In the Theatre of the Gogs

September 3

Where art meets adventure.

IN THE THEATRE OF THE GOGS IS AN ODE TO OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHY. THE FILM BRINGS TOGETHER AN ADVENTURE FILM-MAKER, RICHARD SIDEY, AND A LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHER, CHRISTOPHER DAVID THOMPSON, TO DOCUMENT WHAT IT TAKES TO CAPTURE IMAGES OF THE REMOTE AND WILD PLACES OF AOTEAROA.

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The making of this documentary, filmed in and around Rakiura / Stewart Island, mostly involved frozen fingers, slogging up massive hills, wind, and outrageous beauty. Here, Richard revisits Christopher’s dialogue from the film to share the process, moment by moment, place by place, line by line.

The as-yet unanswered questions; What have we gotten ourselves into? Are we ready for this? Can we do this? What have we forgotten, what have we left behind? Oh man, what have we gotten ourselves into?

A rainbow flickers intermittently through the squalls that tear up the surface. Our sea kayaks, lashed to the deck with a multitude of weathered straps, ropes and granny knots, levitate for a full three seconds when a gust reaches its crescendo. We shout at each other, but our voices wash overboard and depart with the wind. This is wild in every sense of the word, and in a few minutes we’re to be dispatched into the thick of it.

It’s starting to feel like Beaufort 9 as the captain admits it’s “a tad breezy”. Chris has found some protection from the wind and spray and is directing his camera at the coastline, rocky cliffs dwarfed by walls of water colliding into them. I get out my own camera, but I focus it on Chris, who is struggling to maintain balance while entranced by the scenes that surround us.

Art and adventure, for photographers who are into the outdoors, the two are completely intertwined, but one is very definitely the result of the other. The art is always a reaction or response to the adventure itself, and the incredible things you see, feel and experience along the way.

Just like that, we’re alone and it’s unlikely we’ll see anyone else for the next ten days. Our kayaks sit low in the water, laden with food and all sorts of protection from the elements. In the lee of a peninsula, we push through swirls of kelp and make our way towards our destination for the night, a hut several kilometres away. Rounding the headland and it’s all on again, the wind strong and relentless, screaming in our ears. We’re going backwards. The salt-spray stings our eyes. Downwind, there are more than 8,000 kilometres’ of Southern Ocean between us and Patagonia. Get broadsided now, and it’s likely game over.

The reality of our arrival, a serious baptism – the problem, the wind, the options. No thoughts of, nor time for creativity here, just survival. Instinct kicks in like the place itself, raw and brutal. Exciting, nerve wracking, frightening. But this is what adventure is about, the unknown, the risk and the reward.

Eventually, thankfully, we win today’s battle and haul our kayaks and gear ashore in mud and darkness. The ancient, twisted shapes of rimu and rata trees tower above us, swaying steeply as yet another hailstorm hits. A backcountry hut never looked so good.

Awakening and investigating our immediate surrounds, this is going to be home for a bit, what have we got? How does it look… how does it feel? The first storm has passed, and the beauty of the place begins revealing itself. We start developing an appreciation of our surroundings, this is the beginning of understanding and connection.

For the next week we explore, heading out on a different bearing each morning, navigating coastlines, inlets, forests, scrub and mountaintops. Albatross soar past our kayaks, skimming their wingtips on the waves. Sea lions follow us for hours, interacting, playing, ever curious. Storms come and go. When we return in the evenings, bruised, wet, cold and exhausted, it’s usually with an abundance of seafood.

Our cameras join us on every venture, and although we’re exploring together, rarely do we shoot the same scene. The ideas are still forming as our adventure unfolds. It’s this organic approach to art I enjoy best – no real idea of an end result until it presents itself.

The dawning perfection, a place revealed at its best. After all we have already witnessed, this calm and clear respite feels rare, you feel more honoured to be there and able to enjoy it, to see how beautiful it can be. Remote, unspoiled, a real treasure, as though accepting and rewarding us. Us, a tiny speck in the immensity of wonder.

