Review: The Ground We Won (NZ, 2015)

The first essential New Zealand documentary of the decade.

The Ground We Won is a gorgeous black and white cinema verite film which follows a rural rugby club, Reporoa, over the course of a year. The focus is purely on the men, their culture and relationships. It is an intimate window into the nation of a sort which has been lacking and needed for a long time.

The short version is you need to see this. It will spur many and complex responses.

(I am actually going to assume you will see this when it goes on general release in a week or so, so I’m not going to give much in the way of plot or narrative description, more comment on a cultural level.)

I grew up with rugby. I played for 12 seasons starting as a kid. My father coached club rugby, so I spent a bit of time around clubrooms and changing sheds as a kid, too. Though I drifted away from rugby and its culture as an adult, so much of the world of this film is deeply familiar.

Here’s the thing. Masculine camaraderie, working in a team, being part of a pack, is kind of awesome. (It is the reason the army appeals and would be great if it wasn’t about dehumanising and breaking you down so that you will follow orders without question and kill.) And watching this, I realise I miss it. There is something raw and honest about the physicality and putting your body on the line, and I haven’t encountered that in any other sport or physical endeavour in quite the same way.

What I don’t miss is the retarded drunken in your face side of things. (One in a while, maybe 😉 ). And the film goes there, stark, uncomfortable and without judgement. Part of its magic is the access, warts and all, as the team goes on the road and gets hammered. They seem totally unabashed and unashamed of their behaviour. There is something beautiful in seeing our culture so clearly. And done right, it is all good fun. But there is a slippery slope with drinking. I guess it comes down to the culture of the specific group – the quality of the “elders” and those who dominate the group.

One thing the film highlights is the difference between grassroots rugby and mainstream (townie) rugby culture. At grassroots level it brings the community together, and links rural communities. The aftermatch clubrooms culture is classic NZ. The haka never made more sense than as the guys from over the hill coming to play you at rugby and doing their haka in the clubroom afterwards.

For those unfamiliar with this sort of culture, it will be a shock and a revelation. The beauty of the film is in presenting something so familiar artistically, thereby rendering it through new eyes. Seeing NZ in a timeless black and white, grounding the men in their work as farmers, the mists in the valley… it brings home the extent to which this has been the backbone of our culture for most of our existence as a rural agricultural nation, and captures it as it may be fading out. (A club like Reporoa previously would have fielded maybe six rugby teams; now it has one.)

One conclusion is we are probably better off with rugby than without it – perhaps a surprise to the liberal minded folks who disdain the game. But without rugby as a focus at the grassroots level, with its culture of play hard but fair, where would all that energy otherwise end up being channelled?

I think I will have more to add at some point. Meanwhile, here is the trailer.