Ohu: A Feature-Length Visual Documentary

This visual documentary was shot over our two visits to a former commune founded in 1973. At the time of its closure around 2000, it was the most longstanding of eight communities set up around New Zealand under the Ohu Scheme umbrella. Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk approved the scheme in which young adults could channel their disenchantment with urban life into forming intentional communities centred around a ‘back to the land’ ethos.

Ohu is a Māori word meaning ‘communal work group’. Ohu were set up on unused Crown land, with their residents paying leases matching those of farmers grazing their livestock on government-owned land. Some saw the Ohu Scheme as a calculated initiative to remove radicals from urban settings, while its stated objectives were:

– To assist people in becoming self-sufficient from the land

– To enhance people’s spiritual and social wellbeing

– To reconnect people to the land

– To give people a chance to develop alternative social models

– To provide a communal environment as a potential antidote to the ills of modern society

– The promotion of the virtues of a simpler life

– To be a place of healing for participants as well as for society as a whole

The area in which this ohu was situated had originally been gifted to servicemen returning after World War One. However, by the time of World War Two, the land was abandoned and the access track winding its way through steep terrain steadily returned to bush. It took the 1970s ohu founders three months of hand cutting and digging to rehabilitate the track sufficiently to allow even horses to reach the ohu site. Over the course of its lifetime, up to five couples with children lived at any one time at the ohu, and undertook a range of initiatives to explore self-sufficiency, including gardening, bee keeping, dairying, manufacturing butter and soft cheese and hunting meat. Quirky DIY housing flourished in a climate of limited resources, salvaged materials, amateur architects and builders, and a relaxed attitude towards regulations.

By the turn of the millennium the same forces of isolation and endless hard manual labour that had prompted the returned servicemen’s families to walk away had again splintered a community, and the ohu dwellers departed, seemingly taking with them only what they could carry on their backs along the hour-long walk to the river. What now remains of the ohu quietly stands as an inspiring – and perhaps also cautionary – tale about utopias and visionaries.

Part One: Ohu (0:00) Our first day visit uncovered so much of interest that before we’d paddled back across the river to civilisation we were already planning our return.

Part Two: Track Work (22:25) Incessant track work was essential but could be perilous. One mother and her young son were plucked off the back of a horse that had lost its footing near the edge of a high cliff beside the river. They survived: the horse plunged to its death. Traces and eras of labour-intensive track work remain, from the wooden frame of the flying fox they used to cross the river, to farm vehicles they abandoned, to the bridges they built which for now are still just passable, to a solitary spade standing upright in the soggy landscape.

Interlude: Robin’s Room (26:12) A small outbuilding beside John’s house had a loft bedroom and a chest of drawers belonging to a youth by the name of Robin.

Part Three: Hive Minds (26:40) According to records marked on a chalkboard inside, April 1993 appears to be when beekeeping operations ceased.

Interlude: Goat Encounter (31:06) Wildlife thrives in this valley in which hunting is prohibited by law.

Part Four: Pastoral Arts (32:00) A painter’s easel stands overlooking the hillside on which the communal meeting house was built, and the nearby house still contains once-cherished paintings and art books.

Interlude: Enchanting Glade (36:08) The lush riverside environment.

Part Five: Pentagonal Dreams (36:40) Sacred geometry at play in the hexagon-worshipping architecture of the central meeting house.

Interlude: Mud Man Emerges (41:04)

Part Six: Down River (41:49) The river was the commune’s source of hydration, cleanliness, spirituality, and even the electric light in its homes once a generator was installed at the dam.

Interlude: Up River (49:18)

Part Seven: All You Need To Know (49:50) Inside the front door a short and almost indecipherable note is written on the wall: “John’s house is the best house in the ohu and that’s all you need to know.”

Interlude: What Remains (54:48)

Part Eight: Bells, Brushwork & The Business of Billowing Bamboo (55:13) The bell that rang out over the valley to gather the commune members still hangs from a tree.

Interlude: Riverside Theatre (59:41)

Part Nine: LSD 96 (1:00:57) We were told this meeting house used to be a Mongrel Mob headquarters. LSD and mystical geometry seems to have inspired its upper floor with its dome ceiling.

Pastoral Arts

Elvis was the tender age of 19 when he recorded “That’s Alright Mama” in “a new, distinctive style” on the Sun label. Many of the arrivals at this commune founded in 1973 were of a similar age, seeking to live in a new, distinctive style under the sun. A painter’s easel stands overlooking the hillside on which the communal meeting house was built, and the nearby house still contains once-cherished paintings and art books.

