How Far Is Heaven

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“At a major level they do not need us.” — Sister Sue

Year: 2012
Country: New Zealand
Running time: 99 mins
Censor Rating: M - offensive language

Producer: Miriam Smith
Photography: Christopher Pryor
Editors: Cushla Dillon, Christopher Pryor
Music: Rachel Shearer

World Premiere

The film which Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith shot while they lived at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River is first and foremost a rapt pictorial response to its beautiful setting through four seasons. Its recurrent subject is whether three Pākehā nuns, kaitiaki of the church and convent founded in the 1880s by Suzanne Aubert, are serving any useful social purpose there in 2011. We meet the sisters working the land, discussing scripture, making jam and preserves, and talking easily about their doubts and outsider status. We see the most recent arrival, Sister Margaret Mary, volunteer-teaching at the local school. Diligent, patient and well aware that she mightn’t know half of what’s going on, she connects most readily with the kids when she teaches music.
But the taniwha under the bridge exercises a stronger hold on young imaginations in Jerusalem than the Christmas Nativity play. Several of the students come into sharp focus; Chevy, a beautiful, open 13 year old, smart beyond her years; Damien, a gleeful pint-sized maniac; and the charming oddball DJ, a Kiwi filmmaker’s dream boy gifted with a face that registers amazement with every emergent thought. The gentle, chipper sisters are not missionaries: it’s themselves they set out to improve. (How they affect these young lives is only ever implied by the film.) For them, any question about the purpose of their ministry is ultimately answered in a different register altogether. As Pākehā artists, Pryor and Smith are perfectly placed to touch us with the sisters’ awkwardness and humility as they too achieve connection with this bewitching bend in the river – and its hospitable, bemused tangata whenua. — BG