NGĀ REO O TE WHENUA – VOICES OF THE LAND
directed by Paul Wolffram
Review: Cinema Aotearoa
The quirks of nziff.com’s online seat allocation mean that nerdy early bookers like me are almost always put in the middle of a full row, regardless of the overall house size. When I staggered into VOICES OF THE LAND, heaving after me a plastic bag filled with hardcover library books, I stared down that ancient social experiment: shuffle past two already-seated patrons and hope they don’t hate you forever. Fortunately for me, the two women — I’d guess they were in their seventies — stood with a smile. I still apologised for existing, as one must.
The plastic bag crashed into the second woman’s leg as I sat down next to her. “You’re quite the reader, aren’t you?” she said. I admitted the books had been borrowed by my girlfriend and that I hadn’t read a word of them. The woman segued seamlessly into a discussion of a book she recently read and was fascinated by. It went in one ear and out the other, but I nodded an acknowledgement and proceeded to tell her what I was reading: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, which concerns a Dutch man living in New York when the planes hit the World Trade Center. His marriage steadily disintegrates thereafter, and the rest of his life devolves into meaninglessness. The man’s only solace is cricket, which he played often as a boy and is surprised to find in baseball-mad NYC.
The woman nodded back, then said her son was in New York on September 11 as well. She noted that his marriage had also fallen apart over the ensuing couple of years, and that he and his then-wife ultimately divorced. My brief description of Netherland must have sounded uneasily familiar, and I was struck by the reminder of how directly fiction can echo reality. But if the eerieness of the coincidence bothered her, she didn’t show it. In any case, it didn’t seem like the time or place to delve deeper, and I felt embarrassed at having unwittingly called to mind her son’s past trials, so I simply said “That’s no good” and asked what else she was seeing in the film festival. We went on to talk about our expectations of VOICES OF THE LAND and its subject, the brilliant Richard Nunns, a Pākehā who learned how to play Taonga pūoro (traditional Māori instruments) in dreams. Then the film started.
Nunns has Parkinson’s disease, and as you watch him shuffle with a stooped gait along forest paths and stony beaches with protégé Horomona Horo, it’s as if the Earth is slowly pulling him back down to it. His connection with the land is greater than most, comparable to almost any Māori. Over his seven decades, he has accumulated an unequalled volume of experience and knowledge regarding Taonga pūoro, and that flows into a wealth of other insights: about divine inspiration, about why Pākehā often fail to connect with Māori, about the nature of sound and its value to us, and about his own influence. He shares these insights in his own inimitable, rhythmic language: “these are the ways in which our sonic environment is subsumed.” As much as the land may be calling him back, Richard Nunns’ abundance of knowledge — and his awareness that it is held by remarkably few — may be weighing him down.
So he’s passing it on to Horo, an affable and deferent man with a hulking figure and a long ponytail. Through this film collaboration with Paul Wolffram, he’s also passing some of it on to us. Ninety minutes in Nunns’ company could never compare to the lifetime of looking and listening it’s taken to get him to this level of understanding, and Horo is clearly the next master of Taonga pūoro, but there is so much for an audience — especially in New Zealand — to take away from VOICES OF THE LAND. Take the headphones out of your ears next time you go for a walk. Allow yourself to experience the sound waves moving through you. Pay attention to where those sounds are coming from. Respect their sources, and remember that the river or the forest have been around a lot longer than you have. A lot of Nunns’ work with Horo, and previously with the late, great Hirini Melbourne, involves playing to the land: taking their instruments out to some barely touched forest or foreshore scene, usually by request, and following their sonic inspiration. Their mastery is not so much of the instruments but of their connection with them, and by extension the land itself.
Throughout VOICES OF THE LAND, I couldn’t help being reminded of my dad, who I sometimes feel I am slowly becoming. Like Nunns, he has an array of artifacts displayed around his house, including several creaking bookshelves bearing cherished works; like Nunns, he has a story for each of them, and for pretty much everything else in his sphere of orbit. Among the artifacts are some instruments, some of which bear some resemblance to Taonga pūoro. My dad was once in the Scratch Orchestra, a collective led by Phil Dadson that performed a combination of music and sonic experimentation. The one I always remember is the repeated scrunching up of a page of newspaper into a ball then reopening it, maybe fifteen or twenty times. Try this, if you have a newspaper handy, and notice how the sound and feel of the newsprint changes. It’s this kind of mindfulness towards the objects and sounds in one’s environment that Nunns has spent his whole life promoting.
I was lucky enough to see Melbourne and Nunns perform once, at WOMAD in Auckland in 1999. They took over the Auckland Town Hall for an hour and held everyone in their thrall as they moved between various instruments that had been placed on the stage. This music was like nothing I’d heard before: sparse, not particularly tuneful, but possessed of a seemingly inherent gravity that captivated me. (By the way, you probably already know this sound if you’ve seen any New Zealand film since ONCE WERE WARRIORS, but if you’re drawing a blank, have a listen here.) My dad was sitting beside me that day; he’d bought my ticket. Later, I was too embarrassed — too fourteen and pimply — to dance to Pacific Island fusion group Te Vaka out in Aotea Square, but my dad was shuffling away with a smile on his face in his huge black-and-blue jandals. At one point he gently admonished me for folding my arms and refusing to give in. “Can’t you just let it take you over eventually, just let it move your feet for you?” I remained coiled, and he carried on dancing.
VOICES OF THE LAND closes with one of the best final shots I’ve seen: a moment of dazzling, patient, inevitable simplicity, a reminder of the wonder in something that happens perpetually. It left me feeling inspired and moved. The woman asked me what I thought as we stood up and left the cinema, and I told her that I loved the film but felt embarrassed that I’d seen (and heard) so little of New Zealand. “Oh, you must,” she said. “Why haven’t you seen much? Are you not from here?”
I replied that I grew up in the Waikato and have since lived in Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington; that I’d visited beautiful locations such as Cape Reinga, Mahia, the Tararuas, Abel Tasman National Park, and Castle Basin in the Southern Alps. And as I spoke, I realised that I have seen quite a lot of New Zealand. I’ve only seen the Tararuas and Abel Tasman thanks to my girlfriend, who is as filled with fascination in nature as anyone I’ve met. But I owe the rest — and many others — to my parents, especially my dad. We had so many week-long driving holidays when I was a kid, sleeping in tents and living on Rice Risotto as we took in the many sights of the North Island. My dad was obsessed with taking the back roads instead of the state highways, carsickness be damned, just to see something different. He lived for some years on the edge of bush in the Waitakere Range, west of Auckland, and he still feels its pull. Whatever connection I have to the land, I owe a huge part of it to him.
Read an interview with Richard Nunns here.
Read more about Taonga pūoro here.