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London International Documentary Festival

This Way of Life

(New Zealand 2009)

Director: Thomas Burstyn


Produced by Barbara Sumner Burstyn

Barbican Cinema 1


25 April 2010





y Couzens

A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!


This Way of Life is a documentary about the Karena family and their struggle to live a harmonious life at one with nature, outside of society and the pressures of the modern world. Set in the Ruahine mountains of New Zealand, Peter and Colleen Karena raise their six children in a relaxed life, fully immersed in the golden fields, mountains ranges and deserted beaches. Peter, originally adopted by Maori's, trains wild horses and hunts to feed his family as they attempt to live off the land, however all their efforts to live a simple life are impeded by Peter's stepfather, a malicious man who attempts to hinder them from enjoying the peaceful life they desperately pursue.

Burstyn's film gradually unfolds in a relaxed, pensive way allowing Peter, Colleen and their six children to express themselves in a manner that is natural and unforced. The lack of any narration also allows the family to speak entirely for themselves which creates a disarmingly honest and emotionally intimate style. No questions are posed to the family on film, instead Burstyn allows time for the Karena family to slowly feel comfortable with the documentary. Peter and Colleen talk individually to the camera, expounding their concerns and reasons for following their chosen lifestyle while their children freely run around in the background, enjoying the outdoor life to its fullest.

The cinematography is magnificent, from the sweeping shots of mountain ranges and the wide expanses of fields, to the horses struggling up a rocky path or the children swimming naked in a river; there is a real sense of a family living harmoniously with nature in all her splendour. The unhurried atmosphere of the film allows you to soak up small details as the camera lingers on a fly buzzing in a window pane; the shots contribute to creating an effect of familiarity and allow you to become absorbed by showing without explaining.

The relationship between the family and the horses, really demonstrates how close man can become
to animals, especially when they are his livelihood, and it also shows us a way of life that has been superseded by the invention of cars. The film shows an age old bond which has been neglected and almost forgotten so that when we see it on the big screen it becomes fresh and invigorating: a possible way of life that is based on self reliance and respect for nature. As Peter cuts up the meat from his latest hunt, he explains how before freezers it would have had to be smoked and cured and even this one modern invention has made an age old tradition redundant. His children's knowledge of how to handle horses is evident as his eldest, only eleven, leads a stallion up a steep path and through fast flowing rivers.

Throughout the film, one questions whether the freedom that the children enjoy as a result of living in nature is undermined by their lack of education, social engagement with other children and if perhaps they run the risk of being too isolated. These concerns are also raised by their mother, Colleen but she worries in the reverse - that they will lose their freedom when they grow older and have to take on the responsibilities of living in the modern world. The picture you get from the film however is of an exceptionally happy group of children who have benefited enormously from an outdoor life. Untainted by a consumerist desire for toys and possessions, the children instead know how to ride and look after horses, how to work the land and are able to treat nature with great respect. Throughout the film they appear well balanced, with an amazing confidence and a truly carefree attitude to life.

Peter and Colleen however voice their real concerns of living such a life based on a natural, sustainable ethic as their problems unravel as the film progresses and they confess to their fears individually before the camera. Their life is always unstable as they are hounded by Peter's stepfather, who is even implicated in setting fire to their family home. At the only point you see him on film, he comments, “He's not my son, he's my wife's son”. Until the bad blood between them is resolved, it seems the family must always live in the shadow of this malevolent man. Money is also is an issue that they cannot escape.  Peter makes just enough to get by but with the advent of more children, he finds it increasingly difficult to support his family.

This Way of Life makes you aware of how we are conditioned to see things in a certain way; from the time we are born. We learn from our parents and the society we are brought up in how to perceive and interpret the world. This Way of Life shows us a family who attempt to live a life apart from the external pressures and influences that modern society places upon us and yet with all its apparent simplicity, their life is a struggle that their children are unable to comprehend. Constantly pursued by problems, as though society cannot let them go, Peter attempts to continue an ancient Maori way of life, living off the land and training wild horses. The spirit of Rousseau infuses Peter's frustration as he explains how even if he were to buy the land, it would still not be his but he would be renting it from the Crown, who could seize it at any moment. Unable to reconcile his way of life with the laws of property and ownership, he is the victim of a cruel paradox: that even to live outside of society one must be subject to its’ laws.

It appears that this way of life is only possible for the brave few, who are willing to risk everything in order to escape from the bonds of society and a steady job, who have no second thoughts about whether this is the right thing to do, but firmly believe that a life at one with nature is the best life for themselves and their children. Burstyn's film sensitively documents a family who ironically wish to be left alone, but he allows a sense of scale to emerge through dramatic shots of the landscape, and a personal level of involvement through close up shots with the family. The viewer feels privileged to share such a level of emotional intimacy with a truly unique family who uphold their noble principles without any concessions. This Way of Life inspires us to spurn the commercialised and regulated life we live in society and seek a more harmonious way of living with nature.

On release worldwide








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