The documentary film How Far is Heaven about the Sisters of Compassion and the tiny community of Hiruharama on the Whanganui River is soon to be available on DVD.
How Far is Heaven premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival in 2012. It then screened for more than six months in cinemas throughout the country.
It was the only film to be nominated for all documentary categories at the Moa NZ Film Awards in 2012 – ‘Best Documentary Film’, ‘Best Documentary Director’, ‘Best Documentary Editor’, and it won ‘Best Documentary Cinematographer’.
The film is an intimate portrait of the sisters and the Māori community of Hiruharama, captivated by the Sisters’ way of life and the personalities of the local children, whose humour and philosophy transcend the harsher realities of life.
Filmmakers Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor spent a year living in Hiruharama while filming. They wanted to live alongside the people and take the time to be truly accepted into the community. That they were able to build genuine relationships and find the heart of the place is evident in the documentary.
Sr Sue Cosgrove, who spent 10 years living in Jerusalem, describes in the film the Sisters’ role today as, ‘To preserve our story, our tradition and to keep supporting the local people.
‘At a major level they don’t need us here, but they do appreciate having us and I certainly gain heaps from being here with them. And it’s simple, but because it’s a small community with darkness and light and different shades, it’s got its complexities. And so it’s just living within those complexities and holding it lightly, and just simply being here really.’
Inspired and intrigued by the beauty and mystery, the directors say Hiruharama ‘felt to us to be a very special place, and like somewhere lost in time’.
They hoped to discover something of profound value in the process of making the documentary, ‘Something that might speak not only to us personally, but to New Zealand and the world’.
The Sisters of Compassion have lived in the remote village on the Whanganui River for 120 years. With only three remaining sisters, their legacy on the river is coming to an end. This is a complex world of powerful dualities – Maori and Christian spirituality, gang parties and prayers, pig hunting and perfume appreciation.
The film follows the year-long journey of the latest arrival to the convent Sr Margaret Mary, who is a regular volunteer at the local school. Through all seasons, the sisters’ daily practice of compassion engages with the traditions of local Maori. Together they must learn to navigate life’s heartbreak and joy.
Hiruharama may be most famous for poet James K Baxter’s commune in the 1970s, but Māori (Ngati Hau) have lived there for countless generations. In 1892 Suzanne Aubert (Mother Aubert) founded the Sisters of Compassion – the only Catholic order founded in New Zealand – in Hiruharama. Today the average residential population of the Jerusalem village is 30 people.
Visit the film’s website for details on how to purchase the DVD, which becomes available on November 18.