Being transported to foreign lands through film is magical but there’s something really heartwarming about watching local people tell their stories on the big screen – especially when it's in a documentary which turns out to be as special as this one.
How Far is Heaven saw filmmakers Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith move to the community of Jerusalem/Hiruharama on the Wanganui river for a year over 2010-2011. At the outset, they were unsure of exactly what they would reveal about the community but were determined to capture the essence of this rather unique and breathtakingly beautiful place - and their punt certainly paid off.
Since the 1880s, members of the small, remote and predominantly Maori village have shared their lives with Pakeha nuns belonging to the Sisters of the Compassion. During the time of filming three nuns remained, Sister Anna Maria Shortall (94 years old and a resident for 22 years), Sister Sue Cosgrove (who had lived in Jerusalem for 10 years) and Sister Margaret Mary Murphy (the newest arrival to Jerusalem at one year). The women live alongside the community, volunteer at the school and take part in local events.
The documentary focuses on what the directors' considered to be the heart of Jerusalem - the charismatic, funny and philosophical young people of the village and their connection with the Sisters. Chevy is a sassy, big-hearted and spiritual 13-year-old girl who takes great pride in her place in the world. Tellingly, one of the first things she says is she's happy she doesn't live in town (Wanganui) because if she did she wouldn't be able to drive until she was 15 or hunt and drink alcohol until she was 18.
Twelve-year-old DJ is also profoundly aware of his Maori spirituality and while audience members may laugh as they watch him earnestly hunt for taniwha in the bush and estimate the distance between Jerusalem and Heaven, the non-judgemental approach taken by the nuns and the filmmakers is, for me, the documentary's biggest triumph. The audience is also given access into the spiritual world of the Sisters. We accompany them for Bible readings and church visits and are given an insight into how they gently instill positive values through their practice. Sister Sue Cosgrove and DJ's friendship is particularly memorable here.
The fact the filmmakers invested so much time and energy into this project is clearly reflected in the finished product. There is nothing staged or romanticised here. How Far is Heaven celebrates Jerusalem's unusual coexistence of cultures and religions and the fact these very different people not only tolerate but also respect one another.
So, how far is heaven? You might just have to go and see the film to find out.