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This Way of Life

CreativeCOW presents This Way of Life -- Cinematography Feature


Bay View, Hawkes Bay New Zealand
CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.


This Way of Life is a film about a family. Mum, Dad, six kids, 50 horses, a mountain, a beach and a burnt down house.

Shot over four years, against the backdrop of a remote New Zealand mountain range and a hidden beach camp, we explore Peter and Colleen Karena's connection to nature, their survival skills, and their intimacy with each other and their horses as they attempt to navigate the discord between Peter and his father.

Though European, Peter was adopted into a Maori family, and is Maori in all but skin. He is a horse-whisperer, philosopher, hunter, and builder, a husband and father. Despite seemingly overwhelming challenges, Peter refuses to compromise. Especially troubling to Peter is his broken relationship with his adopted father, a malevolent man who refuses to leave him alone.

We follow their family up into the Ruahine ranges and down to their hidden beach camp. We watch as Peter and Colleen, both in their early 30s, celebrate the birth of a child and cope with a late miscarriage. Their attempts to navigate the discord between Peter and his father culminate in the theft of Peter's valuable herd of horses and the burning of their beloved family home.

Now homeless, we watch as Peter steers his family toward a new way of living and being. Regardless of their hardships, the Karenas manage to never lose sight of the magic in the everyday.

The question everyone asks is: why? Why dedicate four years to make a "slice-of-life" documentary about a local family? It began with Peter Karena's incredible a malevolent man who refuses to leave him alone.

We follow their family up into the Ruahine ranges and down to their hidden beach camp. We watch as Peter and Colleen, both in their early 30s, celebrate the birth of a child and cope with a late miscarriage. Their attempts to navigate the discord between Peter and his father culminate in the theft of Peter's valuable herd of horses and the burning of their beloved family home.


Riding into the heavens
Riding into the heavens


Now homeless, we watch as Peter steers his family toward a new way of living and being. Regardless of their hardships, the Karenas manage to never lose sight of the magic in the everyday.

The question everyone asks is: why? Why dedicate four years to make a "slice-of-life" documentary about a local family? It began with Peter Karena's incredible horsemanship. We knew that the magical relationship he had with horses was unique, and we quickly formulated a plan to produce a little instructional DVD on how to break in a horse.

It was to be a casual thing, fitting around Tom's day job as a cinematographer. But the minute we turned on the camera, it was obvious that Peter had something: a presence, a way of ignoring the camera and engaging with it at the same time. However, it would be almost a year of shooting before we realised that the DVD had turned into a real film, about a real family, and their remarkable way of life.

Perhaps because of the long shoot, the film is characterised by an intimacy, not only with the camera, but also clearly with us as filmmakers as well. For example, for the first year, Colleen would quietly turn away whenever we arrived with the camera. She was kind and polite, but very clear that she did not want to be on film. Then, one day we called her to test the water. Something had shifted. Sure, she said, come on over.

It was at this point, almost a year into the process, when we realised that, while we had been observing the Karena family, the Karenas -- and especially Colleen -- had been watching us.

I understood then that we had entered a type of contract not covered by law, or by the usual dictates of documentary filmmaking. This could not be a portrait from the outside. We had to be on board with all elements of our lives or nothing.

And of course, as filmmakers, this was where we were most challenged. There is an expectation of purity in documentary making, that there is an absolute truth, and if the filmmaker can just find a position of sufficient height to both observe intimately and not be observed, they will capture that truth.


TOM: ON RESPECT

The true fiction is to believe that anything captured on camera is fact. The moment you isolate a shot, removing it from its time and space, you give it a bias. As a very young filmmaker, I was on a festival panel with Albert and David Maysles ("Gimme Shelter"). In my youthful naivety, I challenged them on the voyeuristic nature of their 1975 documentary "Grey Gardens," and my lingering feeling that they had taken advantage of their emotionally vulnerable subjects. I remember the cold stare that one of the brothers gave me -- but that sense of how the film invaded the subjects' privacy without respect, as if their only value was as a source of amusement, stayed with me.


