I finally got to see The Ground We Won, a slice of life documentary on a rural rugby team, the players mainly dairy farmers from Reporoa. The film, shot in black and white, was a year in the making and follows the team through a season, focusing in particular on three team members, so there is something of work and home life. As well as the matches, we see the training sessions, the after match functions and the heavy drinking culture. By concentrating on the maleness of it all (women are deliberately marginal figures), the film portrays a modern patriarchal culture. Add the dairying – an industrial and environmentally problematic part of our economy – and the film moves into the realm of describing a latter day settler culture. Hence the title.
There was much resonance for me. I was brought up in a provincial town where team sports were the major recreation. I wasn’t much good at rugby and got tired of the weekly nursing of injuries received on the Saturday, but was good at cricket and went close to professional involvement, until it seemed silly to devote my life to the fortunes of a ball. Thereafter I played at club level and then socially.
Team games are an alternative to tribal warfare. The values are the same: loyalty to the team (which can represent a place or ethnic group), the desire to win by overcoming the opposition, experiencing the triumphs and disappointments, telling the stories, the team culture which involves immersion and the stopping of aberrant behaviour, plus the skills of combat involved. It was always a way, for me, to interact with blokes outside my sphere of life. So, in Wellington, the cricket team blended arty types, tradesmen, bureaucrats, business men, labourers… It took up most of Saturday and there was a training session once a week. It could therefore interfere with family life. But it gave blokes a break from an ever more controlled and regulated society. It provided a moment of existential freedom, a moment where there’s just you and an opponent. .A moment to experience the warrior.
Cricket’s a dainty sport compared to rugby or league. There’s no direct body contact. I would suspect that rugby players drink more and the drinking culture in Reporoa did seem over the top. I wouldn’t cope with it. There lay the worry, for young blokes joining the team had to learn to cope. That was the initiation and given the adverse effect of alcohol on domestic relations, it’s not admirable. The team talks, the chants of togetherness, the building of hatred can also seem silly. I could never go along with it. I tried to play cricket down here on the Coast but there was too much of that sort of thing. It was a bit like being an infantry man in the war, and having to obey the ridiculous.
The irony I suspect, is that the professional player is much more astute, a more individual performer, the systems conceived, the risks calculated – they are professionals in every sense. Some of them can still get drunk afterward, but that’s frowned upon. Even end of year hoolies lead to trouble in the media. So, the old culture is preserved in the sticks: the stripper called in, the youngsters filled with grog and feeling diverted. I’ve noticed down here, grief is not felt. Instead, the bottle is at hand to drown the sorrows. But drowning is to die, so the sorrows, rather then felt and processed, are killed. This in turn leads to family violence, self pity and a high suicide rate.
So, ultimately, what we saw in the film was not a healthy culture, not one that should be passed on generation to generation. The filmmakers were recorders, not intervening in terms of a questioning consciousness. The main intervention was to edit out the women of the community and some beautiful capturing of misty, dawn paddocks, rain swept training grounds at night, an aestheticising of what was taking place; placing it, as it were, on a Greek vase. Should questions have been raised with the blokes? Should the women have been included? Should a dialogue have taken place?
Cultural reaction from the city seems to have been simplistic: beautiful photography, real country blokes sort of thing, a voyeurism, a popping into the country pub while on holiday.
Nevertheless, a resonant piece of filmmaking.