesting. It’s just that this is our Colin.
I’m sure there are many more New Zealand films in the can that will have a similar human truth. Stand by for a great few years creatively telling the real stories of New Zealand.
The Man on the Island has its world premiere on Sunday as part of Doc Edge at the Civic, a four-film event in Auckland. It will open in select cinemas nationwide from November 23.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.