On the Trail
On the Trail


One of the first docos I made, "Flash William," was for the National Film Board of Canada, also in 1975. It was the story of a hermit who lived in a coal mining ghost town in the Canadian Rockies. He made feature films, some in 35mm, some in 3D, all by himself. He played most of the roles, including the two leads in "Dawson City Joe," who were identical twin brothers and who appeared, thanks to in-camera split screen techniques, in the same frame throughout the movie. He was also cameraman, sound recordist, editor, art director, costume designer, composer and distributor of his films.

He was a funny old man, and there were plenty of opportunities to poke gentle fun at him. One shot I wanted to use was of Flash bending over, bum to camera, rummaging through an old steamer trunk, searching for a particular piece of wardrobe. He was grumbling and throwing clothes left and right over his shoulder, and it was a very funny image.

The producers vetoed this shot, saying that it was disrespectful of our subject. The Film Board had a strict rule that respect was more profound than showing someone in a funny position. They were clear that to make a film about the helpless and the ludicrous without delivering a message of hope, or without seeing the subject finding a solution to their problems, was untenable as a documentary subject. That simple human respect remains my guiding light to this day.


BARBARA: ON CHOICES

Peter lives by an internal code of values and honor largely lost in modern times. Colleen is the keeper of her family's taonga tuku iho (heritage). A true matriarch, she sees family as the center of the universe, and mothering as the world's most important job.

The parents allow the kids to be exposed to risk, but only after careful instruction in the function and operation of the "dangerous" thing (horse riding, bow and arrow, rifle, climbing on rocks, unsupervised ocean and river swimming), and then instilling a sense of responsibility in the children, both for themselves and their siblings.


Life




We know that we walk a thin line here, but we decided early on to tell the story from their eyes, to represent the family the way they see themselves. We could have chosen to reflect the hard reality more clearly, more honestly even, but that this would have been a form of judgement, a way of imposing our lifestyle choices over theirs.

As a way to acknowledge the issue of subjectivity, we chose to have the eldest son, Llewelyn, narrate the film. Even though the parents are eloquent and heartfelt in many ways, the film is a child's eye view. It is feathered with a magical quality, the unrealistic view of the child who can never see the big picture.

There is a scene in the film where, after becoming essentially homeless, the family sets up camp near the beach. To the kids, it's a time of great adventure, and even Colleen chooses to imbue this hardship with deeper meaning.

In a sense, we only lightly touch on the real difficulty of raising children in such a challenging situation -- but then the strength of the Karena family is that they also brush over these things, as if they are merely annoying details, a part of life.


On Horseback




We have found that the most common reaction to the film is one of self-reflection. "Why do I live my life like this?" "What's stopping me from living a simpler life?" "Do I need all this stuff to be happy?" "This Way of Life" seems to become a reflection of each audience member's differing ways of life.

We were not unaware that people might react in such a way, but we did not set out to make a film that would preach a simplistic lifestyle over a more complex one. We always wanted to make a film of true intimacy, using the remarkable medium of film to craft a tale that is satisfying on a human level, in the way that a blockbuster can never be. We wanted to engage head and heart, and do it with great gentleness, so that the sense of this one family's values could percolate into our everyday lives.


TOM: ON POST, LOGIC, AND FEELING

With this film, more than any other of our productions, we operated from a place of feeling, rather than logic, or time and motion. It was a grand departure from the usual process of logging material, making lists and thinking that some piece was missing, an additional interview required, etc.

Our project management consisted of putting all the tapes into a box and not viewing them for almost four years, until we felt that filming portion of production was complete. By then, we had 60 hours of original material. Even though our FCP suite was right there, the tape deck was right there, and we could have seen anything at any time, I stayed away from any kind of review. Don't ask me why. I don't have a clue!

Structure was difficult. Because we were making a life story, we had no idea what was going to happen next as we shot. More importantly, because getting to know reclusive people takes time, the longer we spent with the family, the more intimate we became, and the more they revealed their deepest feelings to the camera. The structure only revealed itself in the editing room, navigated by Cushla Dillon, our stalwart editor.

When I started shooting "This Way of Life" in 2004, Sony had just come out with their new HDV format camera, the Z1U. It was small and manageable, and the quality seemed quite astounding for such a tiny, cheap thing.