The sea is calm, the sky is blue, not a whisper of wind. The tide is high and flooding as we paddle towards the imposing peaks of Gog and Magog. Several hours of bush-bashing later, we’re climbing the steep granite slabs of Gog. Our horizons are expanding by the minute.

“in this land of two-minute weather anything is on the cards.”

Reaching or attaining a peak or highpoint, a goal achieved, how rewarding that feels. From such heights the perspective you get of the place is completely different, an overview literally, the context of the place and your position within it – a sense of scale.

Exhausted from the morning slog and basking in the midday sun, I turn my attention to hot coffee and salami sandwiches. Chris, however, is examining rocks and changing lenses with new compositions in mind.

Having the time to simply enjoy – after the toil, gives you the space to start to truly ‘see’ a place and what it offers you in a photographic sense – camera in hand, you respond to whatever the present environment offers you in terms of light, shape, shadows, compositions, views and vistas. You begin to try to capture and document what is unique to that place and the feelings it brings up inside of you, you are then reacting to the experience and the place.

Back at the hut, I see movement. We’ve caught a large feral cat in the wire cage trap we set earlier for the gang of possums that visit every night; with predators this size, it’s no wonder we’ve yet to see a kiwi. I hate to think how many birds this one cat would kill every day. My camera stays in its bag.

This glorious land of mud and rainbows… and wind… and water… so much water…

The storms return overnight and we’re anxious about trees falling on the hut. The guest book reveals it wouldn’t be the first time. Everything hurts. Everything’s wet. Everything smells. But at least we have fresh blue cod.

And then, before we were ready for it, the journey was almost at an end, one last night. We had no idea what we were in for, but we put ourselves out there, in the box seat, almost on a whim, the desire to get out for one last walk, just to observe and enjoy one last sunset in that incredible place. And so we find ourselves, in the prime place to watch the dramas unfold, in the Theatre of the Gogs. What sort of a show will she put on for us tonight?

We’re positioned atop a shallow summit with a great view of Gog and Magog, enveloped in a cacophony of greys. It’s bleak, cold and dull, but in this land of two-minute weather anything is on the cards.

“Instinct kicks in like the place itself, raw and brutal”

It all happens so quickly and so intensely – the wonders are happening all around us, you have to be looking every which way and everywhere, there’s a huge fear of what we might be missing. The moments happen so quickly – sometimes they are infuriatingly fleeting, gone before they even really begin, or before you have the time to respond.

With an intense hailstorm to the west and towering cumulus to the east, the scenes around us are of absolute magnificence. We work quickly, efficiently, silent, enthralled.

It’s an intensely personal moment, the capture, the photograph, and the memory. And if you got the shot? That’s the reward, that’s what it’s all about – that’s the art of it, that’s what we love about it.

Once again, I find myself documenting Chris documenting the light and wildness around us. Clear as day, the film has revealed itself at last, scribed by nature, the adventure behind the art. It’s often purposely avoided in film-making, but this one can play out in sequence. We have our exciting beginning, the continuous narrative and a cinematic finale of epic proportions.

Eventually, sadly, the show is over, night begins to draw near. The rush, the elation and the adrenaline begin to subside. But there’s always one more shot to be had, one more thing to see and delight in, before the long cold walk home in the dark.

WORDS: RICHARD SIDEY
FILM SCRIPT: CHRISTOPHER THOMPSON

In the Theatre of the Gogs had its world premiere at this year’s Doc Edge Festival and picked up Best NZ- Made Film at the 2021 Mountain Film Festival. Use the promo code 1964 to watch it for free on Vimeo: vimeo.com/ondemand/gogs.


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1964: mountain culture / aotearoa is a reader-supported magazine that explores Aotearoa New Zealand’s remote places and the people who seek them out. Working with more than thirty artists, photographers, writers, woodworkers and welders, we advocate for and support Aotearoa’s creatives.

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