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How far is heaven: a new film on relations between a New Zealand river and its communities

I’ve been lucky recently  to catch some new documentaries at the 2012 New Zealand film festival and ones that have dealt with relations between peoples and their environments. And this one, How Far is Heaven (2012) in particular relates to my previous post on the Whanganui River (the river has recently been granted world-leading innovative legal status to protect it as an entity in its own right).

Beautifully shot, this film captures the sights and sounds of the local Maori, the three remaining nuns who live amongst them and the Whanganui river that threads through their lives and supports the other living communities of flora and fauna in this remote area of New Zealand, beautifully realised in the changing seasons of the year. This is the river where my great grandmother lived in the 1890s (see her paintings from that time here) for about 18 years, though she lived much further north up river. My grandfather, Charles Cowie, met the founding sister, Sister Aubert, at Jerusalem/Hiruharama several times when he was growing up.

‘Though perhaps most famous as the home of New Zealand poet James K. Baxter’s commune in the 1970’s, Maori (Ngati Hau) peoples have lived here in this area for countless generations. In 1892 Suzanne Aubert (Mother Aubert) founded the Sisters of Compassion order in Jerusalem / Hiruharama—the only homegrown Catholic order in New Zealand. Today the average residential population of the Jerusalem village is 30 people.’

‘The Sisters of Compassion have lived in the remote village of Jerusalem / Hiruharama on the Whanganui River in New Zealand for 120 years. Today, only three nuns remain – their legacy on the river is coming to an end. This is a complex world of powerful dualities; Maori & Christian spirituality, parties & prayers, pig hunting and perfume appreciation…

Over the course of a year, the film follows the journey of Sister Margaret Mary, the newest Sister to Jerusalem, who is a regular volunteer at the local school. Through an intimate, observational and relational gaze, the film is captivated by the spellbinding personalities of the local kids, whose humour and unique philosophies transcend the harsher realities of life.’


Cathy Fitzgerald
Cathy Fitzgerald is a rural-based experimental filmmaker / visual artist with a background in research biology. Born in New Zealand she has lived in Ireland for 16 years. She is presently a Visual Culture PhD Scholar at the National College of Art & Design (NCAD), Dublin, Ireland. She is looking at experimental film (practice and theory) and ecology in this age of biospheric crisis. Her research work can be seen at www.ecoartflm.com
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