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New Zealand 2013
Directed by
Jess Feast
100 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Gardening With Soul

Synopsis: This gentle documentary takes us through a year with 90-year-old Sister Loyola Galvin, as she introduces us to her beloved garden at the Home of Compassion in Wellington, New Zealand.

One test of a good film is if you don’t relate to its subject matter but can still appreciate and enjoy what's on offer. I’m hoping non-gardeners will get a lot out of the time spent with Sister Loyola, but as an avid gardener, I found myself really enchanted by this film which won Best Documentary at the 2013 New Zealand film awards.

The gardening side of the plot is dealt with in an oft-used fashion – following the seasons. Hence we open with snow on the silverbeet, and our hardy star, decked out with woolly beanie, declaring the beet to be tough enough to withstand the weather.  She is obviously tough enough to withstand most of what life can throw at her too. We then experience her garden throughout the other seasons, meet the staff who help her with the heaviest chores and also get some lovely NZ scenery,  

The garden is of course a metaphor for so many aspects of life. As Sister Loyola explains, many children came to the Home of Compassion over the years, often as unwanted or disabled babies or children. There is some excellent archival footage of earlier times at the Home. She observes how the children and the garden need patience, and how both plants and people with the most difficult starts need more attention. The gathering of the seeds and replanting for spring is also a strong metaphor for life, and for continuity, which Sister Loyola sees as integral to all things. The sharing of garden seeds and produce and the ongoing cycle of life loom large.  

There is so much fascinating information to be gleaned from this resilient, enthusiastic and delightful nonagenarian. She tells of her own ancestry and the Irish famine, and fills us in on how she got into nursing, despite having her own physical issues. We hear of her “special boy” who died in the war and how she turned to the Sisterhood. She openly discusses sexual abuse within the Catholic church, the need for more women’s involvement, and is at pains to tell us that for her religion is not about tradition and rituals but about love, compassion and questioning. At one point she is visited by a past resident of the home, and in another scene, members of the local Samoan community help her celebrate her birthday. The love and respect all have for her is readily apparent.

Although at times when the filmmaker asks questions of Sister Loyola sometimes there seems to be an imbalance in the sound levels the words of wisdom and the insight into what faith means to this inspiring woman are what makes the film so memorable. To meet someone of deep faith who is also so grounded in day-to-day life and willing to openly talk about it is indeed a privilege.  To achieve just a fraction of this woman’s compassion and grounded attitude to life, would make us all better human beings whilst to have compost even a quarter as good as hers would give us all much more fertile gardens.  




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