Community Building: NZIFF 2017 Wrap Up Part I
In Part 1 of our NZIFF 2017 wrap up, an electronic discussion that took place over the course of a couple weeks, we look at the relationship between place and perception, how festivals build community, what we love and hate about NZIFF venues, and what happens when your viewing companion disappears midway through a film.
Doug Dillaman: As I write this, the festival has been more or less over for a week in Auckland and has just ended in Wellington, while in Christchurch it’s on its final week. Up here, it’s been a commercial success – at Saturday night’s closing film, Good Time, it was announced that ticket sales locally had already outstripped last year’s festival total.
One of the unique things about NZIFF – at least to my knowledge – is that it’s simultaneously an international festival and a local festival. Huge chunks of the program repeat from Tauranga to Gore, but each of the major cities also has its local features – Auckland and Wellington get markedly more films than anywhere else, but premieres happen down South as well. One could argue that the only true way to experience the festival in full is to check out every venue and film across all 13 locations, but I’m not sure that’s even physically possible, much less well-advised.
So, to start off with a broad question: how did you connect to the festival as a way to interact with your city this year? I didn’t make it to Manukau or Westgate, but even though the venues are malls, I’m excited that NZIFF is making inroads into cinemas and areas where arthouse film has traditionally been neglected. I did make it to the Hollywood Avondale, where I’ve been attending movie marathons for over a decade, and getting to do Incredibly Strange double features there was every bit as fun and family reunion-esque as I hoped. On the other hand, the loss of SkyCity as a venue – and the scheduling permutations that both Hollywood and the Auckland Waterfront Theatre created – meant a less dense nucleus of activity and fewer serendipitous encounters with friends. But I still ran into plenty of people, probably because like many I make Civic screenings one of the cornerstones of my programming. Every time I go in there it feels like Christmas, and I think plenty of Aucklanders feel the same way.
In other words, tradeoffs, but on the whole welcome ones, I thought, what about you?
I love Auckland city in NZIFF season. There’s a palpable buzz, day and night, that isn’t around at other times of year.
Jacob Powell: I definitely share your love of the Civic Doug, and took my share of obligatory annual ‘Civic pics’. I love Auckland city in NZIFF season. There’s a palpable buzz, day and night, that isn’t around at other times of year. As well as the films themselves, NZIFF for me means: hanging about on the street corner in front of The Civic, after closing time, frothing over or decrying the night’s viewing with an assortment of friends, acquaintances and random hangers on; introducing people in need of wakefulness to my preferred caffeine suppliers on breaks between theatre dashes; engaging in a bit of people-watching at my many solo viewings, including overhearing moments of deep emotion and deep twatcockery (after the beautifully moving Faces Places I witnessed both tearful praise from a couple of young viewers, and loudly expressed disappointment from a self-proclaimed ‘filmmaker’ who was “expecting more”!)
Despite the added drive, like you Doug, I took great pleasure in attending sessions at my 24hr Movie Marathon ‘cine-temple’, the wonderful Hollywood Theatre in Avondale. It was fantastic to see it totally sold out on their opening weekend with the odd double bill of Turkish cat lovers’ dream Kedi and gorgeously designed 70s exploitation throwback, The Love Witch. It was no surprise that a screed of Incredibly Strange section films played the Hollywood – section Programmer Ant Timpson’s brother Matt runs the theatre now and I caught a fantastic mid-fest double of the genre/gender subverting comedy-horror Tragedy Girls followed by John Waters’ shrill ‘fuck you’ to establishment filmmaking, the insane Multiple Maniacs – but it was also great to see such a big run of ‘regular’ programming. I even took my girls there to see My Life as a Courgette on Auckland’s closing weekend, which was fantastic, on point viewing. My girls loved sitting up in the Circle and Miss 8 even received favourable, unsolicited feedback on her very enthusiastic viewing style from the ladies seated in the row in front of us!
David Larsen: This was a unique festival year for me in terms of venues & experiencing the life of my city, because after 20 years in Auckland I moved back to my home town, Wellington, in April. Since then I've been gradually feeling my way into the local cinephile scene. (Wellington film society: exponentially better attendance than Auckland's and hence every screening is an event; the Roxy: almost a rival for the Civic as a lush over-the-top cinema palace; Reading: worse than Auckland's worst mallplex; the Embassy: the Rolls Royce of New Zealand film, spacious, comfortable, elegant.) But then for the festival I flew up and did the opening night and the first three days in Auckland, and then flew up again for the second Friday-Saturday-Sunday, before doing the remaining 14 days of the Wellington festival. So right now I have a sharper than usual sense of how much urban context can shape film-going experience.
