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Preview: 2009 Wellington Film Festival

By July 15, 2009April 6th, 2013No Comments

200907152020.jpgThe Wellington Film Festival (sorry, New Zealand International Film Festival, Wellington Branch) is a huge under­tak­ing for the com­mit­ted cinema-goer. Every year we devour the pro­gramme for weeks in advance, schedul­ing annu­al leave and long “lunch breaks”, try­ing to work out what is essen­tial and what isn’t. After 20 years of this, I’ve only just begun to real­ise that in the search for the essen­tial many oth­er pleas­ures have been passing me by. This year, before I even looked at the pro­gramme, I asked the Festival to choose a stack of DVDs for me, with the emphas­is on the unher­al­ded and the unex­pec­ted. Thus, of the 13 films I’ve been watch­ing over the last three or so weeks, all but one of them were from the back half of the book (and prob­ably would not have been on my per­son­al short­l­ist) but all of them had some­thing spe­cial to offer. So, is my advice for the Festival to not book in advance but instead choose films at ran­dom depend­ing on your own avail­ab­il­ity and prox­im­ity to a ven­ue? Maybe it is.

I didn’t quite ‘get’ Blind Loves, a documentary-like film about a series of Slovakian blind couples and their rela­tion­ships and lives – gor­geous to look at, cer­tainly, but I wasn’t sure how much was con­trived for our benefit.

One of the truest rep­res­ent­a­tions of male friend­ships I’ve ever seen on screen is found in Humpday, a very enter­tain­ing Seattle indie. Ben and Andrew were best friends at col­lege but have drif­ted apart since then – Ben into safe, middle-class mar­riage and career and Andrew drift­ing into a life of incom­plete art pro­jects in Mexico. Reunited for a week­end, they drunk­enly decide to make a home-made gay porn film (star­ring them­selves) as a work of art and state­ment about friend­ship between straight men. Or some­thing. Ben’s wife is under­stand­ably hor­ri­fied which sort of forces them to go through with it. Brilliant.

Black humour from Scandinavia was anoth­er theme of my selec­tion: Dead Snow might as well just titled Nazi Zombies as that’s what every­one is call­ing it. A cool idea with some lovely bloody set-pieces is ulti­mately unsat­is­fy­ing due to the lack of intern­al logic and strangely motiv­ated ant­ag­on­ists. Sweeter and fun­ni­er, is The Higher Force from Iceland – a depressed poet and debt col­lect­or invents a rela­tion­ship with a gang­land king­pin to boost his cred. Of course, one tiny lie soon blos­soms into com­plete dis­aster. A car crash of styles and cul­tures – a bit like Iceland itself right now.

Two mis­un­der­stood her­oes under­take quix­ot­ic adven­tures to raise aware­ness of glob­al issues in two sep­ar­ate docos. Big River Man is the absorb­ing tale of a Slovenian alco­hol­ic (who looks like Mr Incredible) who swims the length of the Amazon river to protest at defor­est­a­tion and Enjoy Poverty is by a Dutch artist named Renzo Martins who travels through the Congo with the breath­tak­ingly pat­ron­ising aim of per­suad­ing the loc­als to be happy with their lives as cir­cum­stances are unlikely ever to change. (In his defence he is also try­ing to get them to take own­er­ship of the images of their poverty as one of the only indi­gen­ous export indus­tries avail­able.) By the end of each film you real­ise to what extent each man is driv­en by ego rather than phil­an­thropy and each is fas­cin­at­ing and infuriating.

Talking of egos, James Toback’s Mike Tyson auto­bi­o­graphy Tyson is an often mov­ing por­trait of a dam­aged and dam­aging soul. Tyson speaks for him­self through­out and the mater­i­al is art­fully shaped by Toback – a fine dir­ect­or and one of Iron Mike’s only true friends.

When the Americans decided to go in to space they set up shop in sunny Florida. For some reas­on the Soviets went to godaw­ful Kazakhstan. Paper Soldier is a hand­some, epic drama about the early Russian space pro­gram, spe­cific­ally the six weeks imme­di­ately pri­or to Gagarin’s first voy­age. Owing a lot to (but not quite liv­ing up to) Chekov and Tarkovsky, Paper Soldier is grand and gritty in equal meas­ure. A more attract­ive look at Kazakhstan is offered by Wild Field about a lonely doc­tor tend­ing to the mostly alco­hol­ic her­ders of the steppes. The sky is as big as in any John Ford west­ern and the space between people is equally vast.

Former CT film review­er Graeme Tuckett’s much-heralded doc­u­ment­ary about Barry Barclay, The Camera on the Shore, is a mov­ing and heart­felt por­trait of a great New Zealand artist but occa­sion­ally hints at some stor­ies that could have been illu­min­ated fur­ther. Essential nonetheless.

My favour­ite two of all the pre­views offered this year are the two least likely: Serbis is day in the life of a run-down adult pic­ture theatre in Manila and the fam­ily that lives there and runs the joint – Completely dis­arm­ing – and Daytime Drinking is a small but per­fectly formed story of anoth­er kind of male friend­ship – the com­pletely unre­li­able kind. Jilted stu­dent Hiuk-jin is per­suaded by drunk­en bud­dies to go on a road trip to the coun­try but he is the only one who turns up athe bus sta­tion the next morn­ing. He goes on alone, get­ting some spec­tac­u­larly bad advice from the people he meets, much of it involving more drink­ing. A superbly sat­is­fy­ing end­ing com­pletes the deal. Director/writer/producer/photographer/editor Young-Seok Noh looks like he could be the next Steven Soderbergh – a quintuple-threat to watch.

Finally a small dis­ap­point­ment: as a fan of Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart (inex­plic­ably not selec­ted for the 2006 Festival) I was look­ing for­ward to see­ing his acclaimed new film Goodbye Solo. In it, a mys­ter­i­ous older man books a two week taxi ride from a Senegalese driver. Sadly for me the Festival’s only DVD copy failed with no chance of replace­ment so it looks like I’m going to have to book for some­thing after all.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 July, 2009. Cross-posted to