Skip to main content

Preview: 2011 New Zealand Film Festival

By July 27, 2011No Comments

Despite the shock­ing and inex­plic­able decision to omit Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins from this year’s Film Festival (a dis­aster applic­able only to me I think) the actu­al line-up is as good as every­one says. At least I think it is from sur­vey­ing about 20 out of the 160+ titles in the pro­gramme – hardly a rep­res­ent­at­ive sample but when most of those 20 bring such joy and only a few land with a dull thud you have to think that the rest of the pro­gramme is sim­il­arly proportioned.

Last year the big Cannes win­ner, Of Gods and Men, was missed by the International Festival, a situ­ation that was remedied at Easter’s World Cinema Showcase. This year, of the big Cannes movies, only Godard’s Film Socialisme is miss­ing in action. The great Swiss icon­o­clast may well have pro­duced his most inter­est­ing work in years but it will take a trip to Amazon to find out for sure. Even the redoubt­able Aro Video are unlikely to take a punt on it without the Festival’s imprimatur.

As usu­al, I asked the help­ful Festival people to point me towards the less likely, the unher­al­ded, the little bat­tle­rs, the kind of film that is eas­ily missed when skim­ming the 80 page pro­gramme. Any fool can tell you that The Tree of Life is going to be inter­est­ing. Capital Times read­ers want more than that.

Firstly music: two doc­u­ment­ar­ies impressed me and they worked so well togeth­er I wish they were a double-feature. Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself is a bio­graphy of the out­law coun­try star as he settles in to an uncom­fort­able old age. Actually old age to Haggard is no less com­fort­able than every oth­er age – I can’t think of a great star less at ease in his own skin.

Compare that with Sing Your Song, the life story of the pop star, act­or and act­iv­ist Harry Belafonte. From a sim­il­ar gen­er­a­tion to Haggard, born with an equal lack of oppor­tun­ity, Belafonte turned his tal­ent and fame into a relent­less drive to improve the lives of the people around him while Haggard seems to think that he is unworthy of his.

As an example of their dif­fer­ing atti­tudes to life and fame, Haggard described his invit­a­tion to per­form at Nixon’s White House as the proudest day of his life. Belafonte once refused an invit­a­tion to rep­res­ent the US at Nelson Mandela’s inagur­a­tion in protest at the situ­ation in Haiti.

Those two films are about musi­cians but not much about music. This is remedied by crazy John Turturro’s por­trait of Napoli, Passione. I think it was Noël Coward who wrote of the “potency of cheap pop music”, a potency that is increased dra­mat­ic­ally when sung in a for­eign lan­guage. Filled with music video recre­ations of Neapolitan hits, old and new, Passione is a delight from start to finish.

The best doc­u­ment­ary I saw in this pre­view peri­od was Aaron Schock’s Circo, a sad look at the dwind­ling for­tunes of a once proud Mexican cir­cus, held togeth­er by ring­mas­ter “Tino” as the rest of his fam­ily slowly drifts away. A beau­ti­ful soundtrack by Calexico com­pletes the pic­ture. Another, more suc­ces­ful, side of the show­biz dream can be found in Being Elmo: a Baltimore teen­ager watch­ing early morn­ing kids TV falls in love with pup­petry and dis­cov­ers a tal­ent that takes him all the way to Sesame Street. Joyous.

Every Festival needs a great archi­tec­ture doco (last year’s I.M. Pei film, Learning From Light wasn’t quite it) and this year we have How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? Over the last 30 years Sir Norman Foster has built the biggest archi­tec­ture prac­tise in the world, work­ing on the biggest pro­jects and build­ing the biggest build­ings. Cinema and archi­tec­ture can work so well togeth­er, the cam­era float­ing through a space, catch­ing the inter­play of light and shad­ow, pres­ence and absence. This film does all of that, tells an great story and illu­min­ates Foster’s now influ­en­tial way of thinking.

Sophie Fiennes (sis­ter of Ralph and Joseph) has pro­duced a doc­u­ment­ary about German artist Anselm Kiefer that belongs in the “Slow Cinema” sec­tion of the pro­gramme – Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow and is all the bet­ter for it. Knowing noth­ing about Kiefer at the begin­ning, I was drawn into his work first by Fiennes’ long del­ic­ate track­ing shots and Ligeti soundtrack. Then we get to see the man at work and he turns out to have a much light­er touch in the stu­dio than his dark and broody med­it­a­tions on European his­tory would have you believe. More films show­ing artists at work please – much more cine­mat­ic than star­ing at paintings.

