Song of the Kauri - A Kiwi Documentary Feature Film

Can Kauri become New Zealand’s currency in the new world of green economics?

I have been friends with Laurie Williams for many years and have had the pleasure of touring the world with one of his kauri guitars. One day we were chatting and he mentioned that a northland forester named Steve Lane has spoken to him about a kauri tree on a forest block called Waingarara owned by Karamea Davis. Karamea had a few felling permits but had long ago stopped taking any timber.

I hear the wind among the trees
Playing the celestial symphonies;
I see the branches downward bent,
Like keys of some great instrument.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Williams guitar that I owned came from a tree felled on Waingarara over 80 years ago and Steve wondered whether the kauri grown there had some special characteristics that made the guitars sound so good. My guitar was made from recycled house beam. Laurie and Steve went to visit Karamea to discuss the possibility of activating the permit to fell a kauri tree. Laurie had brought a few instruments and when Karamea saw them he said “I want my trees to sing”. He believed that if Laurie made instruments from his kauri that would travel the world, it would be the strongest environmental message he could hope for. We wondered, could this forest block produce the perfect guitar timber? What was the chance that 80 years later the kauri here could still possess that magic tone?

I knew this could be a very special film. An environmental film full of music, forestry, hand crafted instruments, New Zealand’s incredible natural beauty and friends. I grew up bathed in politics, my father was a politician and our breakfast table was a constant forum for social change. I am fascinated by lutherie and had an uncle who designed violin tooling machines after the war in France. I love forests and grew up roaming the backwoods and felled trees for a living in the late 70’s. I have been a professional guitarist for 20 years. I needed to tell this story and started the journey that day.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.
Chinese Proverb

Documentary film making is an expensive and time consuming process and rarely a profitable one. Song of the Kauri started in debt before the first scene was shot. To get the felling permit required was a story in itself… A trip to the Far North with Laurie and Steve deep into the native forests on Waingarara with Karamea leading the way. We found a magnificent kauri. We marked the location of the tree on a GPS (taped to a 5 metre long branch waving in the sky to get a satellite reading) and then sent the information to Rotorua for the permit.

I needed a film crew. I enlisted Dave Turnbull, an old friend from Queenstown who had lots of film experience. He was to become co-producer and so much more. We wanted Annie Collins to edit the story. It had to be Annie, she could tell the documentary story like no one else. Dave and I ended up at her house in Wellington discussing the film over pancake breakfast and Annie was part of the team. She recommended Swami Hansa as cinematographer so I made my way to a stone house at the top of the Otago peninsula and enlisted Hansa. He spoke of John Patrick, so I braved the damp and cold Dunedin streets to sit with John and talk about sound recording. I enlisted John. None of these unwitting people knew that we would become close friends and be shooting this story for over 5 years. Nor did I.

The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
Nelson Henderson

I had a wonderful film concept and crew but no budget and before even starting to roll film I needed $48,000 to get the felling permits and the tree cut, milled and transported. I needed a budget to get myself and a crew around the country and eventually over to California. This was starting to look daunting, most documentary film makers know this story well. I began a long and never ending journey to raise the money needed to get this story to screen. I skied for television commercials and advertising, wrote corporate music scores, played concerts, sold all untethered items, borrowed and bartered and 5 years later Song of the Kauri was a film. Sounds easy in retrospect. It was the most incredible journey full of adventures and disasters, sunshine and ferocious gales, but I learned so much and formed treasured friendships along the way and the lasting memory is of clear blue Aotearoa skies, inspiring people and a film that will hopefully move someone.

Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
Warren Buffett

My desire was / is to make a film that could help tell the story of kauri. I believe that the strongest message of conservation for our native forests can be told by mixing ecology with economics and finding a balance where our forests can thrive and where we can also base an economy on the sustainable harvest of these timbers. We have trees that are unique to New Zealand and whose commercial potential has never been explored. Kauri, Totara, Rimu, Tanekaha, Puriri, Rata, Black Maire and the list goes on. I was invited to speak at the Taste 3 conference in California where I told the story of our beautiful forests and had Michael Chapdelaine and Jessie Coutts perform on a kauri Laurie Williams guitar. I screened a short from Song of the Kauri. We received a standing ovation and the guitar was bought within five minutes. The proud new owner said that the story inside the guitar moved her and she wanted to continue the song.

Karamea was right. This is the Song of the Kauri.

Posted by 

Mathurin has been involved in the New Zealand film industry since 1985. Song of the Kauri is his documentary directorial debut and he has surrounded himself with a stellar cast of uniquely talented people who are all impassioned by this project and share a common vision to tell this story. More about Mathurin

Reviews and responses

A collection of responses and film reviews about Song of the Kauri.
  • Simon Morris  Radio New Zealand, At the Movies  
    "It's not the story that makes a film, it's how it's told, and of the three documentaries I saw this week it was Song of the Kauri that kept my interest all the way through - a beautifully realised piece of work." Read more...
  • Michael Chapdelaine  Professor of Music, University of New Mexico  
    "Thank you 1000000000000 for involving me in your amazing work..... the guitar.......oh my god......I simply loved it. There is no better guitar on earth in my experience. I am really quite haunted by it. I miss it, though I played it less than 3 hours. Never felt anything quite like this about a guitar...... Haunted.......... Un abrazo." Read more...
  • David Grimmond (Dominion Post, Business Day - Opinion)  
    "Good documentaries raise awareness about important issues for a society. There is no sensationalism in Song of the Kauri, but in its quiet way, it draws attention to a very important issue for New Zealanders. Song of the Kauri is about the restoration of a unique natural habitat that will promote eco-diversity." Read more...