2 Nov 2019

Director Hamish Bennett celebrates country values in new film Bellbird

From Saturday Morning, 9:07 am on 2 November 2019

Rural Kiwi characters rarely seen on-screen take centre stage in the new film Bellbird, directed by Northland primary school teacher Hamish Bennett.

He tells Kim Hill that it's the humble, hardworking people he grew up around that appeal to him and these people he wants to celebrate.

Hamish Bennett

Hamish Bennett Photo: supplied

Bellbird tells the story of taciturn dairy farmer Ross (Marshall Napier) struggling to cope with the sudden death of his wife Beth (Annie Whittle) while building a relationship with his son Bruce (Cohen Holloway).

Bennett shot the film on a working dairy farm in Northland just 10km up the road from Tauraroa, where he grew up.

The Ross and Beth characters (first seen in Bennett's 2015 short film Ross and Beth) were inspired by a couple who lived next door when he was a child, he says.

Like Beth, Bennett's former neighbour did an equal share of the farming and acted as frontperson of the family.

"[Our neighbours] never had a lot of lovely things to say to each other, yet you knew under all that banter there was a real depth of loyalty and dependence and love for one another."

Bennett's 2011 short film The Dump was also inspired by a real-life local character –  a man named Rex who still works at the dump near where Bennett grew up.

"He's just so proud of what he does… and I think there's real dignity there and those are the kinds of people I want to celebrate."

The farm Bellbird was filmed on belongs to family friends and Bennett says that he personally knows every extra that appears on-screen, including his mum who plays the ukulele on the porch in one scene.

"She just turned up with the ukulele when we were filming and I was like 'Oh, alright, we'll get a bit of this going'.

In the film, Kiwi-Australian actor Marshall Napier communicated an impressive amount with the limited dialogue he was given to work with, Bennett says.

"[Napier was] able to show that this man is grieving just as much as the next person, this man is struggling with emotion just as much as anyone else. Having to do that without words is such a tough ask."

The Bellbird cast also includes corrections worker Stephen Tamapara (who plays the rural vet Clem), Northland-raised actor Rachel House (Connie) and 11-year old newcomer Kahukura Retimana (Marley).

Kahukura had never acted before, and came to the audition room with his cousin who was auditioning, Bennett says.

"I'm a better actor than him," he said to the casting director, being cheeky. She gave him a go at improvising and he won the part.

Bennett second feature script – which he's currently writing in the evenings – is set in Samoa but will have a similar tone to Bellbird, he says.

Passionate as he is about filmmaking, Bennett still loves teaching and will try and do both for as long as possible.

"Teaching is a really lovely profession… there's something quite tangible about spending a year in a class with kids and seeing where they start and where they end up. There's something inherently really rewarding about that."

Bellbird opens at cinemas around the country on 7 November.

In a first for a New Zealand film, te reo Māori subtitles will be available for some screenings.