The Mill and the Cross is an exceed­ingly cine­mat­ic way to look at a paint­ing: a recre­ation of the world that pro­duced Peter Bruegel’s mid-16th cen­tury mas­ter­piece The Way to Calvary (and an extraordin­ary, digitally-supported live-action recre­ation of the paint­ing itself). A stun­ning tech­nic­al achieve­ment but in des­per­ate need of a sense of humour.

This fest­iv­al seems to be full of con­fused teen­age girls: in Tomboy a ten-year-old girl would rather be a boy so … chooses to be one. A del­ic­ate sub­ject deftly handled by dir­ect­or Céline Sciamma, it could have gone very wrong. She Monkeys, from Sweden, isn’t nearly as suc­cess­ful. A seem­ingly self-contained fourteen-year-old (this time) tries out for the loc­al eques­tri­an vault­ing team (like syn­chron­ised swim­ming on horse­back) and falls under the spell of beau­ti­ful Cassandra. Or does she? Mistaking opaque char­ac­ter motiv­a­tions for a gen­er­al sense of adoles­cent mys­tery is but one of its flaws and it’s described on its own web­site as a mod­ern Western. Yeah, nah.

Another teen­ager, strug­gling to come to terms with adult­hood and, more spe­cific­ally, sexu­al­ity is stun­ning new­comer Clara Augarde in Love Like Poison. Like all of the last three films, par­ent­ing (lack of) is the core of the prob­lem but this film states its mani­festo right there in the title. Augarde reminds me of a young Isabelle Huppert and that’s quite a career to aspire to.

Talking of going places, Lena Dunham has well and truly announced her­self with Tiny Furniture, a film that made me laugh out loud more than almost all of the com­mer­cial Hollywood “com­ed­ies” I’ve sat though this year. And then she whomps you in the guts with some real emo­tion, too.

Talking of com­mer­cial cinema, there are a plenty of examples of inter­na­tion­al hits to choose from: Point Blank is a French thrill­er about a hos­pit­al nurses aid who is dragged into a police con­spir­acy and has to join forces with a bru­tal (and tactit­urn) safe crack­er in order to res­cue his kid­napped wife. It’s a rare thing – a film with action sequences you can actu­ally fol­low – so expect a less coher­ent Hollywood remake soon.

Brazil’s biggest hit in years was Élite Squad: The Enemy Within , the sequel to its pre­vi­ous biggest hit Élite Squad. Featuring even more police cor­rup­tion, this time plucked from the Rio head­lines, Élite Squad has plenty of action but not much sub­tlety – dir­ect­or José Padilha has def­in­itely seen the final third of Scarface, you can be cer­tain of that.

Medianeras is a slight Argentinian romantic com­edy that was in love with its eleg­ant struc­ture more than its char­ac­ters – two lonely-hearts take a year (and an entire film) to dis­cov­er that their soul­mate is actu­ally right across the hall. By about half way I wanted to give them both a good slap.

For once, the Sports sec­tion of the pro­gramme isn’t dom­in­ated by cyc­ling. In fact there’s even a couple of films about the sports that we watch rather than par­ti­cip­ate in. With Senna, Asif Kapadia provides an object les­son in doc­u­ment­ary storytelling. Most of us know the arc of Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna’s life but Kapadia still man­ages to pro­duce sur­prise after sur­prise: grip­ping from begin­ning to end.

Fire in Babylon has less to work with in terms of archive foot­age but it sup­ple­ments it with a splen­did choice (and use) of still pho­to­graphs illus­trat­ing the 1970s bloom of West Indian crick­et and their 20 year suprem­acy. The thes­is is that the explo­sion of pride in Caribbean crick­et was a res­ult of post-colonial inde­pend­ence and the case is well made. There are many pleas­ures for a crick­et fan, not least see­ing the Master Blaster, Vivian Richards, still quietly dom­in­at­ing every room he is in. What a play­er, what a man.

Two years ago in these pages, I recom­men­ded a Korean film called Daytime Drinking only to be scol­ded for it by my own moth­er. So, I wouldn’t dream of sug­gest­ing the dead­pan Mongolian “com­edy” Winter Vacation which will drive many audi­ences mad with frus­tra­tion but intrigued and delighted me.

Finally, the first half of A Useful Life might have been made for me and me alone. A fail­ing Montevideo cine­matheque (ima­gine if the Film Society ran its own cinema – it would be a bit like this) struggles to pay the rent and keep the pro­ject­ors run­ning des­pite fall­ing mem­ber­ship. Portly Jorge (Jorge Jellinek) has been keep­ing the place going for 25 years but when he finally has to ven­ture out in to the world his eyes are opened but sadly mine were closed. I’ll cher­ish the beau­ti­fully observed and pho­to­graphed first half though.

A short­er ver­sion of this pre­view was prin­ted in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 27 July, 2011.