Dan Slevin has a first look at the programme for this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.
In an increasingly fractured world of cinemagoing, where audiences have to carefully analyse which specialist film festival (Documentary Edge, New York Asian Film Festival, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Auckland Fraud Film Festival) best suits their needs, as well as having to keep a close eye on a shrinking local arthouse circuit and streaming services that announce neither their comings or goings, it is always a relief when the New Zealand International Film Festival turns up with something for everyone all in one book.
This year my (entirely un-scientific) preview follows the helpful structure provided by the festival programmers – one selection from each colour-coded section of the brochure. I haven’t seen any of these – my picks are based on not much more than the programme notes, hearsay and impeccable personal taste.
There’s one absolute stand-out in the “Big Nights and Special Presentations” section and that is the screenings of Leave No Trace at the Civic in Auckland and Embassy in Wellington. The film itself will probably have a long life, already acclaimed at Sundance, Cannes and elsewhere, but this will be your only chance to watch it with the director, Debra Granik, and the star, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. Auckland sessions have already been on sale for a week, so I expect this is close to being sold out already.
The next section in the Wellington programme, “Retro”, doesn’t appear in the Auckland version, with those archive and classic titles scattered throughout the other pages. Perhaps the organisers don’t think Auckland audiences can be trusted to go to an ‘old’ movie. Auckland actually gets a better selection of ‘retro’ titles thanks to the Civic’s continued ability to screen 35mm film and the fact that this is the 50th anniversary of the Auckland Film Festival. Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern has legendary status among festival-goers of a certain age but won’t screen in Wellington and neither will my other pick, Assayas’s Cold Water. Therefore, I’ll go for a feature of similar vintage, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire: West Berlin shot in magical black and white.
Also, Auckland-only (but worth a road trip is the ‘Live Cinema” presentation of Buster Keaton’s The General, almost a hundred years old and still one of the top ten comedies ever made for the screen.
The “Aotearoa” section is stronger than ever in documentary but thin in terms of fiction. My choice is Amanda Millar’s portrait of the late Celia Lashlie, the social campaigner and one of the most important thinkers that modern New Zealand has produced. This is a fantastic opportunity to re-amplify a voice that was silenced too soon.
The “World” section is huge, reminding me of the entirely arbitrary nature of this guide. There are literally dozens of possible titles in there, but my own pick is a very personal one: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke as a priest trapped with a shrinking congregation and an eroding faith. Tim Wong’s programme note had me at “heavily indebted to his cinematic heroes, Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson”.
The “Fresh” section contains less familiar films by less familiar (to me) filmmakers but my eye was drawn inevitably to Lynne Ramsay’s thriller You Were Never Really Here which stars Joaquin Phoenix and features music by Radiohead’s (and Phantom Thread’s) Jonny Greenwood.
There are only two features in the “For All Ages” thread this year but Liyana looks like a doozy. It is part documentary, part animation, as a group of young orphans in a Swaziland children’s home create an indigenous heroine of their own (with the help of Gcina Mhlophe). If we are ever going to out of the mess we are in, empathy and understanding for the displaced and dispossessed is going to have to be the priority for the next generation. Or maybe, we just try not to supress what’s already there.
If you’ve never seen a documentary by the great Frederick Wiseman, you should immediately go and tick the box of Ex Libris: The New York Public Library on your booking form. Now in his very late-80s, Wiseman continues to chronicle – at length – different communities with a gentleness that belies his continued idealism. There’s no director quite like Wiseman and the Academy finally realised this in 2016 when they gave him an honorary Oscar for a lifetime of achievement. Ex Libris is in the “Framing Reality” section of the programme.
“News/Fake News” is a splinter group from “Framing Reality” with a handful of films that speak to the moment the world is in right now – a challenging proposition when films take months to make and the news itself changes by the hour. I’m a sucker for migrant stories – for a long time I’ve said that the diaspora is the 21st century story – but Markus Imhoof’s Eldorado might prove too emotional for me.
Much of the music in the “Music & Dance” section has considerable Baby Boomer appeal, as director Bill Gosden admitted in his interview with Simon Morris for At the Movies. I’m drawn to Stephen Nomura Schible’s portrait of the electronic music genius Ryuichi Sakamoto (Coda), largely because I’ve been a fan of his for 30 years and also because the film has just opened in New York and my twitter feed is full of glowing reviews. There’s a Sakamoto concert in the programme too but that’s an extra ticket.
“Portrait of an Artist” is an oft-overlooked section but I would happily watch any of the 11 films offered there. My pick is McQueen, about the designer Alexander McQueen. The fashion documentary is in danger of falling in to cliché but this looks spectacular, passionate and moving.
Finally, we arrive at Ant Timpson’s “Incredibly Strange” section with the usual mix of underground hits, experimental weirdness and films wither produced by Timpson himself or made by his mates. The best title of the festival means I pick Let the Corpses Tan, a title so vivid that you know exactly the kind of exploitation you are letting yourself in for. It might be pastiche, it might be genius. You’ll be able to ask the filmmakers, Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani because they’ll be at the screenings in Auckland and Wellington.
The New Zealand International Film Festival opens in Auckland on 19 July and in Wellington a week later before travelling around the country for the next few months.