“Maybe you can never really know someone…and maybe that’s all right.” So concludes New Zealander Vincent Ward in Rain of the Children, narrating the docudrama he wrote, directed, produced, appears in—and already made 30 years earlier. Ward enters into a seamless co-production with himself, recapitulating In Spring One Plants Alone, the 1978 documentary in which he recorded the daily existence of Puhi, an elderly Maori woman from the Tuhoe tribe. Acknowledging sensitive youth’s bluster and certitude, Ward realizes how little his younger self understood Puhi, and he now undertakes an artistic archaeology. Rain of the Children excavates newsreels, still photographs, and his own prior work, melding it with breathlessly gorgeous images shot in the last few years, including dramatic re-enactments of pivotal moments in Puhi’s life and nonfiction footage. It’s all designed to essay a fuller understanding of his now-deceased subject, but as Ward’s own epilogue suggests, it’s an ingenuous act that ultimately proves futile.
By indirection, Ward finds direction out, plumbing the depths of New Zealand’s lamentable history with its natives. North America has dealt with its centuries-old native past by fobbing them off on casinos; in this part of the world, the legacy of oppression and murder is still very raw and close to the surface, because the elemental tragedies perpetrated by white folks are still remembered by living Indigenous individuals. (To bring context, newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s first act of parliament was to apologize for the “stolen generation” of children who were forcibly, and paternalistically, taken from their parents as recently as the 1960s.) The lead-in to Puhi’s story begins around the turn of the last century, following a particularly vicious bout of European-inflicted genocide. Rua, a Tuhoe bolstered by particular charisma and belief in his own divine prophecy, emerged to give his tribe new hope and identity. Melding Maori beliefs concerning the land with Old Testament Jewish Messianism, Rua led an “insodus” (as opposed to an exodus) up to their promised land, Mount Maungapohatu, in order to establish an isolated commune. Puhi was a spiritual descendent of that enclave, selected by Rua to marry one of his sons, but her life was beset by more privation and tragedy than any three people could endure.
Puhi’s first eleven children die before they reach the age of ten—Miki, the eleventh, appears in Spring, but is non copus mentis—and she becomes the scapegoat for the sickness and starvation that besets her tribe. This unfathomable suffering causes her to believe she’s cursed, an idea to which Vincent Ward becomes credulous witness and excavator. Interviewing Puhi’s descendants and relatives, Ward, slightly greying and handsome, is as much as a star as his actors, re-treading the “insodus” on horseback, and revisiting the stark and beautiful landscape that framed Puhi’s life. It’s an earnest, honest plumbing of memory and loss, butting up against the ineluctable barriers to understanding people in all their full weight and messy complexity. Ward knew Puhi only as this frail figure, perpetually bent over like a question mark from the world’s persecution. Only after all those interviews does he come to grips with the fact that part of her social exile was earned; and only from reviewing his prior footage does he realize the full meaning of her many tortured gestures. Given the apparent impossibility of full comprehension, Ward’s solution—to re-enact events according to conjecture—is just as truthful as any other, because all attempts to comprehend require creative inference. This curse, taking up a good half of Rain of the Children is a pivot where Ward is able to turn some revelations back on his own complicity in bringing Phui’s life to screen, but never at the expense of what is in actuality some very astute ethnographic filmmaking. Ward frames a tantalizing question that elicits speculation as wild and varied as the countryside that frames its narrative. With his softly spoken lilt, Ward seems eager to recede into the background, and as such has an uncanny knack to get his interviewees to tell things that ought not to be spoken of, wheedling taboo out of the elders because his emotional connection and dedication to this story is genuine. Ward leaves himself open to the potentials of the supernatural, and so emerges as a fitting spokesperson for a people whose stories too often remain untold.—JAMES CRAWFORD