Out of Bounds

Welcome to the complete document of our explore of this huge campus of four prison units abandoned in 2012 and currently being demolished.

Part One: “Out Of Bounds” [0:00] Prisons have existed on this site for nearly a century. During the Second World War, conscientious objectors were detained here. In the 1950s the site housed a prison farm which was further developed in the late 1970s. The scale of the site — thousands of hectares of commercial and native forests, farms, wetlands and a river — meant that a perimeter fence was impractical, deemed only ever suitable to house up to 600 inmates at a minimum to medium security level. From 1998 the prison began to suffer repetitional damage, with a seizure of almost $1 million worth of cannabis plants growing on site, a buckets-for-toilets scandal, two inmate drownings involving Māori cultural training, canoes and parachutes, and a guard convicted of supplying cannabis to a prisoner in return for a bribe. The closure of this unit – one of four we visited as the autumn sun was falling fast – was announced in 2012, and the land and its buildings have now been returned to their original owners. No signs of the commencement of demolition were then evident, and — gratifyingly — no signs of vandalism. A 360-degree panoramic mural painted around the walls of the dining hall conveys a sense of geographical placement among the majestic landscapes beyond the perimeter of confinement, tantalisingly out of reach.

Part Two: “Man With Short Arms” [6:30] Perhaps some kind of neuroscience was at play in this choice of images — SpongeBob SquarePants meets the lost city of Atlantis — for a mural painted along the back corridor of the isolation cells of this unit. Presumably intended to calm disruptive prisoners, and engage painterly ones, further intriguing murals adorn the cold cell walls: a man pruning the limb of a tree so anatomically uniform that he might just as likely be an electrician working on wires strung from a lamp post; a Māori wahine wearing a pounamu and a kākahu feather cloak — barefoot on a pedestal — turning her face to the light; a man surveying his upcoming twisting traverse into a landscape crowned by an active volcano, with only a briefcase to sustain him; and the man with short arms — seemingly ill-equipped to utilise the key to freedom that lies beside his truncated frame with its enormous feet.

Part Three: “Traces of Time” [11:49] From the window of #55, an informed eye studies the moody skies above the central courtyard. Glenn’s 1972 Christmas present — The World Encyclopedia of the Film — languishes in #11, its front cover torn off but not yet discarded. #18 plays host to a brown-crayoned face, mouth agape as if inviting the throwing of ping pong balls at a fairground amusement. Nearby a grey-bearded pig farmer and an athletic woman carrying groceries seem to be missing an opportunity to converse at the fence line. Monied wanderlust is palpable in #16, where a shrine to cars, boats and exotic getaways gleams under fluorescent light. Outside Sunday church services advertise the promise of personal transformation via belief in a higher power, while inside #37 another route to growth is being chosen. The number of 5 — denoting maximum difficulty — is written into every column associated with expressing affection towards anyone from an intimate partner to a shop assistant.

Part Four: “But They Can Die” [16:30] The pigs of George Orwell’s Animal Farm proclaimed, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Pigs are similarly the object of resentment in under-the-mattress graffiti in Cell #26 of this former prison. The poem begins burnt into the wood: Pigs CAN’T FLY and continues in blue pen: BUT THEY CAN DIE NEXT FINE DAY BLOW A Pig away IF YOU KILL A Pig a day it WILL Keep the doctor away Nowhere more clearly did we find articulated the smouldering frustration of incarceration, channeled into the kind of blind hatred that negates any opportunity for insight. Elsewhere was a mixture of light and shade. In the kitchen the relative gentleness of a rainbow framing the extractor fan was juxtaposed with murals depicting fearsome hyper-masculine muscularity. No such diverting decor was provided for prisoners in solitary confinement, who were required to surrender their tobacco products and were issued with fresh water, a chamber pot, one mattress, one pillow, one pillow slip, one sheet, and blankets or duvet “in accordance with climactic conditions”. How some of them obtained implements sharp and sturdy enough to partially chisel their gang names and insignia into the stone walls and into the paint of their cell bars and doors is anyone’s guess. Puzzling at what we had experienced, and all the more aware of our own freedom of movement and expression, we walked for ninety minutes back down the road through pine forests to where we’d parked our car.