• Tue, 14, Jul, 2015 - 5:00:AM

A living building, Te Ao Maori, and a breath-taking film: Filmmaker Sarah Grohnert on Ever the Land

Image: Lottie Hedley

Every now and then you see a film that takes your breath away. Ever the Land is one of those films. A nuanced and deeply engaging look into the heart of Ngāi Tūhoe, Ever the Land follows the journey of Tūhoe as they built their first tribal headquarters in generations, Te Uru Taumatua.

Sarah Grohnert’s film provides an insight not only into the building of the historic wharenui, one of only 200 buildings worldwide to adhere to the strict criteria of the Living Building Challenge; it also documents the culmination of a long road of hardship and fighting with the Crown, an apology from the New Zealand government for the many crimes committed against the people of Te Uruwera.

Ahead of Ever the Land’s sold-out premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival this Saturday, Villainesse spoke to filmmaker Sarah Grohnert about the inspiration behind the film, working with Ngāi Tūhoe, her advice for young filmmakers and more.

Villainesse: What inspired you to make Ever the Land?

Sarah: The film's producer Alexander Behse and I were researching sustainable architecture in New Zealand a few years ago when we were put in touch with Jerome Partington. He is a sustainability manager at Jasmax architects and it was just one of those lucky alignments where we happened to meet him just at the time when they were starting to work with Tūhoe on designing their first tribal headquarters in 150 years.

Jerome was telling us very passionately about the Living Building Challenge, an architectural philosophy and certification programme that looks at the potential of architecture to be restorative and sustainable in the most complete way. So, the lights just went on for Alex and I... we were just so fascinated by what Jerome was telling us and curious to find out more. It all started from there.

At the time neither Alex nor I realised we were going to work with one of the great NZ architects, the late Ivan Mercep, and we also didn't know anything about Tūhoe really...both Alex and I being German and having not been in NZ that long at the time.

Villainesse: What was it like working with the Tūhoe people?

Sarah: I had absolutely zero prior knowledge of Tūhoe and even Māoritanga when I stumbled across this project. I had been in New Zealand for little over a I relied a lot on the kindness and guidance of the Tūhoe people.

We didn't really have a conversation around [protocols] as such with Tūhoe, it was simply something that happened naturally. It was clear that I was entering a culture that was totally new to me, so my sense of awareness was very acute and I'd pick up on things and rely on guidance, especially around Marae and Tūhoe tikana. There wasn't a dedicated person [to report to], and every Tūhoe I encountered taught me something in their own way. A wonderful way to learn.

I spent a lot of time around the office of the Tūhoe tribal authority and when I reflect now, the first few times I came...they made me cups of tea and treated me like a manuwhiri, a guest. It's when I started being encouraged to make my own ‘cuppa teas’ and make cuppa teas for others that I guess I passed the threshold of knowing enough to find my way around. With Tūhoe, it's all about cuppa teas by the way!

Villainesse: Was the choice to film Ever The Land as direct cinema with no interviews or narration deliberate? Did you feel that it was important for Tūhoe to tell their story in their own words?

Sarah: I had the desire from the start to make a film that could speak for itself, something that would allow an audience to really become immersed in what they are seeing and hearing, an opportunity to make their own connection and sense of it. Cinema as an experience so to speak. So that kind of aesthetic concept was with me from the beginning, but it took some time for it to fully emerge from my filming and for myself to feel confident that it could work.

I did film a lot of interviews in the beginning, and periodically throughout... partly for research purposes, I still wanted to find out what people were thinking and feeling and it helped me greatly in gaining more understanding of Tūhoe and also the architectural process and visions that were attached to the building. At the same time, I was constantly looking out to put myself into situations where I could capture scenes, moments or conversations between people that would express what I would otherwise need words of explanation for.

It's a challenge, you're always in this space of heightened awareness and thinking... Is this part important? Could this piece of information these people are exchanging be a piece of the puzzle? Of course, you never know what people are going to say or how real life unfolds in front of the camera so this kind of filmmaking involves spending a lot of time listening, anticipating and rolling lots of dice to be in the right place at the right time.

As far as Tūhoe go, they simply trusted Alex and I. They never asked us about details for our creative process and had no expectations as to the style of film. They supported us to get on with this journey of filmmaking as independently as possible and that was a gift in itself.

When you spend time with Tūhoe people you can't help but be touched and inspired, at least that was my experience and one I wanted to get across as unfiltered as possible. What I noticed about Tūhoe is that very often there aren't actually any words for the things they mean, the things that make Tūhoe and Te Urewera so very special. It's pure just have to let that speak for itself, there’s nothing more powerful than that.

