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Now, I’m risk­ing the ire of the extremely help­ful and gen­er­ous New Zealand International Film Festival team here, but I’m going to recom­mend an approach to festival-going that will prob­ably reward you more than it will them. Here goes: don’t book for any­thing. Don’t plan your life around any par­tic­u­lar screen­ing of any par­tic­u­lar film. Especially, don’t book for any­thing because that’s the one all your mates are going to.

Try this instead. Wake up on any giv­en morn­ing dur­ing the fest­iv­al, feel like watch­ing a movie, have a look through the fest­iv­al cal­en­dar in the middle of the pro­gramme (or the handy-sized mini-guide, avail­able soon) and pick a some­thing you fancy based on the title. Or the cinema closest to you. Or the cinema fur­thest away. Or close your eyes and jab a fin­ger at the page. Either way, step out of your com­fort zone and try some­thing new. You won’t regret it. Well, you might, but prob­ably not for long.

Every year, this is kind of what I do when I ask the fest­iv­al pub­li­city team for help with this pre­view. Give me a stack of screen­er DVDs, I say, or those new-fangled inter­net links where I have to watch a film sit­ting at my desk. No, don’t tell me what they are. Let me guess. Some of my favour­ite fest­iv­al exper­i­ences have come watch­ing films I knew noth­ing about, but for those of you who are going to ignore my advice and, um, take my advice, here are some notes on the films I’ve already seen, in no par­tic­u­lar order.

The House of Radio posterI’m a radio-head from my child­hood. I love radio, listen­ing to it, appear­ing on it, mak­ing it. I love look­ing at stu­di­os, per­ving at micro­phones, the red lights that go on when the mics are live, the silently tick­ing clocks. Watching Nicolas Philibert’s The House of Radio, I was a pig in shit. I don’t think I’ve been as blissed out as this watch­ing a film for ages. It’s one day in the life of Radio France, where seem­ingly dozens of sta­tions share a giant Parisian cathed­ral ded­ic­ated to the wire­less. News, talk, cul­ture, music – clas­sic­al, jazz and hip-hop. Philibert’s polite cam­era peers into their stu­di­os and their offices, even the Tour de France cor­res­pond­ent report­ing live from the back of a motorbike.

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess starts out like a one joke mock­u­ment­ary about a geek-meeting in the early 80s, where pro­gram­mers face off against each oth­er in an aspie battle for chess suprem­acy. Shot in authen­t­ic grainy black and white video, Bujalski takes his film in some sur­pris­ing and mys­tic­al dir­ec­tions, end­ing on a note of uni­ver­sal won­der at, I don’t know, things.

Behind the Candelabra posterBehind the Candelabra is dir­ec­ted by Steven Soderbergh (pho­to­graphed and edited by him too under his cus­tom­ary ali­ases Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard) from a script by Richard La Gravanese about the pred­at­ory and manip­u­lat­ive romantic prac­tices of the closeted enter­tain­er Liberace. Brilliant Matt Damon plays the spurned lov­er Scott Thorson and Michael Douglas is the dia­mond and fur-clad pian­ist. Everything that Soderbergh does here elev­ates a fairly run-of-the-mill screen­play, and the res­ults are nev­er less than enter­tain­ing. Look out for screen legend Debbie Reynolds and note that this film was the late Marvin Hamlisch’s final screen credit.

In Oh Boy, Tom Schilling’s Berlin stu­dent drop-out Niko Fischer mooches around the city try­ing to find a cup of cof­fee, thwarted by friends, fam­ily and strangers across one long hot day. There’s some­thing about black and white that makes this sort of thing seem like it has more going on than it has – heirs and graces. Similarly, I enjoyed Frances Ha, and I did­n’t mind this, but I do won­der how much notice we would take if they wer­en’t shot to look like Manhattan.

High School in Kazakhstan is no walk in the park if Harmony Lessons is any­thing to go by. The bul­lies that tor­ment sens­it­ive young Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov), learn their trade from the adults as we dis­cov­er once the cops get involved. First time writer-director Emir Baigazin is stronger at the lat­ter than the former – there are plenty of “woah” images and his com­pos­i­tions are always splen­did but the script is a bit obvi­ous. NB: Also fea­tures some start­lingly authen­t­ic violence.

Starlet posterStarlet has plenty of its own brand of authen­ti­city – the San Fernando Valley adult film industry provides a back­ground to a rather sweet story of a young porno act­ress (Dree Hemingway) who befriends an eld­erly woman (only-time act­ress and former pro­fes­sion­al astro­lo­ger Besedka Johnson). There’s some­thing beguil­ing about dis­cov­er­ing nug­gets of gen­er­os­ity in the unlike­li­est of places and few films these days are foun­ded on char­ac­ters try­ing to be nice to each oth­er. Winning is how I’d describe it.

