November 9, 2007

In the Front Line to Save Rail

By HILL, Ruth

A poet, a trainspotter and a country town mayor are some of the characters in a documentary tracking the near demise of a piece of Kiwi rail history. By Ruth Hill.


WHEN Sam Hunt first hit the road at 17 or 18, the narrow metal track of the main trunk line took him into the heartland of New Zealand.

He describes the line as "the main artery" of his life, the engine- house of his future poetic output.

His father used to meet him at Paekakariki Station after each odyssey.

"The second-class smoker carriage was car P, and his joke was always, 'Carpe diem (seize the day), Sam, carpe diem.' "

When rail operator Toll Holdings announced last year it was planning to can the Overlander passenger service between Wellington and Auckland after almost 100 years, the rangy singer of road songs felt like he'd been hit by a freight train.

So when he was phoned out of the blue by a group of amateur film- makers wanting to interview him for a documentary about the Overlander, he returned the call. "I get messages like this from time to time -- usually I don't wake up for three days and that solves the whole problem," Hunt chuckles.

"But I liked these people and what they were trying to do . . . they were talking about something that meant a lot to me."

The short film, Main Trunk Country Road Song, named for Hunt's poem of the same name, is a gentle nostalgic ode to a fast- vanishing way of life, featuring poetry, music and people from different walks of life brought together by a mutual love of rail travel.

A mild-mannered mail deliveryman at National Library by day, Brett Rigarlsford's private passion is trains. Despite a learning disability, he has accumulated an encyclopaedic knowledge of the main trunk line.

His friend Dion Howard, who grew up in a railway family, came up with the idea of making a hard- hitting Michael Moore-style documentary about the end of the line, and thought Rigarlsford would make a quirky narrator.

Along with cameramen Richard Lord and Jamin Vollbregt and historian Tim McKenzie, they tried to get on board the last train. After years of half-empty carriages, the Overlander was suddenly booked out. They managed to squeeze on to the third-to-last run, which turned out to be fortuitous, Howard explains.

They were sitting on the train when the news came through that Toll had done a U-turn on the closure.

"We were getting all these texts from friends saying, 'Ha, how's the documentary going?' So we were on the journey to oblivion and back."

The protest at National Park Station turned into a giant party and community singalong led by jubilant Ruapehu District Mayor Sue Morris.

The film soundtrack also features the music of former Patea Maori Club member Tom Haupapa, recorded in the pedestrian underpass at Wellington Railway Station, where he regularly busks.

The film-makers raised the money to finish the documentary by asking 100 friends to become "patrons", staging a premiere at the New Zealand Film Archive and screenings at the National Library, and selling copies of the DVD.

The film has just been accepted for the DOCNZ Documentary Film Festival, which kicked off in Auckland last month and screens in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington (November 8-21).

Howard says the documentary is "not really about a train".

"From my perspective, it's interesting because of who's telling it," he says.

"For people living in Wellington, the train is just a way of getting to Auckland.

"But for people we met in those little towns in between, for people with disabilities and those living in isolated communities, it's much more than just a train, it's their lifeline."

* Main Trunk Country Road Song screens at the Film Archive, Wellington next Monday, 12.15pm and November 16, 1.45pm as part of DOCNZ Documentary Film Festival


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