Rugby is the lifeblood of rural New Zealand communities and both rugby and farming are heavily branded as symbols of New Zealand’s national identity. But what does rugby actually mean to the farmers who play it?
That is what documentarians Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith (How Far Is Heaven) set out to discover in their stunning new film, The Ground We Won.
“Farming can be a little tough and being able to get away from it, surround yourself with mates, and just escape it for a bit is pretty important to us. Rugby is how we do that in Reperoa,” reveals teenage player ‘Peanut’, one of the film’s stars.
“The club is somewhere where the whole town comes together, has a few laughs, and supports each other. It’s really the heart of Reperoa and you’d still find a few of us in the clubhouse at 4 or 5 in the morning,” added ‘Prince Harry’ another one of the players featured.
“It’s all just about putting the hard work in on the field – whether you’re with the cows or the boys,” he added.
Over the period that filmmakers Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith hunkered down in the small rural community of Reperoa, they witnessed a dual struggle – one that played to the heart of the towns identity.
Faced with an elongated period of drought, the dusty farms of Reperoa were a place of perpetual concern for the communities residents.
“Everyday is a stuggle – whether it’s urban drift or water shortages, and there is there’s a lot of pressure on farmers right now. There are so many of us who are depressed or on medication,” revealed Kevin or ‘Slug’ as he is affectionately known, a fourth-generation son of Reperoa.
“Rugby gives us a chance to put everything else aside and just get stuck it and the harder you work the more you look forward to enjoying a beer with your mates after. Rugby helps to bind us together and a problem shared is a problem halved.”
However, in the case of Reperoa, this wasn’t to be as a difficult farming season was unfortunately paralleled by a rugby season littered with a string of humiliating losses which saw the team struggle for identity and credibility.
“Our club has had it’s ups and downs, and when it’s been bad it’s really been bad. However, we all rally behind the club as it means so much to our town. Without it you lose everything.” revealed Reperoa resident Shane Beeching.
The film joins the rugby team following their tough season as they look to balance farm life with their ambition to go unbeaten on the field following their demotion to a lower grade.
The pressure to tell this story honestly and do right by the town and its residents played heavily on the filmmakers and they devoted years of their lives in order to do so, requiring the filmmakers to spend a year in Reperoa following the team, and another in the editing room pruning down hundreds of hours of footage.
“Chris and Miriam put two years of their lives into 90 minutes of expression. They truly believed in what they were trying to accomplish and it really paid off, they constructing a very beautiful film,” added long-time director of the New Zealand International Film Festival, Bill Gosden.
The hours of footage captured allowed the filmmakers to construct a film which is both unsentimental and brutally honest while at the same time startlingly beautiful.
“I think with this film you can tell that its not scripted and we’re just being true to ourselves and doing what we always do,” said ‘Prince Harry’.
“Some people won’t get the swearing or drinking or that sort of thing, but this film told it like it really is on the farm. This is as real as it gets. We didn’t sugar coat anything and I’m glad that Chris and Miriam stuck to their guns and refused to either,” added ‘Slug’.
But that’s not to say that the process was always smooth sailing.
“At the start I was a bit weary of Chris and Miriam. I was thinking to myself ‘what’s going on here?’… It’s all a bit weird, you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do when there’s a camera pointed at your face,” admitted Peanut.
‘Prince Harry’ added that the team was initially a little hesitant about the process, especially when it came to having them in the changing rooms – and intensely private and often emotionally raw time for any rugby player.
“What goes on in the changing rooms can be a bit rough as you need to get amped up for the game. It’s also pretty private – something that you share with the boys. When Chris and Miriam first arrived we weren’t quite sure what they wanted to get out of it so it was a little awkward… I was really just wondering how they were gonna cut out all the swearing.” In case you were also wondering – they don’t.
However, the town was quick to embrace the filmmakers and make them part of the community, and as the filming went on it became easier for the boys to deal with.
“Towards the end you sorta forget about them being there, just go with it and think ‘bugger it, who cares – just get over yourselves, it’s just a camera’,” said ‘Peanut’.
The night of the premiere, held in Auckland’s majestic Civic Theater was a joy to behold and saw most of Reperoa make the trip up to join in the festivities, swapping stubbies and singlets for suits and ties.
“There’s not many people left in Reperoa from the look of it is there?” commented a bemused ‘Prince Harry’.
“Actually, I’m starting to sort of miss the Cows,” added ‘Peanut’.
This is a town that lives for rugby and lives for each other. While they might feel a little uncomfortable with all the spotlight on them, they’re taking it in their stride and are thankful for the care that Chris and Miriam took in order to truthfully showcase what both rugby and farming mean to small-town New Zealand.
Slug hopes for this film is that it will help reinvigorate our interest in rugby – the ‘real’ grassroots kind which he feels is slowly dying out.
“I live for it but grassroots rugby is getting harder to keep alive. It’ a bit like religion I guess. People aren’t going to church as much anymore and likewise grassroots rugby is struggling to attract attention, but in Reperoa it’s our religion, and our passion is still there.”
The Ground We Won truly helps to expose us to the stories of people and communities who might not otherwise have their voices heard, with Bill Gosden revealing that that is the core aim of the NZ International Film Festival and why he is so proud of the film.
This is a story that has to mean more to us as New Zealanders than a Hollywood blockbuster could ever hope to. It’s a film that explores a number of topics from mateship to manhood, life on the farm to life on the rugby pitch. Amidst all of this, The Ground We Won is able to deftly explore what it means to be a Kiwi while questioning the overplayed mythology evident in many previous films examinations into Kiwi manhood – and most importantly, this film is ours.