In 2013 Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith moved to the small Waikato town of Reporoa to shoot a documentary about the local club rugby team. One year later they emerged with a stunning meditation on what it is to be a farmer, a teammate and a man in rural New Zealand. Don Rowe talks to the couple in this longform interview.
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The Ground We Won is the second film from Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith, burgeoning masters of the art of the immersive documentary. Haunting, beautiful, joyful and melancholic, the film grabs our national myth by the swanndri, shakes the pop-culture sentimentality and ‘100% Kiwiana’ crust from its dusty pockets, and takes a look at what’s left. Though set in the small Waikato town of Reporoa, The Ground We Won could be the story of any one of a thousand rural communities and, ultimately, the men and soon-to-be-men who inhabit them, in all their stoic complexities.
After living in Reporoa for a year during filming, the couple now function almost as rural New Zealand anthropologists, as versed in the intricacies of calving as they are in the end-of-season court sessions attended by any team worth its weight in Waikato Draught (or relevant regional drop).
I spoke to the duo by phone. Nearly a year after the film did the festival circuit, Pryor and Smith speak about the project with a reverence and thoughtfulness that suggests the impact of The Ground We Won is not reserved solely for the audience. An edited transcript is below.
The rugby-playing farmer isn’t exactly a unique angle, it’s almost stereotypically the stuff of advertising and mass media. What was your thesis or inspiration for examining the subject?
CP: We were quite fascinated in the very fact that, as you say, rugby and farming are things that we’re bombarded with in the mass media, yet it’s never really been explored on the big screen in a cinematic context. We felt that it was such fertile ground for that more cinematic exploration and so that’s where it began.
MS: It was sort of this thing where it’s a part of our culture as New Zealanders which we are sort of expected to understand but, because Chris and I are kind of outsiders, we didn’t grow up in the clubs ourselves, it was something we didn’t understand. It was a personal curiosity and at times even a discomfort about this New Zealand identity which we’re all supposed to know and love. We wanted to get in there and learn and see what it was like for ourselves, up-close and first-hand. We wanted to explore it in all its complexities in a non-judgmental way.
It’s interesting that you recognised or intuited that there were these complexities, because even though it’s our national myth, there’s not a whole lot of detail to it. It doesn’t seem, on the surface anyway, that there’s a whole lot of material beyond footy and a couple beers.
CP: You’re right. Relative to all the other material there’s quite a lack I would say. In the early stages of researching and thinking about this film, we were looking at the gender studies shelves in the libraries and could only find one book, on these shelves and shelves of library books, there was only one book on New Zealand’s male identity. The film is about male tribalism, and we saw rugby as being a vehicle for that exploration.
MS: The first day we filmed, the team let me go into the changing sheds before the game. I found that when they did the countdown and stuff in the changing sheds, all huddled before they go out for the game, I actually found it so moving. They’re all gathered together and talking about what they were going to do, and I found it kind of incredible and emotional, powerful stuff.
I think we were also like ‘there’s all this richness here,’ and I definitely loved that. With our stoic culture, the men often don’t talk too much about what’s going in their lives, so things are much more in the subtext, but I think there’s so much beauty there in the way they can be together and laugh and hang out but the way they communicate in their friendships is very much unspoken. I find that very beautiful and it’s also very cinematic because what works on the big screen is often letting things unfold rather than people telling you stuff, so we felt that the whole world lent itself to a different sort of exploration that we don’t normally see on screen.
CP: We found what occurs in those four walls of the changing sheds, there’s something that goes on there that doesn’t happen outside the shed. So there’s stuff that’s sort of ordinary but unknown to the wider world.
There’s a metamorphosis there where they go from being a group of individual dudes to a cohesive unit.
CP: It’s a sort of transcendence I think where you step out of the daily grind and you enter this sort of space.
MS: I think there’s this remarkable camaraderie. You can talk about rugby being a metaphor for war and all that, but seeing those guys on the field and how they bat each other and stuff, it’s so hardcore we’ve had a few people say ‘You know, if you’re going to be in war, you wanna be in a foxhole with those guys,’ and I think it’s really true. You see this all played out on the field and in the sheds and there’s something awesome in that.
MS: Kind of chance actually.
