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The Vanishing House

A four-year study of a Maori family living in harmony with the wilderness of New Zealand - and how it was all put in jeopardy. From Berlinale Generation.


If you liked James Cameron’s AVATAR, I suggest you watch the Berlinale Generation film THIS WAY OF LIFE (New Zealand) as a corrective. A new documentary about the daily life of a Maori family in New Zealand’s untamed wilderness, it’s twice as persuasive about the shattering effects of displacement, and only half as long.

The filmmaking couple of Tom and Barbara Burstyn took nearly four years to make the film, and in the process they became members of the Karenas, the family they were filming. When we first meet them, the Karenas live in a small house cradled in the country’s Ruahine Mountains. Peter and Colleen Karena, the parents, are fighting to retain the house, which Peter’s father is attempting to wrestle from them. The couple drives to a public auction to buy the house, but when they get there it’s already been sold. As their family comes to terms with an imminent dispossession, Peter’s father sends goons to threaten them off the property and muscle them out. A few weeks later, the house is torched to blackness and then levelled to the ground by a lumbering crane.

In these and other details, the film recalls AVATAR. The seven Karena kids – with another on the way (Colleen says she would like ten) – are raised with an awareness of the mountains, rivers and forests around them. The Burstyns inter-cut the intimidating and expansive beauty of the Ruahine with close-ups of wild tomatoes or the hooves of a hunted deer. “My children know how they get their meat“, says Peter, and indeed there are amazing shots of their six-year-olds sharpening knives and riding horses bareback on mountain trails. Their parents do not teach them to fear, but Colleen fears that the children will be disappointed by the world beyond the horizon. Peter speaks quite articulately and intelligently about the absurdities inspired by capitalism, things which make “trespassers of tenants” and have turned his family into itinerants.

The Burstyns, one a cinematographer and the other a journalist, began this project with the idea of making a short, simple film about how to break a horse. The result was THIS WAY OF LIFE, a film imbued with the searing sense of a vanishing tribe and a testament to the immediate mythic power of the landscape.

301 Moved Permanently

301 Moved Permanently

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