Building Bridges – reviewed by Robyn Peers

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Building Bridges: Bill Youren’s Vision of Peace

Director, Cinematographer and Editor John Chrisstofels

New Zealand International Film Festival

This documentary is a gem from this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival. 

Harold Wilfrid (Bill) Youren, a Hawkes Bay farmer in the mid-twentieth century built bridges both literally and figuratively. A lawyer by training he became disillusioned with his chosen career and bought and developed an isolated farm in Hawkes Bay, using his undoubted intelligence and technical know-how to bring many innovations to his rural life, including a fifty metre heavy traffic suspension bridge over a steep gully on his farm.

In the years after the second World War, from this back country farm, Bill, a socialist and advocate of civil liberties campaigned for peace and nuclear disarmament. This is clearly an interesting social history, but the joy of Building Bridges is that Bill was a film enthusiast and with his 8mm camera filmed many aspects of his farming and family life. He also used the camera extensively when, as vice president of the New Zealand Peace Council he was invited to China three times during the early years of the communist takeover, his footage charting the changes he saw as Mao transformed the country.

The documentary, based on Youren’s footage, has been skilfully edited by Canterbury University Senior Lecturer in film, John Chrisstoffels. James Beattie and Tom Brooking provide expert historical commentary, and Richard Bullen, Associate Professor of Art History at Canterbury provides a background to the art and cultural artifacts which Youren brought back from China after his visits. Youren’s daughter Dale, gives an evocative personal perspective to the life of her father and her family.

Youren was a gifted amateur filmmaker and Christoffels has chosen carefully from his extensive archive. There is footage of early aerial top dressing, farm vehicles being coaxed out of deep mud and other aspects of rural life. The sequences of fifties life kindled nostalgia; the military march beginning the school day, the proud wearing of an immaculate Brownie uniform and camping holidays were from a New Zealand I remember well. The joy of his earliest visits to China and the disillusionment with the changes recorded over the course of his visits is clearly documented.

As reviewer Brannavan Gnanalingam suggests in the NZIFF programme, this is “ … a gentle portrait of an ordinary man capturing extraordinary things.”

The final Christchurch Film Festival screening of this documentary is on Tuesday August 22nd.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Psychological family drama

Availability: Acorn

Storyline: Jonathan Fisher (producer) Lisa Mulchy (director) and the extraordinarily talented Sophie Petzal (screenwriter) bring this bleak and arresting family saga to the screen. The story begins with Cat driving from Dublin to the small Irish town of her childhood to attend her mother’s funeral. In the first scene she is throwing up beside her car along a dark country road, and the local police pull over. The Garda clearly suspects that she is under the influence of alcohol, but he gives her a free pass – her father, a local GP, is well known and liked in the small community. When she reaches the family home Cat soon finds that her siblings, Fiona and Michael, and her father Jim, all believe that Mary’s death was an accident, a fall that was a consequence of her chronic illness and declining health. But Cat, who has long been estranged from her family, thinks differently. She increasingly suspects her father is guilty of killing her mother. As she delves into the circumstances surrounding Mary’s death she exposes secrets that test family relationships and her own sense of reality to their limits.

Film-craft: This is a high quality production that captures a familiar Irish family experience, at least on screen, with literary references, small town constraints, and green landscapes. There is never a moment’s doubt where we are, and that this family will suffer internal divisions and display varying degrees of emotional damage that will ultimately drive the action forward. And it does. The intensity is deliciously relentless and there is no respite. Just brilliant family drama.    

Cast: Across the series, all the performances are exemplary and it’s difficult to single anyone out. But award-winning actor Adrian Dunbar is absolutely terrific as Jim, the family patriarch. Loving one minute, exasperated and menacing the next, he brings a seriously uncomfortable tension to the drama. Carolina Main is equally impressive as Cat. Clearly on the path to alcohol addiction, she presents a raw mix of vulnerability, anger and fearfulness. Grainne Keenan as Fiona and Diarmuid Noyes as Michael are outstanding as Cat’s siblings. They both bring neediness and strength to nuanced performances as everyone tries their best to get through the funeral intact.

Personal Comments: As in many families the characters in this series all have their own unique interpretations of what has happened in their collective past – who did and said what, and whose lives were most affected. But in this family drama there is a palpable sense of the stakes being exceedingly high. Cat is increasingly convinced of her father’s guilt, but her reckless behaviour causes us to question her reliability. Jim’s lies also raise questions about his character – is he well intentioned or Machiavellian? Everything is unpredictable as Cat impetuously and determinedly exposes all their secrets leaving everyone, including the audience, on tenterhooks and anxiously waiting for the next fearful thing to happen. If you like your family dramas full of suspense and surprise, this one is compellingly good.