Tim, can you tell me about your new documentary, One Island of Good?
It’s a big one. It’s not a light-hearted film. It’s a documentary about a heavy subject. Nobody knows what alternative education is. When we’ve asked people in the past they give us a glazed-over look and say: ‘Yeah I think so’ which means they have no idea.
It’s a place for young people to go once they’ve been expelled, they are under the age of 16, which makes them a ward of the state. Legally, they have to be supervised and they go to alternative education. YMCA chief executive Josie Ogden Schroeder approached me about a project that involved the street art at the YMCA. But as we kept talking I think she realised there was an opportunity to go a bit bigger than giving kids some street art lessons – to tell more of the story.
Alternative education providers are funded to a level, and they deal with some of the most time-consuming students in the education system. They haven’t succeeded in mainstream schools. The Ministry of Education doesn’t really have any interest in doing that much with them.
So long story short, it turned into a documentary where we would follow them for 12 months, and part of that was a trip to Nepal so we could share their experience where they could relate to another culture that had a similar experience with earthquakes. And we thought hopefully down the track, we could see whether there was any positive change. The YMCA funded it and got in behind it.
When did the filming take place?
We filmed from December 2015, to December 2016. We did a year of filming and six months of post production. We were filming every week. It was a massive commitment. We needed that in order to gain the trust of the people we were filming. On the trip, we gave them a camera because we wanted them to be able to tell their own stories. Some of those were pretty colourful, so an awful lot of footage never made the cut because there aren’t enough bleep buttons to fill what they said.
It’s not like a normal school, where they would all turn up. Here, you could turn up and there was literally one person in the class that day. Other days the class would be full but nobody was prepared to talk to you, while other days everybody wanted to talk to you. The staff were very accommodating.
Do you think you saw a positive change for them over the year?
I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t make any meaningful comment on if they had any positive long term outcomes. But over the course of 18 months they’ve just grown up. Some started as 14-year-olds and now they’re 16.
There are massive changes on a monthly basis. At the time we finished, there were a couple of students we didn’t know their whereabouts. Others have gone back to mainstream school or gained employment.
Did you get to know them quite well?
Yes and no, they only have to stay until they are 16. If a student was there for three months and turned 16, they were off. That’s one of the issues, people coming and going all the time. It ain’t easy.
Why did you think it was so important to showcase alternative education?
We were approached to make the project by the YMCA. Josie had been making a lot of noise about it and getting nowhere. It was up to me to put it into a format where it was going to be picked up by the film festival. And we were really lucky.
About four months in I had no idea whether we were going to get a film out of it or not. I think the cause was worthy. Some of the old ways of thinking is to kick their arses and tell them to sort it out. This film tries really hard to not be left or right. It tries to say if you don’t look after everyone you’re going to have problems down the track. Four or five months in, that was the point you don’t just give up because it’s a bit hard. That’s part of the ethos of the film.
Did you always expect to have it screened at the film festival?
That was goal number one. It was a pretty ambitious goal. There’s no point in making something like this if no one’s going to see it. It’s never going to be Spiderman. It’s got to be a film which is worth watching.
Where will it will be screened?
It will premier at the Isaac Theatre Royal. So it will screen in Christchurch, then in Wellington, and it may go to Dunedin, depending on their schedule. And after that, who knows?
Would you say this is the hardest project Ruffell Productions has done?
I would say it’s probably the hardest. Harley, my business partner, said it was probably the most worthwhile thing we’ve done. The Children’s Commissioner Andrew Beescroft, who features in it, said this work isn’t for the faint-hearted.
And this would have consumed your life for the last 18 months, but what do you like to do in your spare time?
I don’t have spare time, I really don’t. My down time is very much for me and my family. I just try and unplug.
We’ve had two documentaries in two festivals this year, One Island of Good, and Delaney Davidson: Devil In The Parlour, which was at the Edge Festival.
How did you get into the industry?
I started filming in 2001. I was behind the camera living in Nelson for a couple of years. I was working filming on fishing boats down in South Westland on 42ft boats and on 1000 footers with helicopters on them. I was filming for Rough Fishing, it was a bit like The Deadliest Catch but the New Zealand version of it. I ended up picking up a job literally wrapping cables and getting lunch for the crew in Christchurch back in 2003.
Then in 2004 I came back to Christchurch and managed to get work for Ruffell Productions. I didn’t think I would buy the business how many years later. I also worked in the UK producing and directing reality, factual based TV documentaries.
Then in 2009 I came back and two days before the first earthquake I bought a house. In 2012 bought the business.
•The New Zealand International Film Festival will run from August 3-20. For more information and screenings, visit https://www.nziff.co.nz/2017/christchurch/