When I was next in LA to shoot a film, I bought a Z1U and put it through its paces alongside the cameras we were testing, a Thomson Viper and a Sony Cinealta F-950 recording to SR tape. I wasn't out to prove anything -- I just wanted to compare my little Z1U to cameras I knew well.

Obviously, the Z1U doesn't have the latitude or colour space of the 4:4:4 camera, but it was sharp and had a look of its own. After some careful massaging in post, we got an image that cut in quite favorably with the larger, more expensive camera, and we ended up using the Z1U as our 3rd camera on that production.


Horse and Camera




My digital philosophy is to gather as much information as possible during photography, and finesse later -- an approach that applies to prosumer cameras as well as high end ones. I set the exposure to avoid any clipping, and the camera delivered a picture I could manipulate effectively in post. Areas that were seemingly underexposed could later be brought up to a pleasing level, noise reduction applied, and to finish with quite a good range of latitude, maybe 8 stops.

The big drawback with the Z1U for me was the tiny hair trigger buttons all over the camera. I'd inadvertently press one at exactly the wrong moment and have to live with the results. The viewfinder is also very difficult to focus through, and the lens focus scale has nothing to do with the actual distance from focal plane to subject. However, by the time I returned home and started photography on "This Way of Life," I knew my camera pretty well.

The style of shooting called for in "This Way of Life" is simple and clean. With the exception of existing lighting, we shot without artificial light.

My kit consisted of a small shoulder bag, containing the camera and a wide-angle adapter (which was expensive, of poor quality and rarely used), seven batteries, a high quality stereo shotgun microphone, a radio microphone, some cloth baby diapers (soft and absorbent for cleaning the camera), spare cables, a little flashlight, and a Leatherman tool. I have a good Vinten tripod with carbon fibre legs, and sometimes used a FigRig, although this device proved ungainly to pack on a horse when travelling through dense bush.

The HDV footage proved its worth during colour correction. Gary Shaw, chief colorist at Technicolor, Vancouver used his outstanding talent to massage every last pixel of quality out of the material, making "This Way of Life" worthy of large screen projection.

We used power windows, sharpening and noise reduction to get the most emotion out of each shot. We finished up by mastering out to HDCAM SR. The end result is fantastic.


Crossing the River
Click on Image for Larger Picture


Unlike mechanical motion picture cameras that withstood the test of time, the digital cameras of today are a movable feast. HDV was cool for a moment but, this week, the Sony EX-1 is my favorite flavor. The Ikonoscop A-cam dII is coming soon, and looks interesting. I'll probably switch allegiance many more times before I lay down my camera.

After years of shooting 35mm film, I've never regretted going digital. Certainly the technology made our film possible.


BARBARA: ON DETAILS AND DISTRIBUTION

"This Way of Life" has played to sold out houses at the New Zealand International Film Festival and the Vancouver International Film Festival, among others. We have selected festivals that focus on the audience, believing that the audience will bring the sales, and so far, this has turned out to be true. We have a handful of theatrical distribution offers on the table, one broadcast sale is completed, and another is in negotiation.


Mountain Mist




Having said all this, any rights we sell are limited. We want to keep a range of windows for ourselves. It means that we don't just hand the film over, but remain active in promoting the film to communities-of-kind.

We have a hybrid distribution deal for New Zealand, going out across the country in March 2010. The distributor does all the bookings, scheduling and split negotiation, using all his contacts and knowledge. We will do the marketing and PR ourselves, either hiring someone or doing it ourselves.

This model enables the filmmaker -- the person or company with the most at stake -- to keep control of the process, and not see their potential profits eaten up in promotion.

For broadcast and other windows, such as airlines, we have hired a sales agent for New Zealand and Australia who takes a straight fee. No fuss, no percentages clawed from every level of the deal. We then retain all other rights ourselves, such as DVD and non-theatre screenings.

We are yet to find a North American distributor who will do that, but we are working on it, discussing with the distributors who are interested in the film to attempt to put this together. In the meantime, we have signed with a Paris-based distributor who was very open with their sales record, and was very negotiable on fees. All non-theatrical and DVD rights have been split off as non-exclusive.


