Interview: ‘Art of Recovery’ Director On Post-Quake Christchurch’s Uprising

Having just uplifted crowds at the New Zealand International Film Festival, The Art of Recovery is setting course for a wider release around the country. Taking place after the devastating earthquakes that hit the city, the film looks at the unexpected creative explosion that emerged from the people of Christchurch, for the people of Christchurch. That is, until the government intervened.

Liam Maguren had a good chat with the film’s director Peter Young about this uprising and how he set about to capture the Christchurch community in its prime.

‘The Art of Recovery’ opens in Auckland this Thursday and in Wellington November 19. Check here for session times.

FLICKS: A few years ago, we had a documentary on the Christchurch earthquakes called ‘When a City Falls’. Would it be fair to call your film ‘When a City Rises’?

PETER YOUNG: Well, yeah, that’s right. It’s sort of dealing with the rise of Christchurch, but it was an unexpected rise, I guess. It’s the organic rise. It’s the post-quake phase of Christchurch, and it’s a really interesting time.

When you first started filming, did you have this particular focus in mind – this new up rise in Christchurch’s artistic culture? Or were you being extremely broad and seeing what happened after the earthquake?

It’s more the latter. I was attracted by this group of people that were rolling up their sleeves and getting into rebuilding the city, and they were responding to the earthquake in their own natural way. It was a very organic process. The stuff that they did – whether it was works of art or these community projects – was just their response to the quake. I saw that and I just started filming.

There was a real shift and balance of society down there. I’m talking about central city. And people from the fringes came to the fore. People that were normally on the margins of society – the street artists, the artists, the theatre people – they started reclaiming the ruins. They reacted in a way that was a lot faster than the establishment.

It was just a fascinating place to be in and it had a lot of energy, and as Johnny Moore, one of my characters that says in the film, “It was anyone’s town,” and that was exciting. I loved post-quake Christchurch. It was a dynamic, interesting place.

Johnny Moore (via

That community seems to exist uniquely within this bubble between the earthquake and the government still delaying and deciding on what they’re going to do to rebuild it. However, when they do start to make a call to action, there’s some tension that the film brings up. Were you always looking to capture that, or did that sort of spring up on you as an opportunity?

Initially, I was attracted by what I saw on the ground, but it didn’t take long to find the story. Because CERA arrived in town and they had such a different approach to rebuilding the city, there was a real disconnect between these people – they felt disconnected to the future city. So it didn’t take long for them to express that to me, but I never set out to tell that story.

We’ve got a great baddie, in a way. A man in a suit, Gerry Brownlee, who lives in an ivory tower, and is so far removed from our characters. CERA and that, they’re all well-intentioned people – they want to build the best city. They just come to it from a totally different angle.

There is a role for central government and that’s to help. So we did need CERA in there, but I didn’t think that they needed to plan our whole city. It’s not the place of central government to come in and impose on a city like they did on the people of Christchurch.

You’ve got to respect these different perspectives, and it all just adds to the discussion. It’s not that one’s right or wrong, because I wouldn’t want Gap Filler building my city either. But I love having them there.

We’ve had two other fantastic New Zealand documentaries this year with ‘The Ground We Won’ and ‘Ever the Land’. They all took a very striking, unique, artistic approach on their subjects. However, with this film, the approach needed to be quite different from those two. How do you make a documentary artistic when it itself is about art?

It’s the funny thing about doing a doco like this. It’s a product of how it was made – the fact that I just picked up the camera and started filming. So there’s a couple of things that really define it: One is that it covers a long period of time – four intense years – and two, it’s got a voice – a perspective.

I guess the die was cast for my sort of doco in the shooting of it, and also the context in which it happened – I needed to get it out for the New Zealand Film Festival. Because it had a political element to it, the time for that story had come, and I didn’t want to wait for another year. I needed to get it out there. And so we put our head down and got it out.

It only came together in the last sort of six weeks of editing, really, so it was a bit of a rush to the finish line. But having said that, I really love the film as it is, and I don’t think I’d go back to make any changes.

It would have been tempting to just keep filming more and more to see what else developed in this ongoing story. Did the New Zealand Film Festival deadline help bring closure to your film?

Yes, it did. The opportunity to tell this story for the people of Christchurch in the new Isaac Theatre Royal at that time… I just knew that the time would never be riper. Because Christchurch is at a crossroads now, I wanted to this to be out there, contributing to the society down there. And I thought it was important.

That’s an aspect of documentary making – or these political ones – that you need to really take into consideration. You might get 95% of the way there, and you understand that to make the timing and to hit that, you lose 5% of what the film could be, but you gain a huge amount by coming out at the particular time. It was exactly the same with The Last Ocean.

Will Christchurch be worth documenting again in, say, ten years from now?

Yeah, I think it would. And I really hope someone does it. I think the dynamic period of the transitional city has been captured, and it’ll be great to see in another five years what actually happened to the blueprint, and what happened to the transitional movement and the energy of it, and if it really did define Christchurch.

I’d like to see a trilogy of Christchurch. That sounds pretty cool.

You know, it’s a big challenge getting people outside of Christchurch to go and see this film, but it’s not a film about Christchurch. It’s a film that’s set in Christchurch, but it’s about this amazing human spirit.

One of the only things that I didn’t like about the film – and this isn’t the film’s fault, it’s purely my messed-up brain’s fault – is that it made me wonder what would happen to Auckland if it got hit by a massive earthquake and how they’d rebuild it. Or what would happen to Wellington if it got hit by a massive earthquake and they had to rebuild it.

On one hand, it’s horrible what an earthquake would do to those cities. But on the other hand, it also sounds really cool when you think about what that community could do just in the same vein as Christchurch has.

Yeah, you don’t want to wish that on people. It’s better not to think about it, Liam.

But you’re right. I understand where you’re coming from because it’s like the environment. After doing The Last Ocean, I thought, “Holy crap, I’ve got to do something else. I don’t want to think about the environment. We’re in such bad shape.” So that’s the only thing, is that you get this great story that came out of the adversity of an earthquake, but, oh well.