The Ancient Watcher -making of the documentary
'The Ancient Watcher' has been part of the official selection of the Documentary Edge Film Festival 2016 in New Zealand.
A couple of years ago an idea came to me that I wanted to make a film about trees. At the same time I was planning my first trip to New Zealand. I started reading about local forests and I realised I never knew New Zealand was home to some of the oldest and biggest trees on Earth: the kauri.
Southern kauri, or Agathis Australis, belongs to an old family that dates back to the times when New Zealand was still part of the supercontinent Gondwana (together with Australia, Antarctica, South America, Africa and India), that is over 80 million years ago. Kauri forests used to cover pretty much the whole of the North Island, but nowadays only pockets remain, notably in the far north and on the Coromandel peninsula. Waipoua, on the west coast of Northland, is the largest kauri forest and home of Tane Mahuta, the most famous tree in New Zealand. It so happens that Tane Mahuta is also the name of the Maori mythical hero, creator of the world who connects the earth with the sky and fathers all living things.
When you read about the kauri forests, sooner or later you will come across Maori stories about them. Some of those stories I liked so much, I wanted to retell them in the film.
For the Maori, Waipoua is a sacred place, the home of their ancestors and the kauri trees are counted among those ancestors. There is a beautiful legend about the kauri and the whale exchanging skins, as one decides to remain on land, whilst the other goes back to the sea. Kauri and whale are brothers, and all humans are also related to them. This is why the Maori fight to defend the whales, recently against Norwegian oil company, Statoil.
The Maori are an important voice of conservation, because they understand what many people seem to forget too often, that everything in nature is related. It’s been over 150 years since Charles Darwin revealed to us our unexpected relatives, scattered around the world, but we seldom think of them at all or prefer to pretend, like with some embarrassing uncle or annoying cousin, that we are not related. Many of us rarely think of nature at all, until we go on holiday. From time to time we will have a little epiphany, when we cross a path with a fox, coming back from work and look it in the eye, or when we swim with dolphins, but those exhilarating encounters are few and far between.
Maori people love the kauri and they have a special relationship with these forests, relationship which fascinated me and was at the origin of the idea for the film ‘The Ancient Watcher’.
Kauri coast is famous for its ancient forests, but it is also famous for its artists. Probably the most original among them is Kerry Strongman from Te Hana. Te Hana is a tiny settlement that consists of a few solitary houses perched on the surrounding hills, reconstructed Maori village, a gas station, a café and the Arts Factory. The factory is unmistakable with its massive Maori inspired sculpture watching you as you travel along the highway from Auckland towards the Bay of Islands.
Kerry Strongman uses kauri wood, salvaged from the swamps, where a forest was once buried, around 50 thousand years ago. The wood is miraculously well preserved under water and is widely used by local craftsmen and artist.
Kerry Strongman’s sculptures are often referred to as ‘Jewellery for Giants’ because of their size. The artist encourages people to touch the artwork, believing that a tree, enchanted in its new form, can still communicate with us. The factory is always full of visitors from around the world. Entering the gallery is like experiencing the kauri forest again: tall sculptures towering over you in a dim light, in silence; you can’t help but feel some invisible eyes set on you and all you want is to keep still. It is a sanctuary.
Kerry Strongman is a perfect person to speak to, if you want to find out about the kauri wood, the forests and the Maori myths and traditions.
He can tell you about the ecological and cultural significance of the kauri forests. They are part of the living heritage. Kauri is linked with the myth of creation not only because it is ancient, but because it thrives. It is a guardian of the forest, a watcher.
Nature meets art. Nature influences art. Nature is an artist itself. Kerry Strongman’s sculptures are monuments to the kauri: its grandeur, its strength, its beauty, its power. They bring together the past and the present, acting like myths. Forest has always been a place of myth, of imagination, of magic. We need forests for our physical survival, but also we need them to be able to dream. We tell the stories, because they speak to our emotions, their magic is a bond that people respect, because they help to protect what we hold sacred, our spiritual home.
'The Ancient Watcher' was a project filmed over 10 days in three locations (The Hana, Waipoua forest and Baylys Beach) with virtually no budget and one person crew. It was only possible because of the generosity of people like Kerry Strongman, Ian Mitchell from the kauri dieback program and the members of the Te Roroa iwi, who made me welcome in the forest. I am happy to say that film has been seen by audiences in Wellington and Auckland, during the 11th edition of the Documentary Edge Film Festival.