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This Way of Life (2009)

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A lionhearted father struggles valiantly to create a life of idyllic simplicity for his family.


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Title: This Way of Life (2009)

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Credited cast:
Peter Karena ...
Colleen Karena ...
Llewelyn Ottley-Karena ...
Aurora Ottley-Karena ...
Malachi Ottley-Karena ...
Elias Ottley-Karena ...
Salem Ottley-Karena ...
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Corban Ottley-Karena ...


Peter Karena, his wife Colleen, their six children and many horses live almost wild in the stunning beauty of New Zealand's rugged Ruahine Mountains. Until, that is, Peter's escalating battle with his own father has profound consequences for the whole clan. Written by Palm Springs International Film Festival

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Work versus Play
18 December 2010 | by (New Zealand) – See all my reviews

Play, according to Georges Bataille, is only ever to be considered in its relationship to work: "The principle of work, anguish paralysing the naive movement of play, is now the sovereign principle." Through a fear of failing, hunger and poverty, and ultimately of death, mankind are encouraged to dismiss the joy of the moment, of human becoming, and instead to work, pushing joy further and further into the future. The endeavours of work are of value to the collective, where "everything that is useless is to be condemned; play, through its useless essence, must be reduced to a minor function of relaxation… The useful alone is sovereign, and play is tolerated only if it serves."

Art and sport, then, are valuable to society when they serve as commodities, or, in a lesser way in the form of hobbies as relaxation. There is a lack of celebration of, and advocacy for, play (or work for that matter) which instead is intuitive and chaotic, and serves only the individual – or at least, which does not serve the collective. This creates a dichotomy where the play of sport, art and personal freedom are in opposition to the constraints of work and administered institutionalised versions of play. Bataille writes, "These minor games, like golf and guided tourist packages, feeble literature and lifeless philosophies, amount to an immense abdication, reflecting a sad humanity which prefers work to death." (Unfortunately while he airs his obvious distaste for golf, Bataille does not detail sports which he might consider as more virtuous.)

A powerful example of a family's refusal to abdicate from their own lives is illustrated in Tom Burstyn and Barbara Sumner Burstyn's documentary, "This Way of Life." The film traces the story of Peter and Colleen Karena, and their struggles to raise and provide for their six children without compromising their spirituality or values. A skilled horseman, Peter trains and sells horses, and hand sources meat by hunting deer. Feeding his family requires not only great physical strength and patience, but also skill in attempting to kill the animal cleanly out of respect for its sacrifice. "I love to hunt," Peter states in the film, "because it does something in me. It makes me feel pure, to go out there and to work. Now I could spend a day at the freezing works killing cattle and working. Not working really hard, not working myself into a sweat. And earn enough that day to maybe buy half a side of venison, half a deer. And there's no satisfaction in it."

This is a contemporary interpretation of Bataille's idea that "to work is to confess that servitude, subordination and pain are preferable to death." Peter's work serves himself and his family, not the collective, and he is not subordinate to a master. This refusal to renounce personal freedom is holistically demonstrated in the Karena's lifestyle and approach to parenting, such as when their children ride horses bareback, with only a rope rein and without helmets. The meaning of Peter's work is inherent in the hunt, the satisfaction he receives from it is immediate and ongoing, and is not abstracted. "I'm not worried about being a great hunter, and mounting heads and putting them up on my wall, all that sort of thing. 'Cos that's not why I do it. I put meat on my table and that's what I want. I don't want to be known as the great hunter. But it makes me feel great, to provide food."

Animal predators are differentiated from human hunters by Bataille, for whom the "interested activity of the animal is so contrary to that of mankind that the latter generally considers the acts of the hunt or fishing to be play." Indeed the word 'game' has become synonymous with the flesh of an animal or bird itself – that is, when the purpose of the hunt is food. For those who might have thought that the sport of trophy hunting ended with the protection of ivory, safaris are alive and well in New Zealand. The multimillion dollar industry is second only to that of South Africa. Central Otago safaris can range from $NZ500 - $3000 a day, attracting trophy fees from $NZ750-$30,000 per head. The development from stalking to helicopter charter allows hunters of all ranges of fitness to participate, as they most certainly do not carry their prizes out themselves. This removes much of the athleticism of the work which Peter describes: "I'll be working hard and I'll be sweating. I might shoot a deer down in some gully, and got to carry it up. And there are times when I'll be sitting there thinking 'I don't know if I can go any further with this thing on my back.' It's a lot more work, but it makes me feel good and makes me feel healthy."

It is not only Peter's own fitness which is so important to providing for his family, but also his reliance on his horses. The presence of this film in our collective unconscious coincides with the release of two books which also discuss themes of human relationships with horses. Nicholas Evans' "The Brave" sketches a boy who daydreams of Hollywood Cowboy heroes, and his adult realisation of the colonial myth making behind them. And Jean Auel's sixth book in her Earth's Children series is due for release in March 2011. Her second book in the series, "The Valley of Horses" details a young cave woman's burgeoning independence and self sufficiency that is contingent in its success upon her close bond with her horse. The writer's protagonists (Evans' flawed Tom, and Auel's courageous Ayla) are characters we can both identify with, and be proud of, as we follow them through their transformations.

So too do we follow Peter and Colleen, literally, as we are hard pressed not to reflect on our own priorities, philosophies and levels of self-sufficiency while watching "This Way of Life."

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