Auckland and Wellington both offer a wide geographic spread, but in Auckland some considerable cross-city travel time is now virtually mandatory, whereas in Wellington it's very easy to avoid. With the loss of Sky City as a venue – I am possibly the only person who regrets this, because I'm a front row zombie, meaning the lack of leg room there was never an issue for me – there are now only three central Auckland venues. I only saw 20-odd films over my Auckland days, some of which required travel. Eight or nine of these trips had to be accomplished in slightly less time than would have been ideal, giving my Auckland festival the distinctive flavour of rising panic followed by wild relief -- and, in the case of the Academy-to-Hollywood-in-40-minutes-during-Friday-rush-hour journey, fist-pumping. In Wellington, the proximity of Nga Taonga and Te Papa's Soundings theatre to the Embassy and the Paramount (each of which is a double venue, with smaller theatres tucked in under or behind the main auditoriums) meant that I could plan out my entire 48-screenings Wellington programme without a single trip outside the central city. My Wellington festival felt cozy and domestic. Auckland felt urban and a little risky. These flavours don't override the mood of any individual film, but they do permeate the memories in which the films are embedded.
My Wellington festival felt cozy and domestic. Auckland felt urban and a little risky. These flavours don't override the mood of any individual film, but they do permeate the memories in which the films are embedded.
Being in Wellington longer than Auckland, I started seeing the same faces recur. A minority of filmgoers like to sit at the front – the bigger the screen, the smaller the minority – so I ended up having quite a few conversations with the two other people crazy enough to sit at the front in the Embassy. One of them started the festival with exactly the same number of tickets as me. By the end, I had skipped several films, for reasons of flu, sanity, and deadlines. He had skipped none. Also he had bought four more tickets, for a total, last time I asked, of 72. Every time I asked him what he thought of a particular film, he would slide gracefully out from under the question and start telling me something about the filmmaker, or the country where the film was set, or the history of film itself. Every one of these anecdotes was interesting and historically accurate, and he never seemed to have trouble calling one to mind when needed. He travelled with a well filled hip flask. I ran into a lot of friends at festival screenings, as you do; but the Hip Flask Man of Many Stories was the person, of all the people I met this year, who I thought should have been in a film himself.
Brannavan Gnanalingam: I’ve never experienced the Film Festival outside of Wellington, and to be honest, my experiences like David’s, have been centred around the Paramount, Embassy, Te Papa and Film Archive section. I’ve very rarely ventured outside of the city centre in the past and never to the Roxy, it sells out too quickly, occasionally to the Penthouse, but again that sells out too quickly, and once to Lighthouse Petone (memorably to see Under The Skin).
This year, I didn’t have the leave, nor the time (being a newish parent), to lurk in Wellington waiting for films. But my experience of the film is also tied around to the city around the cinema – a quick slice from Tommy Millions if I’m running late, dinner at Little Penang, Boquita, or Phoenician if I’ve got a bit more time, or baked goods from Deluxe. And to sound even more like a Wellington cliche, a craft beer from literally anywhere in the venues’ vicinities (including the venues themselves).
I spent most of my time in the Embassy this year because of the films I got to. It feels decadent and makes the Film Festival seem like an event. The Paramount, though, feels like my spiritual home. It’s grungy, peeling, and has a memorable odour. So many of the odd films I’ve seen in the years, and the Film Society and the other film festivals had been at the Paramount. I’m glad that my last film there was Marlina the Murderer In Four Acts – it seemed the perfect send-off, if the Paramount does indeed close next month.
Erin Harrington: We have three screens across two venues in Christchurch, for 90-ish films across 18 days. I must admit a real fondness for the screenings at Hoyts at Northlands Mall. They have been terrific supporters of the festival post-quake, as prior to that the venues had largely existed in the CBD, and if they hadn’t supported the festival here I don’t know what would have happened to it. It’s not a particularly romantic destination venue (and ordinarily I’d avoid malls), and its position in the north of the city doesn’t work for a lot of people but it’s clean, quiet, spacious, and comfortable. There’s loads of free parking and a few okay options for food and drink, and the staff are really lovely and happy to see you (which isn’t often the case for the Ticketek staff in town, who I’ve generally found to be irritated, officious eye-rollers).
The renovated Isaac Theatre Royal is a terrific drawcard though. It has a sense of grandeur and theatricality, it’s wonderful for premieres and events, it was fully kitted out for cinema and sound during its renovation, and it’s a great space to be in with a good, big crowd, although the foyer isn’t hugely inviting or comfortable. Apart from a smattering the usual suspects, I’ve also seen a lot of my students there! Well done, students. Importantly, it’s a way of drawing people back into the CBD, and it’s hard to state how significant that is. The central city – which was already suffering from the cannibalistic pull of malls and flat suburban sprawl pre-quake – has been largely forgotten by a lot of people. It’s a blank, a long-long-ago-in-the-before-time. I’ve certainly heard comments, at the festival as well as at other performance events, that being at the ITR is the first time some people have been back into town since 2010/2011.
