Colonized people see the world from inside a mirror. From outside, you’re oblivious (because: what changed?) But if you’re colonized – on the side that lost – life itself loses meaning. Imagine: the country you call home vanishes, you are invaded, and the invaders never leave. Even your name for your country is unwritten on a map. Aotearoa (“the land of the long white cloud”) is the Maori name for New Zealand. The name New Zealand comes from Europe (“old” Zeeland is a region in the southwest of Holland). Vincent Ward’s new documentary, Rain of the Children, is an attempt to get the view from inside the mirror. It’s the story of a Maori woman, looking back.
When he was in his twenties, Vincent Ward made a documentary about an old Maori woman named Puhi. She prayed constantly. She believed her family was cursed. In 1980, Ward could not get her to tell him why she was cursed, or what her life had been before he met her. So thirty years later, he went back. Rain of the Children is a testimony to a vanished life. It recounts Puhi’s story (through interviews, archive photography, and dramatic re-enactment) and her part in the story of Rua Kenana, a Maori spiritual leader of the early 1900s. Puhi was married to Rua’s eldest son. She had fourteen children. Only one of her sons knew her by 1980, the year she died.
The Maori used to blow holes in Heaven. Did you know that? They used to use dynamite to “open the heavens so the people from the spirit world [would] come back, pick up the spirit of the dead and [take them up]”. This image, of explosions ringing out like churchbells, is among many Ward summons to show us the vital beauty of New Zealand’s past. A white horse trails Puhi’s son like a reflection. Puhi’s white wedding veil is spectral – a skein of light – as it floats in the air. Even Puhi’s name (“special one”) seems plucked from another world. Though her story is tragic, its telling evokes a living world so vibrant as to shout over death’s hectoring silence.
Through Puhi, the film tells the story of the Maori people; like the North American Indians and the South American Indians and the people of the South Pacific islands and the people of Africa and the Palestinians, they liked Europeans when they first met them. Then they got to know Europeans. And knowing meant being ruled. In the Land Wars of the 1860s and 1870s, the Maoris were pushed back, afflicted by foreign diseases, pushed back again, and back, and back. Until, by 1900, a man like Rua Kenana could read Exodus and see a parallel between the Maoris and the ancient Israelites. And so he founded a religious community at the foot of a sacred mountain. And the community was home to Puhi and her children. And then it crumbled. And Puhi’s children slipped through the cracks.
As narrator, it must have been interesting for Ward to look at his younger self trying to tell this story. In clips, the young Vincent Ward looks like the white world personified; bright, untroubled, keen to make a mark. Next to Puhi and her son, he seems like a sapling. They, in contrast, look like people born of a great loss. Maybe Ward had to live fifty years in order to understand them. You can’t be properly haunted by the past until your future shrinks. Puhi’s story is about wrecked chances and sacrifice. It’s also a love story between a mother and her son. At 21, that’s something you hear told to you. At 51, every word summons a piquant ghost.
This is another of Ward’s border stories. All his movies are about borders when you look back over his career. Borders between countries, between cultures, between one existence and the next. So the Medieval peasants lining a hillside in The Navigator look like the Maoris lining a hillside in Rain of the Children. United by a leap of imagination. These people both cross borders in time (either literal, or metaphorical) to escape, to journey, to speak to us. For Vincent Ward, crossing borders is not about changing what you find, but being changed by the act of crossing. He documents what can’t be colonized; our freedom to review the world.