This Way of Life: a view from the producer of a new documentarySeptember 13th, 2011 | Posted by in Movie Reviews | New Releases
By Barbara Sumner Burstyn, producer of This Way of Life
This Way of Life is a film about a family. Mum, Dad, six kids, 50 horses, a mountain, a beach, and a burnt down house.
Shot over four years, against the backdrop of a remote New Zealand mountain range and a hidden beach camp, the film explores Peter and Colleen Karena’s connection to nature, their survival skills, and their intimacy with each other and their horses as they attempt to navigate the discord between Peter and his father.
Though European, Peter was adopted into a Maori family, and is Maori in all but skin. He is a horse-whisperer, philosopher, hunter and builder, husband and father. Despite seemingly overwhelming challenges, Peter refuses to compromise. Especially troubling to Peter is his broken relationship with his adopted father, a malevolent man who refuses to leave him alone.
We follow their family up into the Ruahine ranges and down to their hidden beach camp. We watch as Peter and Colleen, both in their early 30s, celebrate the birth of a child and cope with a late miscarriage. Their attempts to navigate the discord between Peter and his father culminate in the theft of Peter’s valuable herd of horses and the burning of their beloved family home.
We watch as Peter, now homeless, steers his family toward a new way of living and being. Regardless of their hardships, the Karenas manage never to lose sight of the magic in the everyday.
The question everyone asks us is why? Why dedicate four years to make a “slice-of-life” documentary about a local family? It began with Peter Karena’s incredible horsemanship. We knew that the magical relationship he had with horses was unique, and we quickly formulated a plan to produce a little instructional DVD on how to break in a horse.
It was to be a casual thing, fitting around Tom’s [director Tom Burstyn] day job as a cinematographer. But the minute we turned on the camera, it was obvious that Peter had something: a presence; a way of ignoring the camera and engaging with it at the same time. However, it would be almost a year of shooting before we realized that the DVD had turned into a real film, about a real family, and their remarkable way of life.
Perhaps because of the long shoot, the film is characterized by an intimacy, not only with the camera, but also clearly with us as filmmakers as well. For example, for the first year, Colleen would quietly turn away whenever we arrived with the camera. She was kind and polite, but very clear that she did not want to be on film. Then, one day we called her to test the water. Something had shifted. Sure, she said, come on over.
It was at this point, almost a year into the process, when we realized that, while we had been observing the Karena family, the Karenas — and especially Colleen — had been watching us.
I understood then that we had entered a type of contract not covered by law, or by the usual dictates of documentary filmmaking. This could not be a portrait from the outside. We had to be on board with all elements of our lives or nothing.
And of course, as filmmakers, this was where we were most challenged. There is an expectation of purity in documentary making, that there is an absolute truth, and if the filmmaker can just find a position of sufficient height to both observe intimately and not be observed, they will capture that truth.
This Way of Life is now playing on IndieFlix.
This article was edited by Eric Nielsen at IndieFlix, and the full article can be found here.
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Editor’s note: This Way of Life was also featured in our year end The Best of Our Best: IndieFlix 2011.