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Preview: New Zealand International Film Festival 2012

By July 17, 2012No Comments

It’s extremely quiet in terms of new releases in cinemas at the moment. The major inter­na­tion­al dis­trib­ut­ors are keep­ing well clear of the over­whelm­ing force that will be The Dark Knight Rises and the indies know that all the art­house money is going into film fest­iv­al tickets.

This year – for a change – I’m not book­ing in advance for any­thing. There’s so much good­ness in the pro­gramme – and my faith in serendip­ity needs a bit of a boost – that I’ll just see what hap­pens to be play­ing whenev­er I get a spare moment and then give it a go. With well over 150 indi­vidu­al films and short pro­grammes to choose from I’m sure there’ll always be some­thing on that’s going to chal­lenge and enlight­en me.

Rampart posterIt helps that, thanks to fest­iv­al man­age­ment, I’ve already seen ten of what’s on offer – ten films that might be easy to miss when flick­ing from one end of the 80 page book to the oth­er. In Rampart, Woody Harrelson finally lays to rest the ghosts of Cheers with a lacer­at­ing per­form­ance as an LA cop who’s as tor­men­ted and cor­rup­ted as Harvey Keitel’s legendary Bad Lieutenant. Collaborating once again with writer-director Oren Moverman (the bril­liant and under-seen The Messenger), Harrelson plays a char­ac­ter so awful that 108 minutes later you are amazed to find you actu­ally care about him.

Policeman posterYou’ll find anoth­er troubled cop in Nadav Lapid’s Policeman in which naïve bour­geois revolu­tion­ar­ies meet a cyn­ic­al and cor­rup­ted anti-terrorist squad in what turns out to be a dev­ast­at­ing indict­ment of mod­ern Israel. While the cops are per­suad­ing one of their crew who is dying of can­cer to take the fall for a botched raid in which inno­cent chil­dren died, a bunch of upper-middle class act­iv­ists plan to kid­nap a bil­lion­aire indus­tri­al­ist to make a point about … some­thing. A slow burner.

Sister posterUrsula Meier’s Sister seems like a sib­ling to The Dardennes’ The Kid With a Bike. 12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) is a thief, raid­ing the lock­ers and unat­ten­ded kit of the well-to-do at the top of the moun­tain and selling it down at the bot­tom. Meanwhile, his errat­ic older sis­ter (Léa Seydoux) can’t keep a job and – for reas­ons that will become clear – isn’t par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in caring for her young­er broth­er. A heart­break­ing little story set against some stun­ning alpine scenery.

The Wall stillThere’s more scenery on offer in Julian Roman Pöisler’s The Wall but our prot­ag­on­ist (Martina Gedeck) is trapped inside it. One morn­ing she wakes up to find her­self stuck behind an invis­ible wall that sur­rounds the lodge where she’s been stay­ing. Everything on the out­side has come to a mys­ter­i­ous halt and the only liv­ing things that remain are her pets and a cow. “We’re born alone and we die alone” is one read­ing of this engross­ing exist­en­tial fable.

A Good Man posterDocumentaries about the cre­at­ive pro­cess don’t come much bet­ter than Bob Hercules and Gordon Quinn’s A Good Man (made ori­gin­ally for PBS in the US). Choreographer and dan­cer Bill T. Jones is as feisty in his own field as Spike Lee and we see all sides of his mer­cur­i­al per­son­al­ity as he struggles to make a pro­foundly per­son­al dance work inspired by the bicen­ten­ary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Brilliantly insight­ful about so many things – race, polit­ics, his­tory, myth­o­logy and art – Jones doesn’t pre­tend to have all the answers and that he isn’t wrest­ling every day with his insec­ur­it­ies as well as his pas­sions. “I don’t want to be saint. I want to be a two-fisted maker,” he exclaims at one point and what won­der­ful ambi­tion to still have at 60.

201207171244.jpgEqually pas­sion­ate – and equally likely to infuri­ate her col­leagues as well as her enemies – is Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, once the firebrand social­ist lead­er of the Northern Irish Catholic res­ist­ance to British rule in the late 60s and early 70s, now a com­mit­ted com­munity work­er striv­ing to improve the lives of those same people. Whie a lot of the heavy lift­ing in the doc­u­ment­ary is done by ten years of inter­views with McAliskey her­self, the film (Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey) is illus­trated with plenty of archive foot­age remind­ing us what ter­rible times those “troubles” were.

Wellington is rep­res­en­ted in its own fest­iv­al by two fea­tures and at least one fea­ture doc­u­ment­ary. I’ll be look­ing at the dysto­pi­an drama Existence next week and you can read my thoughts about How to meet Girls From a Distance in the pro­gramme itself. (It’s the first time I’ve been asked to con­trib­ute a pro­gramme note – does that com­prom­ise me?)

The Last Dogs of Winter posterIn The Last Dogs of Winter, Wellington doc­u­ment­ari­an Costa Botes con­trib­utes a smash­ing story that does what all doc­u­ment­ar­ies should do – tells you some­thing you didn’t know before and makes it com­pel­ling. In remote and freez­ing Churchill, Manitoba, Brian Ladoon breeds and fiercely pro­tects the last of an endangered spe­cies – the Eskimo dog. Bred as sled dogs to pull the only pos­sible form of trans­port­a­tion in the snowy Arctic Circle, they’ve been made redund­ant by the pet­rol engine and now there are only a few left. Churchill is also the polar bear cap­it­al of the world and the three spe­cies (man, dog and bear) live in uneasy har­mony as soci­ety and the cli­mate change around them.

There was a time years ago when it seemed like every fea­ture in the fest­iv­al had a short play­ing before it but those days are mostly over. 16 play ahead of fea­ture screen­ings this year, but the oth­er way to see shorts on the big screen is via the anim­a­tion and M?ori and Pasifika pro­grammes or – this year’s innov­a­tion – New Zealand’s Best 2012. Six films com­pete for three prizes and you can see all six at two spe­cial Paramount screen­ings and then vote for the audi­ence favour­ite award. Look out for Michelle Savill’s Ellen Is Leaving – a wist­ful rumin­a­tion on change fea­tur­ing a cast of young Wellington luminar­ies – and Sam Kelly’s Lambs – a slice of kiwi social real­ism with some pro­found moments.

The New Zealand International Film Festival kicks off in Auckland this Thursday (19 July) and in Wellington on the 27th.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 18 July, 2012.