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VIFF 2015 Interview: EVER THE LAND director Sarah Grohnert

by Jason Whyte

"EVER THE LAND tells the massively inspiring and uplifting story of New Zealand's Tuhoe Maori people who in a bold move conceived and constructed New Zealandís first Living Building as a legacy of sustainability while reconciling 150 years of grievances and achieving a historic one-of-a-kind settlement with the NZ government." Director Sarah Grohnert on EVER THE LAND which screens at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

So I heard that this is your first time at VIFF!

Yes, it is my first time at VIFF, my first feature film and in fact our international premiere here at VIFF. I arrived in Vancouver and was blown away by the atmosphere, people and green vision for the city. I have cycled around a lot and also took a trip out toward the mountains yesterday. I really like this place and people seem to live and breathe films here during the festival. The conversations I have had in the many long queues outside VIFF screenings have been totally awesome.

Tell me a bit about yourself, your background and how you got to this point!

I am originally from Germany where I trained as an editor a decade back, then via film school in the UK and a few years working in London I am now based in New Zealand, a country I fell in love with as an exchange student when I was 16 and always dreamed of living and working permanently. I made that dream come true in 2011 and now live at the beautiful Karekare beach where THE PIANO by the amazing Jane Campion was filmed. Nature has always inspired me, I was gearing towards doing a fiction feature film first but somehow got drawn towards documentary by meeting a wonderful young producer over in NZ, Alexander Behse, co-incidentally also German. We became interested in sustainable architecture and by talking to people heard about the Tūhoe Maori people, their unique relationship to their ancestral land and their desire to build their first HQ ever in 150 years as a Living Building,one of less than a dozen certified buildings in the word, as a legacy to future generations and a significant symbol of their deep care and responsibility as guardians of their land.

So how did EVER THE LAND all come together?

I have had no previous experience with architecture and having freshly arrived in NZ, the Tuhoe Maori people and their stories and history was a complete blank canvas to me. What drew me and producer Alexander Behse to the story initially was the architecture. The Living Building Challenge is a one-of-a-kind restorative architecture that brings together right brain and left brain; it is not just about putting solar up on the roof and achieving sustainable excellence from a technical point of view but it's more than that, placing much focus on the place and people, on biophelia and beauty, on nature and the ecological systems around the building and how through architecture you can create the situation where the building becomes a positive factor for all those things.

So, our way into this project was via a fascination with the architecture. However, the moment I met the Tuhoe people and was allowed to spend time in this incredible part of NZ, called Te Urewera, a misty, mystical & mountainous forest are in the middle of the north island. Something else happened. A deep sense and affection for the land and the people and their stories ignited and soon it became apparent that I was spending time with them during the most important period of their history. The tribe was at the brink of achieving a historic settlement and closing with a painful past to unite their people to move towards a positive and sustainable future and open up to the rest of New Zealand and the world to discover the true nature and wealth of humanity the Tūhoe people have to offer. The documentary took on those story layers more and more, weaving a fly-on-the-wall immersive experience of Tuhoe and their lands into the process of seeing this building designed, constructed and opened. The building in a way is the key in this relationship between land and people, a marriage of sorts and something I think that is not exclusive to Tuhoe but something universal and in our ecologically challenging times a beacon of light and inspiration for everyone.

After accumulating 300 hours of footage over two years of filming I was insanely lucky to meet my editor Prisca Bouchet who somewhere along the line must be my twin because our thoughts and vision was so aligned that after two months of just watching down footage, we had distilled the essence of the film and got to focus on the fun part of weaving and crafting all those story layers into a beautiful cinematic experience. Adding to that, my brilliant sound designer Nick Buckton came on board. The film has no music, narration or even interviews but we let people and the land speak purely for themselves and the soundscape Nick brought to live and enhanced is so delicate and so pure. I think people will truly feel like they are in this part of the world when they watch the film. I have seen the film a few hundred times and am still totally thrilled by the experience.

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you?

The people and the subject is what keeps me going. When you work on something you deeply care about and utterly believe in, that is the most potent driver I know. I feel extremely blessed to have been working with Tuhoe and also one of NZ's most wonderful architects, Ivan Mercep, on this project. Their vision is utterly fascinating and whatever struggles or doubts I might have had along the way, all I had to do was look at what these people are doing, their care and commitment to this, and there wasn't a chance I was ever going to walk away from this. It was my responsibility to honour the trust and faith they put in my work to capture and document this project and I am forever grateful for it.

What was your biggest challenge with EVER THE LAND?

Funding is always a challenge and in this case I ended up shooting the film almost entirely by myself. We had no money for camera and sound just on very few occasions so I ended up being a one-woman band for nearly all of the time during filming. It turns out that was probably the key to achieving the intimacy of the film, being on my own enabled me to live and stay with the Tuhoe people for long periods of time, I became part of their communities and was able to film places and situations in ways that almost feel like the camera isn't there at all. It's all so natural and raw, so turn the challenge into your advantage and that's certainly what happened for me.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

MANY. So many that is seems terribly unfair to single out one! But for all those who think they have seen a NZ Haka when they tune into a rugby match, come see the film and watch a Tuhoe Haka that will make your hairs stand at the back of your neck, tense every muscle in your body and reach down deep into your gut and say, "So THIS is what it's all about". Stunning.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the tech side of the movie and how you filmed it.

I filmed the entire film myself, on a Sony FX100 with standard Sony Zoom lens, a camera mic and a separate lavalier mic, and most importantly a tripod. The film is shot almost entirely locked off and in many long takes, the reason for that being is that after spending some time with Tuhoe, and initally going handheld and having my visual interests all over the place, I came to see that if you sit still for long enough in one place the secrets of that place and its people start revealing themselves to you. You discover the essence, the true rhythm and nature of this place and everything starts unfolding in frame quite magically. At least, that's what happened for me. The amount of perfect alignments and choreography within frame never stopped puzzling me and because it was important to me to reveal the land itself and also the building featured in the film as the key characters. I was conscious of context and using framing, particularly wide shots, very deliberately to communicate the role human beings play in relation to the vastness and rich beauty of land that surrounds them.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at VIFF?

It is the first time showing the film to an overseas audience so I am looking forward to the experience full stop and the potential for conversations and thoughts that are hopefully stimulated by this.

Where is this movie going to show next? Any theatrical release?

The film is playing at the end of October at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York and in November at the Hawaii Film Festival. It's also on theatrical release in New Zealand at the moment, so hop on a plane and head to middle earth if you happen to miss it while it's here in Vancouver. Better still though, do go and see it at VIFF.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

I would gently squeeze their hand and assure them it's gonna be alright.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

Start by starting and never stop.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

Nice try. I couldn't possibly.

Be sure to follow the news on EVER THE LAND by visiting the film's official site, follow on Twitter at @evertheland and on the Facebook page!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 24th to October 9th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the VIFF app for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 10/03/15 19:51:29
last updated: 10/04/15 03:14:32
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