CP: We’d had the idea to follow a team, a rural team, for a while and just as we were completing our previous film How Far is Heaven, which is set on the Wanganui river in Jerusalem, we were driving and we happened to see the club off SH5. We came back and watched a game or two and introduced ourselves and realised very quickly that we had some pretty exceptional characters there. We met Kelvin and Peanut and we thought, ‘These two are gonna be in our film’. So we gathered the team together one Tuesday night after training and said ‘How about it? It’s going to involve us following your every move for a very long time’, and they were remarkably open to the idea. In fact, Kelvin said straight off the bat ‘You know, I always thought someone should make a film about us’, so the deal was done.
I read that you took up residence in the town for a year.
MS: That’s right. We stayed in the little motel unit in a place called Golden Springs Holiday Park. It was cool, we were just a few k’s down the road from the Rugby Club and it meant we could be really flexible, film everything. We fit in with everyone’s lives during the filming, filming them milking at dawn all the way through the day. We’d literally just call around, see what people were doing, and then meet them at the farm gate and follow them around.
CP: And the very fact that we could spend so much time, I think it earned the confidence of those who you’re filming. The resulting authenticity is…you just can’t get it in any other way. That’s key for us. It has to have that authenticity.
At its heart the film is really about men and manhood, isn’t it?
MS: That’s absolutely right. We were looking for our three main characters, Peanut, Broomy and Kelvin to explore these different stages of manhood, and then we were looking to explore how they were as individuals on their farm and at home, and also just their relationships to the other men in the team, so that just meant that was the scope of the exploration. You see women, as you know, but their stories aren’t the main thread.
CP: We’ve always referred to the film as being our ‘mansplination’.
Peanut was the baby of team and obviously went through a whole lot of hazing, but what I found interesting about that was the different reactions between him and The Pom, another young guy, who didn’t necessarily have the same cultural context as Peanut.
CP: Peanut, like you say, he’s hassled relentlessly. And still is I think to this day. But it’s because they love him, you know? They wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t value him. It’s this sort of behaviour that’s fascinating.
MS: And to him, all those men were like a bunch of father figures, and they are actually very protective over him, whereas Pom has dropped in, he was only there for one year and it was all very alien to him I assume.
What do you think it says about New Zealand culture that Peanut takes it as a rite of passage? He’s almost proud to take his licks, whereas Pom doesn’t handle it quite so well and gets a little teary eyed.
CP: I think it says a lot about the expectations of being strong and not showing feelings.
MS: Our sort of ‘hard man’ culture. That was one of the first things I learnt in this exploration of this new world, and I think it’s true for all men in our culture. Men aren’t really given much permission to be vulnerable or to show weakness in any way. I think that’s really hard on them actually, because in our culture it’s sort of expected and perhaps it wasn’t so much where Pom came from, I’m not sure.
There were a lot of moments where, and you’ve spoken about these characters being stoic men, but there were moments where you get a glimpse at their angst or anxiety around expectations for the future. How did you get them to open up?
CP: The key is to be there, and be there day in and day out, and to experience what’s going on for them, with them. I think also most people feel like they have a lot to share, and these guys, particularly given that we’re townies, they felt that it was an opportunity for the farming community to share and show what is great about the rural community. I think that goes a long way in terms of opening up people. If they feel that they have a vested interest in the process.
MS: I think those guys are actually very comfortable with themselves. We never experienced any sense of anything they wanted to hide or anything, so I think that just allows them to be completely natural. And we actually often joke that the only thing they seem concerned about being in the film is that the fenceline looks crooked or something.
I want to talk a little bit about alcohol. It acts a social lubricator of course, but also almost as a sacrament that they all came together to take.
MS: They work so hard during the week that most nights they’re in bed by 8pm. They’ve got so much pressure on them and so much routine and monotony with the milking and stuff that we eventually saw those Saturday nights after the game as valves that just blew, a chance for them to get together with their peers and just go wild. And actually they were always good natured. We just saw it as a valve from that ‘hard man’ culture.
CP: We were also really careful to ensure that what we did show of the partying was nonjudgmental, which was really important. We’re not trying to glorify it and we’re not trying to condemn it either, we’re just trying to show what is. We want it to feel and be representative of clubs across the country and not for it to feel like Reporoa was extreme or unusual in any way.
MS: We did a tour with the film after it’s release so we took it around the country and did Q and A sessions in these small towns, and without exception people from rugby clubs in all those places said that could have been their club, and farmers too felt that it was a true representation too. They said ‘We felt that it reflects the normalcy of our culture’.
How satisfying is that?
