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.

On The Air

The most comprehensive effort we’ve yet made to capture the experience of a climb. This is a viaduct in Aotearoa New Zealand. The edit features two separate perspectives: the climber’s point of view and that of an observing drone.

Part One: Someone Up There [0:00] Climbing has always created certain vistas of landscapes which would otherwise remain unseen. Climbing is also a human experience. A landscape is transformed into an obstacle by the simple fact that there is someone finding their way up there. This edit is a chance for the viewer to watch as one human watches another human navigating a landscape.

Part Two: Within Our Grasp [8:40] It is natural for us to reach for whatever lies within our grasp. POV videography allows someone to reach on behalf of others. Thanks for accompanying us as we reach for new experiences.

Part Three: A Delicate Crossing [17:38] Ahead is a native timber walkway too perished to be trustworthy; to the left is a steel guttering constructed 1896—1902, to the right a loose-hanging cable that is more a comfort than a protection; below are steel girders ranging from a little over a foot’s width to a little under, and below them nothing but airspace behind which a charcoal-blue tinted river glints among a green landscape.

A Sweet Spinner’s Lament

In 1930, the first New Zealand-made bar of Cadbury chocolate was produced at biscuit maker Richard Hudson’s cocoa and chocolate manufacturing plant in Dunedin, founded in 1868. Hudson had been orphaned at the age of 9 and came to New Zealand in 1865. He became known as a caring employer who believed that everyone who contributed to a profitable business should benefit from its success. The company offered accommodation and even a recreational rifle range for its staff across the road from its present site. Cadbury was acquired by Mondelez International in a hostile takeover in 2009, and the factory didn’t quite last the decade following — closing its doors in March 2018. 350 jobs were lost in the closure. The site is now being demolished.

Residual Controls

During our most recent visit to this sprawling fertiliser manufacturing plant we could see from the air that demolition was progressing apace. So it seems the right time to bid farewell to the place with an edit combining a complete set of our former explorations there with recent drone footage. The company that formerly operated the plant started trading in the late 1970s in response to the risk of a proposed merger creating a monopoly in the production of fertiliser in New Zealand.

Part One: “Diocletian Allegories” [0:00] High-ceilinged and partially flooded, parts of the compound had the feeling of an ancient Roman bath.

Part Two: “The World As A Machine” [8:14] The generous size of the site felt all-encompassing: an industrial micro-world.

Part Three: “Residual Controls” [14:51] We always enjoy getting our fingers occupied in environments where museum rules don’t apply.

Stothert & Pitt

Last restored in the year 2000, this 1950’s-era tripod crane built by Stothert & Pitt Ltd of England has recently had its boom lowered to the ground. Given that a future climb to the top has been rendered impossible by the removal of the majority of its boom ladder, this edit commemorates a climb made several years ago. Tripod cranes were in use throughout the world until the advent of container shipping in the 1960’s.

Trees Company

Driving rural back roads in the Waitomo region, we came across several well-worn former abodes. Interestingly to us, many a collapsing farmhouse had a companion tree somewhat alleviating its loneliness, presumably planted by its former occupants.

Heat, Water and Silence

The current temporary closure of this commercialised geothermal area in the North Island of New Zealand allowed us to capture nature steadily continuing its activity in the peaceful absence of human occupation. According to Māori legend, New Zealand’s geothermal areas were created by two ember-bearing travellers – not on the sea, but through the earth. The two sisters of ocean navigator Ngātoro-i-rangi heard his call for their help from the midst of a blizzard at Mount Tongariro. They loaded six kete baskets with glowing embers and summoned Te Pupu and Te Hoata – the subterranean goddesses of fire – to deliver them to their imperilled brother. The goddesses dived deep into the earth and carried the baskets of heat from Hawaiiki (the Polynesian homeland) to Aotearoa. Each time the goddesses surfaced on their voyage they left a trail of embers, creating geothermal sites at Whakaari (White Island), Moutohorā (Whale Island), Rotoiti, Tarawera, Rotorua, Ōrākei Korako, Wairakei and Tokaanu. By the time they reached Ngātoro-i-rangi at Ketetahi, Tongariro, only one kete of fire remained to save his life.