Also win­ning, lit­er­ally and fig­ur­at­ively, is The Rocket, an Australian film set in Laos. An indefatig­able young boy, Sittiphon Disamoe, believes him­self to be cursed with rot­ten luck and, through most of the film, fate proves him right. He nev­er gives up, though, and Kim Mordaunt’s enga­ging film builds to an explos­ive and sat­is­fy­ing cli­max. Crowd-pleasing.

Curtis Vowell and Sophie Henderson’s Fantail is a first fea­ture that shows a lot of prom­ise – and more than a few rewards of its own. Henderson – who wrote the script based on her own one-woman show – plays Tania, work­ing the grave­yard shift at a dead­beat pet­rol sta­tion, dream­ing of bet­ter things for her and her young­er broth­er (Jahalis Nhamotu). Its faults are for­give­able – a stage-bound struc­ture and a plot that loses its way in the final third – when what works works so well. Everyone appears to be cast against type which is a very pleas­ant sur­prise for a New Zealand feature.

I really, really – no, I mean really – enjoyed the Horrocks’ fam­ily’s Venus: A Quest, in which car­toon­ist Dylan travels half way across the world to find out about the fam­ily links to astro­nomer Jeremiah Horrocks, who dis­covered the Transit of Venus in 1639. The whole film, clev­erly con­struc­ted by Roger and Shirley Horrocks, who also dir­ects, turns out to be about curi­os­ity and dis­cov­ery and how we should nev­er stop ask­ing ques­tions and search­ing for answers. Their jour­ney takes them to Liverpool, Bolton, Wellington and Tolaga Bay, where the com­munity there wit­nesses the 2012 Transit and remem­bers the arrival of Captain Cook and his ship full of scientists.

The Gatekeepers posterPolitical and act­iv­ist doc­u­ment­ary is well-represented as always – the Gibney docos are already get­ting well-justified kudos. The most import­ant story, in my opin­ion, is Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers in which pil­lars of the Israeli estab­lish­ment – all former heads of the Shin Bet intern­al secur­ity ser­vice – break ranks with their polit­ic­al mas­ters and tell the awful truth about how Israel has been defend­ing itself over the last 40 years. I saw it last year and thought it was incen­di­ary, and yet some­how it has­n’t exploded yet. I can­’t recom­mend it highly enough – exemplary.

Fire in the Blood is also power­fully argued, if a little too reli­ant on doc­u­ment­ary clichés to tell its story. Good job the story is so import­ant. Dylan Mohan Grey’s film is about the scan­dal­ous with­hold­ing of Aids drugs from Africa in the 90s and on into this cen­tury. I had naively thought that provid­ing anti­ret­ro­vir­al drugs to Africa was George W. Bush’s one great sav­ing grace, but it turns out that his plan was instantly hijacked by the giant phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pan­ies and he allowed it to be hijacked. 10 mil­lion people died who did­n’t need to. Unless pro­tect­ing obscene cor­por­ate profits is a need.

Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World posterTucked away in the dark recesses of the pro­gramme, eas­ily missed I sus­pect, are two doc­u­ment­ar­ies by Shirley Clarke, both about great American artists, both made many years ago and both revived so we may see them again. I liked Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World more than Ornette: Made in America (about Ornette Coleman) but that’s because I like Frost’s poetry more than I like Coleman’s music. The Frost film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1964, largely I sus­pect because of Frost’s twinkly per­son­al­ity, undimmed after 88 years. It was an age when films about poets could win Academy Awards and poets could read a poem without it tak­ing longer to explain than it takes to read.

Which Way is the Front Line from Here? posterFinally, war report­er Sebastian Junger has made his first film as a solo dir­ect­or and it is a bio­graphy of his great col­lab­or­at­or Tim Hetherington. Told with much love, Which Way is the Front Line from Here? is about a man who used his cam­era to con­nect with and under­stand people rather than as a shield or a tool. Hetherington and Junger made the bril­liant Restrepo, an Academy Award nom­in­ated story of a year in the life of a Marine pla­toon in Afghanistan. Hetherington, a hand­some and lac­on­ic Brit, had spent eight years pri­or to that in West Africa, shoot­ing civil wars, and com­ing to under­stand the young man’s need to fight – fight­ing as a form of expres­sion – and how the power­ful exploit that need.

There is so much wis­dom and insight in every single one of Hetherington’s pho­to­graphs fea­tured in the film. I’ll nev­er for­get it and, chances are, unless the fest­iv­al had­n’t handed it to me blind, I would nev­er have seen it. Take a few chances this festival.

I’d like to per­son­ally thank NZIFF Publicist, Rebecca McMillan, who for years has put up with my requests for con­tent, access, screen­ers, inter­views, tick­ets, etc and nev­er once let me believe that I was­n’t the only media that she was deal­ing with. This year has been par­tic­u­larly hard as I’ve been wrangling four dif­fer­ent out­lets and she has shown remark­able patience throughout.