Film review: The Ground We Won
The Ground We Won (2015, NZ) 3½ stars
There’s many different New Zealands in New Zealand. There’s those two perennial favourites of the politicians – “Mum and Dad New Zealand” and “Middle New Zealand.” There’s the New Zealand that enjoys brunch of a Saturday morning, who buys craft beers, who watches the occasional rugby match, and who lives in our great cities (as in Auckland, for instance). There’s the New Zealand that doesn’t have any cafes in which to buy brunch, who drinks their beer by the flagon, who plays a game of rugby once a week, and who work on our dairy farms (as in Reporoa, for instance). It’s always interesting and exciting to get a glimpse into the lives of Other New Zealands. There’s a bit of prurience about it, of course, but there’s also a dry anthropology too: how do people cope when they can’t buy brunch? What kind of life can you have when all you have are things like rugby, beer, and cows?
The Ground We Won is a documentary that takes you to a New Zealand that I thought had died a death in 1960. It’s a New Zealand where the men spend Saturday afternoon playing rugby in the mud, and Saturday night drinking themselves into oblivion, and Sunday mornings with a hangover milking cows. It’s a New Zealand where the women spend those same Saturdays watching the men play rugby, and cooking after-match feeds for them (“I’d like to thank the ladies in the kitchen. Top spread, ladies!”), and Sunday mornings washing muddy rugby uniforms.
Filmed by couple Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith in 2013, it follows the rugby club at Reporoa through a season. It focuses in particular on three members of the team – the solo-father Kelvin Thomas, the captain Phillip “Broomie” Broomfield, and the 17-year-old “Peanut” Hawthorne. These three men are unique and interesting, and their stories and approaches to life are at once compelling and confronting. We see Peanut try his hand at a charity boxing match, and Kelvin balancing his farm with raising his twin 8-year-old boys, and Broomie lead the team almost all the way to the final. Their stories are interspersed with slices of rural life: the 18th birthday party (with strippers, of course), and calving (in the dark and rain, of course), and joining your mates for a jug at the rugby club after a long day farming in the fields.
This film is a mixed bag. It has its treasures. The music is perfectly matched to the footage, and is carefully written. The cinematography is quite beautiful and luminous in its quality. The men themselves are eminently watchable and completely fascinating, and the documentary draws you into their drama. As you watch Broomie struggle in the mud to help a distressed cow give birth, or follow Peanut on his journey to become a charity boxer, or see a tired Kelvin sink into his lazy-boy after finally managing to get the kids to sleep, you feel very much a part of their lives. You see very much that they’re not so different from the townies up the road.
That said, there are some problems. This documentary is packed with positive portrayals of binge-drinking – a scene in which two of the team mop the vomit out of the team bus after an away game is laconic and matter-of-fact, but other scenes of drunk farmers make it clear that in Reporoa getting completely and leglessly drunk is not simply normal but required. The scene in which the rugby team force a visiting British teenager to get dangerously drunk is chilling and shameful. Later on, we see the team holding a “court session” towards the end of the season. They get drunker and drunker, and then, unsurprisingly and disappointingly, they start displaying a casual homophobia. They might be very fine farmers, and rugby might be the glue that holds their community together, but most of them are also drunkards.
It’s filmed in black-and-white, and I don’t think this was the best decision. The black-and-white does add an etherealness to the beautiful bucolic scenes, but it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Is the choice to film in only two colours a reflection of the fact that we often think of these small towns as being two-dimensional? Is the black-and-white an homage to the fact that the values seen onscreen in this documentary don’t belong in the twenty-first century, with its technicolour and vibrance? Or is it that they just wanted to show that this New Zealand is utterly different from anything we’re used to.
“The Ground We Won” is both challenging and interesting. The challenge lies in the bald confrontation with New Zealand’s shameful and embarrassing national traditions of casual misogyny, casual homophobia, and binge-drinking. The interest is in the stories of that Other New Zealand, a place that is simultaneously utterly foreign and chillingly familiar. It’s a documentary about rugby, beer, and farming, those quintessentially Kiwi things – but it’s also more than that. It’s a documentary that forces us to confront values and behaviours that most of us try to ignore. It asks us to answer a question: “What is life, when all you have are some cows, and a rugby ball, and a carton of cold ones?”
4th May 2015
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