Here are some guidelines you might consider as you shape your own hybrid deals:
  • Ask who the agent will take your film to: broadcasters, airlines, US/UK TV buyers, etc. Also ask for an outline of expected earnings from each of these.

  • Once the agent gets a deal, he gets your approval on license fee, terms and any commercial deal points. The agent will coordinate contracting the deal, but will get filmmaker final sign off on the contract. Collections from Exhibitors can be the responsibility of either party. Who gets first recoupment is also a point to negotiate on. Use a lawyer at this point to check off the details.

  • Agent will arrange with filmmaker to ship any required materials. In our part of the world, this is typically a PAL DigiBeta copy of the feature. Materials and shipping are at filmmaker's expense, and are typically on loan to buyers.

  • Agent arranges for filmmaker to provide an invoice for the license fee when due. Once the filmmaker is paid, agent will invoice filmmaker for his cut of the net license fee. If you can get an agent for 20%, then that is good.

  • Filmmaker can cancel at anytime, with 30 days notice to wrap up any deal. For any deal that is concluded and signed off, but awaiting payment, the agent will still be entitled to commission. The key is in the details. In this way, everything remains transparent and in your control.


NOW

"Now" is still "This Way of Life." It's a baby, and still needs lots of nurturing. For independents like us, the process of filmmaking includes sometimes years of promoting and marketing your film.

The film we wrote about for the Cow Magazine nearly three years ago, "One Man, One Cow, One Planet," continues to grow. Just this year, we were selected for festivals in Spain, France, Italy and India, including the Mumbai International Film Festival. We've even won a new environmental award for it and the film continues to sell in stores, on our website, and on Amazon.

As we completed this article, "This Way of Life" was accepted into the Berlin Film Festival. We also just received our first commission, to make a documentary I wrote seven years ago called "Leonard's Lovers." It came about from going to dinner parties when we lived in Montreal, and people talking about the highly regarded and influential -- and famously reclusive -- singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Somebody always remarked that they slept with him, and the idea for the documentary grew from there. While Mr. Cohen is the conduit to the stories the film is a journey into the sensual and sexual transitions of the mature woman.

It sat in my drawer for seven years until I met the right person at the Vancouver International Film Festival. I pitched it, and it was commissioned on the spot.

I think that we've proven that, with diligence and consistent attention, you can make documentaries work financially. It has ended up being very worthwhile for us, in every way.



ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Barbara and Tom founded Cloud South Films as a "mid-life love child," to allow them to make films together, and have previously written articles for us separately.


Thomas Burstyn and Barbara Sumner Burstyn - Bay View, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
Thomas Burstyn and Barbara Sumner Burstyn - Bay View, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand


Barb wrote about their documentary, "One Man, One Cow, One Planet" in our 2007 "Power of Artistic Passion" issue, which features the remarkable story of Peter Proctor's trek to India to help restore traditional farming there.

In addition to her research, writing, directing and producing for Cloud South Films, she is a columnist for the New Zealand Herald, where she was named "Social Issues Columnist of the Year" in the Qantas Media Awards, and was a finalist for "Columnist of the Year."

For our 2008 "Music Videos" issue, director and cinematographer Tom wrote about working with the Arri D-20 digital cinema camera on "Tin Man." Among his many awards and nominations, he won a US Emmy Award for Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie for his work on "The 4400;" won a Genie award (the main Canadian national film award) for Best Achievement in Cinematography ("Magic In the Water") to go with two additional nominations; and won the Canadian Society of Cinematographers Award for Best Cinematography in a Dramatic Short ("La premiere fois"). Tom is also a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts.

As they told us, "Our documentaries are personal, well researched, visually compelling and socially relevant. For us, this is the only medium worth investing in."


Comments

Re: This Way of Life
by David Downie
One thing that wasn't touched on was how this family paid their bills. Are they on welfare?
Re: This Way of Life
by Rose O'Connor
I can't wait to watch this film! I hope it is coming to Australia soon. This article just inspired me no end - you guys seem to be making just the kind of films I want to watch and one day to make! Thank you for producing some great NZ films - I hadn't realised you were also the makers of One Man, One Cow, One Planet. I will be following Cloud South Films from now on.


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