Tūhoe certainly aren't the kind of people that give you answers on a plate, but they do appreciate when you go the distance and make the effort to try and grasp things from their perspective. So, my filmmaking approach and their view of things in that way complimented each other very well I think.

Villainesse: The concept of the living building seems to be a great fit with Te Ao Māori and Māoritanga. Was this important to the iwi from the beginning?

It's a question Tūhoe are most suited to answer, I don't feel comfortable answering for them. The only thing I can say is that I did hear them voice in some early design meetings that the principles of the Living Building Challenge were something that felt very natural and familiar to them.

From my observations, Tūhoe have an amazing sense of integrity towards their values and visions. In that way, from the outside looking in, a Living Building seems an ideal match for Tūhoe.

Villainesse: As a documentary filmmaker, how are you affected by what you’re capturing on camera?

Sarah: As a filmmaker you're still first and foremost the same human being that you are when you're not behind a camera. What I film affects me deeply. In fact, that's my inner compass for filmmaking. If something sends shivers down my spine, if something makes me laugh, or cry, or if I just can't take my eyes off it - then that's the clearest indication for capturing something engaging. If it engages me, chances are it engages other people too. 

Many scenes that I have filmed felt special at the time and still do. No matter how many times I have seen the footage or watched the film, I still react with the same intensity, it doesn't seem to wear off. I hope that means that I was able to capture something timeless and universal.

The settlement [of Ngāi Tūhoe’s claim with the Crown] certainly was a very special moment. I don't recall how many times I checked the camera to make sure I was really recording. My hands were shaking and I was worried that I would mess up a pan of the camera. I think that's why most of the film is made up of static shots actually! To just be present on such a historic occasion and feel the emotions and presence of everyone in the room is something I will treasure forever.

Villainesse: Have the people of Ngāi Tūhoe seen the finished film? What have their reactions been?

Sarah: We held a cast & crew screening at the actual building in Tāneatua a few months ago. Tūhoe have their very own way of letting you know if they like something. It's a "quiet acknowledgement". They don't dish out praise much but they can be very outspoken. When they don't like something, they'll definitely let you know. We got a lot of hugs and quiet appreciation so in my book that translates as 'I think they liked the film'. 

We have the official premiere of the film coming up at the New Zealand International Film Festival, first in Auckland on the 18th of July, and then in Wellington on the 28th. On both occasions, Tūhoe have already booked their tickets to show up in huge numbers and bring their whanau and friends. I think that's another indicator that we made a film they are proud of and happy to share with others.

Villainesse: For people who may never have interacted with iwi, can you explain the impact of Te Uru Taumatua?

Sarah: That's a huge question and one best answered by Tūhoe themselves. For anyone who hasn't had the opportunity to interact with iwi before but who are interested in Tūhoe my advice is, go and visit the new building Te Uru Taumatua in Tāneatua. It is open to all, they do free tours of the building for anyone who comes in. The people at Te Uru Taumatua are a very friendly bunch who will make you feel welcome and there are some awesome interactive tables near the cafe area with loads of information on Tūhoe.

You sort of can’t really explain the impact of Te Uru Taumatua without getting a sense of the bigger picture and there are so many layers to it. Going there and getting some first hand experience is the best way to get a glimpse of it.

Villainesse: If you had to narrow it down, is there one particular message that you hope people will take away from Ever the Land?

Sarah: I am quite passionate about this not being a message film. The film is conceived in such fashion that really everyone can make their own connections and take things away from it that resonate particularly with them. So, no, there isn't a prescibed message.

On the other hand, my hope for the film is simply that it moves people, that it touches them in one way or another as a human being. I think there are themes in the film that are universal and each and every one of us has a connection with land, so if the film can sharpen an awareness for that then that's great. How and what that translates to in terms of affecting people and the things they may think about or do as a result of that... that will always best be left to the individual.

Villainesse: What would be your advice to young filmmakers?

Sarah: Know yourself. The most interesting films come from people who stick to their own voice and follow their own vision. It's tempting to try and follow in someone else's footsteps, be what someone else is. But there is only one you, and only you see the world the way that you do.

I think there are real gifts in that uniqueness but they are yours to discover and share. The more you know yourself, the more you trust your inner voice and the ideas that spring from that, the more anchored you can be in yourself when you sail the unpredictable ocean of filmmaking.

Ever the Land will screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival (July 16 - August 2, 2015). Tickets to the premiere are sold out, but tickets to other screenings are available here.



  • Interview /
  • Maori /
  • Ngai Tuhoe /
  • Maoritanga /
  • Te Ao Maori /
  • Documentary /
  • Environment /
  • Living Building Challenge /
  • Te Uru Taumatua /
  • Sarah Grohnert /
  • New Zealand International Film Festival /
  • Film /
  • Filmmaking /
  • Ever the Land /
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