Written by Tom Augustine.
If you haven’t heard of Costa Botes, chances are you never took Media Studies in a New Zealand high school. The iconic Kiwi documentarian is best known for his collaborations with Peter Jackson, particularly the controversial and exceptionally well-executed Forgotten Silver, the not-so-true story of a (fictional) silent filmmaker in 1920s New Zealand who allegedly pioneered the cinematic craft. It remains a stirling, homegrown example of the way truth can be bent and even broken in the making of movies. His other documentary work, including the astonishing making-of documentaries of all three of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, have been less boundary-breaking, but all coalesce to reveal the abilities of an undersung master of the form. Botes’ latest work, the small-scale and largely self-funded When the Cows Come Home, is quite possibly Botes’ final work, as the documentarian himself confessed in an interview with One News. Highlighted this month in Rialto Channel’s ‘Stories About Us’ programme, if it is Botes’ swansong, it serves as a moving and fitting one.
I will confess to some reluctance upon reading the setup of the film, a profile of a humble rural Kiwi farmer and the relationship he formed with two cows that he rescued from slaughter, which on first glance is hardly the most pulse-racing of pitches. Over the years, I’ve had more than my fill of misty-eyed, romantic renderings of life in New Zealand’s rural communities, from fine work such as Bellbird and Pecking Order to, well, Country Calendar. This romanticism, it seems to me, has helped to sweep a lot of the less savoury aspects of rural New Zealand life under the rug, from the long-standing sting of colonialism to the ongoing mental health and drug crises of the regions. Hanging over it all is the presence of an overwhelming social conservatism in some of these spaces. It was the presence of Botes’ name that suggested that this work may potentially offer more nuance, a more compelling and complex portrait of the people who populate our rural spaces.
Renowned Kiwi documentarian Costa Botes’ latest (and possibly final) work is this quietly compelling portrait of a sensitive, complex outsider and his beloved herd of cows. It’s an incisive exploration of rural New Zealand that provides a nuanced take on pastoral life, mental illness and the pursuit of happiness.
When the Cows Come Home centres on Andrew Johnstone, an idiosyncratic and fascinating figure who runs a cattle farm. Something of a recluse, Johnstone’s most meaningful relationship is, the film suggests, the cows he raises and cares for, particularly two beautiful cows named Tilly and Maggie who he saved from slaughter and keeps as pets. As the film proceeds, the details of Johnstone’s past, both empathetic and questionable, come to the fore, until our understanding of this man becomes remarkably complicated by the different shades in which he may be painted. Is Johnstone a Thoreau-esque naturalist, communing with nature in a pointedly spiritual way? Is he an emotionally wounded recovering addict, as adept at alienating those around him as endearing himself to them? Is he, as a mid-film sojourn into his short, disastrous stint at the now defunct Rip It Up magazine reveals, an unwilling poster child for the racial insensitivities of a certain generation of white Kiwi men?
Botes seems content to muddy the waters, constantly pulling the film away from hagiography or image rehabilitation with the assured hand of a true blue documentarian. The film is constructed in such a way as to withhold certain aspects of Johnstone’s identity, doling them out piece by piece, enriching the experience of watching with each new reveal. An early scene describes the overwhelming grief Johnstone felt when a beloved cow he formed a bond with as a teen was sent by his father to the slaughterhouse. Later revelations about Johnstone’s life and relationship to grief subtly and perceptively colour this early sequence, a method Botes uses throughout the film to great effect. All the while, Johnstone’s day-to-day life with the cows is foregrounded, the cattle themselves becoming a sort of watchful symbol of the complexities of the man who cares for them (all the while preparing them for slaughter).
When the Cows Come Home is hardly a rebuke of rural living – indeed, there is profundity and beauty in Johnstone’s living, and Botes can’t resist touches of the golden hued romanticism that comes naturally to a New Zealander’s conception of this aspect of Kiwiana. There’s a truthfulness to that, but Botes is also entirely unafraid to detail the way that the aforementioned conservatism and restrictiveness of this world deepens and worsens the emotional problems of the people who live within it. Johnstone is not, refreshingly, the gruff and grumpy Kiwi farmer of cliche – he is verbose, articulate, and wears his sensitivity on his sleeve. If there’s a prominent throughline in When the Cows Come Home, it’s the importance of recognising and processing one’s emotions, not closing yourself off to them. The surge of love and affection we feel for Johnstone’s cows is a literal manifestation of this – the circumstances of their being are tough, even horrible, but there is value and even poetry to their lives too, and we mustn’t close ourselves off from it.
When The Cows Come Home is playing on Rialto Channel now.
When The Cows Come Home is part of the Wednesday night strand presented by Robertson Lodges: ‘Stories About Us’.
When the Cows Come Home
Movie title: When the Cows Come Home (Botes, 2022)
Movie description: Renowned Kiwi documentarian Costa Botes’ latest (and possibly final) work is this quietly compelling portrait of a sensitive, complex outsider and his beloved herd of cows. It’s an incisive exploration of rural New Zealand that provides a nuanced take on pastoral life, mental illness and the pursuit of happiness.
Date published: July 6, 2023
Country: New Zealand
Author: Costa Botes
Director(s): Costa Botes