There was a sign in one of the shops on New Regent Street, the cute little 1930s boutique street next to the theatre, welcoming people into the central city for the festival. This speaks to the idea that the city is now treated as a destination, not a space for casual drop ins or a space in which people really, truly live their lives. To sit somewhere like The Last Word, a gorgeous little whisky bar, and have a grown up drink in a warm and welcoming space nearby, instead of just turning up then going home. It’s a moment of sadness as well as happiness, as it shows how intertwined community is with space and infrastructure. While construction and red tape cat’s cradle grinds on it is a real reminder of how much we’ve lost, and how slow and piecemeal the rebuild is. I think other cities, with even moderately active city spaces, really take this social aspect of the festival for granted, and it’s something I miss.
But, I hold myself up to be painted as culturally unpatriotic, in being a bit ambivalent about the theatre because I can’t quite get my head around how, during a stunning renovation, someone made the decision to stick with uncomfortable seats that are packed so tight you can barely move, so much so that it’s sometimes very hard to read subtitles around the people in front of you. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for people with mobility issues, or who have a bit of a puku, to negotiate the space. It doesn’t help that for some reason the staff have been allowing latecomers to thump down the noisy aisles with their cellphone torches out to find their allocated seats (as opposed to sitting in the sin bin down the back), which means that fifteen people end up standing up for the awkward ‘sorry, sorry’ down-the-row shuffle + obligatory minutes of whispered catch-ups mid-film. You wouldn’t do it at the theatre, or the ballet, so why for a film? It’s really disrespectful and disruptive. It’s such a beautiful venue, but these stupid logistical and spatial things can really tarnish the experience and make you a bit misanthropic, especially during films that are predicated on stillness, or silence, or that require the audience to work.
This speaks to the idea that the city is now treated as a destination, not a space for casual drop ins or a space in which people really, truly live their lives.
DL: I know what you mean. I want everyone in their seats, phones off and silent as the lights go down. I want this quite intensely. But, I've also been that person rushing in just as the film starts.
Did anyone else see A Prayer Before Dawn? [No’s all around.] I had a few issues with it, but its first half or so was almost the most visceral thing I saw at this festival, a totally immersive, terrifying experience of being strung-out, uncomprehending, and in danger. (If we’re keeping score, my most visceral thing was the entirety of Good Time.) It happened that I saw it with my partner, who was just coming down with the flu; and we saw it in a late session; and we sat very close to the screen; and round about the prison gang rape scene she experienced a powerful need to be anywhere else at all, and leaned over and whispered to me that she would go read in the lobby till the film ended. But I was so deep inside the film, all I heard was “Mumble mumble film mumble”, which I took to be her telling me she was going to the loo. And then she didn’t come back, and didn’t come back, and by the time I worked out she wasn’t coming back at all it was too late to go look for her.
I could have popped out and phoned her, at which point I would have found her. But I was only just following the film, and if I left for three minutes I’d never catch up again; and I wanted to write about it for Metro.
I am still not sure how much of my extremely intense experience of this film was down to the feedback loop between the film’s violence and the small part of my brain that kept telling me my partner had just been abducted and thrown in the trunk of some gang-lord’s car. (She’s fine by the way. She finished her book.)
BG: I am so decisively antisocial when it comes to the Film Festival, I imagine if I was in your situation David, I would have just stuck with the film and not given my partner another thought. But then again, that probably explains why my wife and I don’t go to Film Festival films together very often. But it was a joy seeing films like Faces Places with friends, all of whom had cheesy grins afterwards, even though it has a bit of a brutal ending (although some of my friends hate Godard anyway, so they felt vindicated).
JP: Melissa (my wife) usually knows what she likes, and what she doesn’t, so we haven’t had any walkouts to contend with. I have, however, in festivals past, contended with two imminent childbirths, which caused a little consternation at home prior to festival scheduling. We decided that I’d keep my phone on vibrate and I’d sit at the very edge of rows, ready to go if the moment eventuated mid-screening, but that I’d keep up a Jacob-standard screening regimen. Luckily for me, both my children came out in mid-late August, which makes the weeks post festival almost as busy as festival time! This year a film-buddy and his wife had their second child due around Auckland NZIFF time, so he was conspicuously absent from screenings. Except that I saw him in the Civic for the late evening session of A Ghost Story. Chatting on the street corner with a bunch of friends afterwards, he cited my past efforts as his inspiration to chance some films despite the looming birth (I’m not sure how popular I will be in their house over the next couple of months!) He also skipped out of work and we sat together through a daytime screening of Good Time later that week. Baby came on August 11.