MS: We’d always hoped that we’d get people to come to the films who are from the rugby club culture and the farmers but also we wanted arthouse cinema people, intellectual audiences. In all of the screenings we’ve had a mixture of people from all of those groups and it was really wonderful to see the discussion that it generated and this bridge between urban culture and rural culture in our country. It was hugely satisfying, I loved being part of those discussions.
As the season ramps up and as things get more serious, so does life on the farm. They’re calving and the stakes are a bit higher when the animals are at risk of dropping dead on them.
CP: Absolutely and the guys are getting tireder and tireder as the calving kicks in and it’s the tail end of the season and there’s the most on stake on the field. Prior to the year we filmed, the guys weren’t doing that well and we found that quite endearing because they weren’t a great team but it still mattered to them and they threw themselves into it as if they were playing against France or something. However at the beginning of that summer it was that horrific drought and what it meant was that many of the farmers dried off really early and so there were a lot more guys available to play. Prior to the drought the team was struggling for numbers, then all of a sudden they had loads of players. But also they really needed to be together, because a drought is pretty dire for a lot of them in terms of the stresses of the farm.
Was the success of the team absolutely essential to the final product? Do you think you could have carried the same themes and resonance without that success?
MS: I think we were really lucky that year. I think it was amazing how everything unfolded, but I think had it been a different year…Actually, because of the year or so before we went to live there, we were clear on the main characters and the theme we were approaching so I think we go in with quite a clear idea of what we’re looking for but we obviously can’t control events, or we don’t control events, or take any hand in it. It was real good luck.
I want to talk a little bit about Broomy. He was your archetypal New Zealand farmer. He even had the good looks. But there was this responsibility or anxiety that he felt towards the farm that didn’t actually seem to be shared by his parents.
MS: That’s true actually, because he is the kind of the ‘ideal man’, but we were fascinated by this pull between his kind of being the life of the party and wanting to be a part of everything that the guys were up to, and also wanting to increase his responsibility on the family farm, or needing to and wanting to.
CP: To see him go from larrikin to really quite serious and committed individual. That’s something quite admirable.
MS: He’s a very fine person.
Did you expect to see that internal struggle in him when you first met?
CP: We were hoping to see it in such a way that we could film it. We knew that he had planned to hang up his boots that season so there’s things that you see very early on creating dramatic tension, but you can’t guarantee that you’re ever going to have the opportunity to film or to see that and be able to record it with a camera.
MS: And it is part of that stoic culture too. It’s hard to ever sequence struggle or vulnerability. Even when the team wasn’t doing well, the people on the sidelines would just cross their arms and be kind of poker-faced.
CP: It’s all in the subtext which is great for cinema but bloody hard to film.
MS: And bloody hard to get a story out of somehow.
What responsibility did you feel to these people?
MS: It’s huge. These people, you’re making a film out of their real life, and you’re exposing them to the world, and we feel a huge responsibility. Most people have never seen themselves on camera, or heard their own voices, but luckily in this case they were happy about the film. And I’ve gotta say the premiere of the film was the most fun night of my life. The whole community came up to the Civic in Auckland and it was just beautiful, they loved it. They were movie stars for a night.
There’s a lot of green on the farm and the field but you took it away and shot in black and white. Why?
CP: We were looking to evoke a sense of timelessness because what’s going on on the field and on the paddock, both paddocks, it could have happened ten years ago, it could have happened fifty years ago, all we’re seeing is cycles and generations, and so we’re looking at that inter-generational timelessness of those teams. And with black and white we can evoke that sort of mythological farmer/rugby player but we can also critique it as well.
We are bombarded with images of rugby and farming and so it was really important for us to be able to look at these worlds as fresh and in a way that we’re not used to seeing time after time, because I think that if we’re going to gain any insights you do have to look at it from a different perspective, and black and white does that.
MS: As far as the music goes, it’s a similar sort of thing actually. We were looking for something classic and also contemporary and David Long is a wonderful composer and I think he actually hit that note straight away. He found it quite quickly and also we were looking, because it’s such a stoic world, we were trying to bring out the tenderness and friendships and camaraderie between these men in the subtext. Something contemporary that also drew out the tenderness of this masculine world.
Were there any surprises out there in rural New Zealland?
CP: On a personal level I don’t think I expected to enjoy hanging out with these guys as much as I did. I don’t think I’ve laughed as much as I did in that year that we spent with those guys. So there were those kind of surprises I guess, and that we found ourselves loving living rural. We loved that it was so remarkably social.
Those were the surprises, but the film itself is what we’ve always hoped to make.