Northland farming community inspiration for heartwarming Kiwi movie

The writer and director of New Zealand feature film Bellbird says a childhood spent in a small Northland farming community was the inspiration for the movie. 

Set over four seasons on a humble Northland dairy farm, Bellbird is the story of a dairy farmer struggling to cope with the sudden death of his beloved wife, and the gradual bond he builds with his gentle only son and the local community. 

The film has been written and directed by Hamish Bennett, a Māori film-maker (Ngāti Whakaue, Patuharakeke, Kati Waewae) and fulltime school teacher. 

Bellbird was set in the small rural Northland community where he grew up. 

"The original idea for Bellbird grew out of the experiences I had being raised in the small rural Northland community of Tauraroa," he said. 

Bellbird is the story of a dairy farmer struggling to cope with the sudden death of his beloved wife
Bellbird is the story of a dairy farmer struggling to cope with the sudden death of his beloved wife Photo credit: Supplied

"Although both my parents were teachers, we were surrounded by farming families."

He said the inspiration for the characters of Ross and Beth were his neighbours across the road. 

"They were great people - humble, funny, hard-working, gruff, stuck in their ways - all fairly typical traits of many older rural couples."

Bennett said the film looked at how farmers expressed emotions

"You don't see many outward displays of affection or emotion with these people, but this can't be mistaken for not caring." 

The film is set in a small Northland farming community.
The film is set in a small Northland farming community. Photo credit: Supplied

The love, the loyalty, the reliance - it can all be found in the little moments, buried under the layers of cheeky banter and cow shit. 

You know they are devoted to one another. And you also know that if one of them weren't there, the other would be completely lost. In many ways this film is an ode to these people and to this way of life."

Bellbird was filmed in Northland, with the environment a big factor in the decision.

"Dairy farms in Northland aren't like farms in other parts of the country. They're not the types of landscapes you'll see on Mainland Cheese ads. They're tucked away off barely used gravel side roads. 

The film centres on the relationship between a farmers and his son..
The film centres on the relationship between a farmers and his son.. Photo credit: Supplied

"Fences are broken, gorse and macrocarpa and totara dot the landscape, old herringbone milking sheds are still the norm. The land has a unique, rough beauty, and the characters in the film are both a reflection and a product of this world."

The film is set in Maungakaramea, just 10km up the road from where Bennett grew up and on a dairy farm owned by old family friends.

He said this gave him the opportunity to make a film with the very people who inspired the story in the first place. 

"In every aspect of production, the local community was involved. Farmers built fences for cemeteries. Locals turned up to play mourners and choir members. My mum got to play the ukulele and sing with Annie Whittle." 

"Throughout the process, friends and whanau had vital parts to play in bringing our story to life, and giving it a heart. It was a very special experience, and one that I'll always be grateful for."

Bellbird opens in New Zealand on Thursday November 7th.

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