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.