The Festival Bite: NZIFF 2017 Wrap Up Part III
In Part 3 of our NZIFF 2017 wrap up, we take a closer look at the most divisive films and share a wish list for improvements next year.
Doug Dillaman: Anyone have any big disagreements from critical consensus they’re happy to have a fight about? I wasn’t as hot on The Killing of a Sacred Deer as everyone else, but there were external factors, and also in a festival where I found myself pre-disposed to kindness, this film embodied the opposite pole. I’ve already dissented from David’s warm assessment of It Comes At Night in my review, but in retrospect there’s a rigour and patience about it that I do appreciate. I was hoping to defend On Body and Soul, but I wound up coming in on Jacob’s side of the fence. I’d love to hear a defense of Claire’s Camera. I can sort of get my head around why someone might like Let The Sunshine In, but even as an impassioned Hong Sang-Soo fan I’m a perfect loss to understand why anyone might find this more than a half-formed doodle. Yet I’ve seen it turn up on some “best” lists. A couple people have tried to provoke me into fights about Top of the Lake: China Girl, but I honestly don’t care enough to mount a defence: it was terrible as a convincing procedural, but it was also amiable, goofy trash with some themes I enjoyed exploring. I’ve seen very little Campion, and so I don’t feel let down.
Erin Harrington: I got a lot out of Ruben Östlund’s The Square but it was pretty bloody messy, and the crowd was rumbly and discordant after the afternoon session I attended. I heard everything from ‘it was genius’ to ‘well that was a steaming pile of shit’, although some of my university colleagues from Art History and Theory and the School of Fine Arts (with students in tow) understandably got a pretty big kick out of it. It was programmed here as the closing night film, and I would have been very interested to get a read on the room after that. It makes me think a little about how festivals are bookended, and what kind or curatorial or mission statement is being made or implied through those choices.
DD: The Square was messy and disappointing to me (particularly as a big fan of Force Majeure and Play) but I’m quite a big fan of provocative headline event films, like Elle as last year’s closing night film. While I wasn’t there to see how The Square played as Auckland’s Opening Night film, I love the idea that corporate sponsors and those who just pick the opening night film out blindly are getting a confrontational cinematic experience that takes them out of their comfort zone. Part of this sadism-of-sorts may stem from the fact that my very first experience with NZIFF was in 2004, when the opening night film – my first visit to the Civic – was Haneke’s Hidden, and a sold-out theatre who seemed to have showed up for that charming Daniel Auteuil and that lovely Juliette Binoche from Chocolat were not remotely prepared for Haneke, certainly not for a scene that caused 2000 people to flinch simultaneously.
David Larsen: I’ve gone down my list looking for films I want to fight about, and really, Doug, you’ve pre-empted me by ruling out an argument on my main one. I can’t accept “amiable/goofy” as a fair characterisation of Top of the Lake: China Girl, because so much of its story revolves around the abuse of power, and there seems so much implied anger driving it. The best explanation I could come up with for the ways it self-neuters as a procedural – this is me arguing with myself, since you won’t argue with me! – is that it wants me feeling frustrated. The various ways in which police incompetence allows male privilege to slide on by unchallenged within the story – up to and including the scene where the chief suspect in a murder investigation assaults the investigating officer in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, by trying to bite her nose off, and she lets him get away with it because pressing charges might upset the person she most wants to protect from him – only make sense to me as a provocation. “Yes, it’s annoying, isn’t it. You feel the world should not work this way. You feel it makes no sense. That’s what privilege feels like as seen from a position of non-privilege”. This explanation translates to “Jane Campion made a frustratingly incoherent six hour procedural in order to drive home a very obvious point”, but it’s all I’ve got.
Other than that, I’m interested to note that my top ten list includes a significant number of films – Happy End, The Square, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Manifesto, It Comes At Night, so that would be fully half of it – that have drawn negative responses from quite a lot of people. All of them except, maybe, Manifesto are working primarily in the negative part of the emotional spectrum, so it makes sense to me that they aren’t to all tastes. I guess I also have to concede that Lanthimos and Östlund, at least, have made better films (a concession I won’t make with Haneke; though I have to qualify that by admitting there’s a lot of his stuff I haven’t seen) so legitimate disappointment might be a factor too. Still. I find it striking that I loved this many films other people disliked.
I’m interested to note that my top ten list includes a significant number of films – Happy End, The Square, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Manifesto, It Comes At Night, so that would be fully half of it – that have drawn negative responses from quite a lot of people.
Brannavan Gnanalingam: I definitely would fight for Let The Sunshine In. To me, it was an homage to one of my favourite films, Carl Dreyer's Gertrud, which was similarly about a trapped bourgeois woman. The editing was similarly Dreyer-esque, and I'm hoping that the film will be reevaluated like Gertrud was. Denis' films, and her actors are usually so distantly presented. However, in this, because Binoche's performance was so brilliant, you ended up being enveloped. Denis was being as coolly distant as ever – it's about as much as class indifference and bourgeois self-obsession as it is about a woman who in theory could have it all, but ends up with nothing. I loved it.
DD: The Gertrud comparison is interesting, as Sunshine’s early scene at the bar uses the floating camera in a similar way to Dreyer’s staging in that film. I miss the boat most years on a film I return to and love, so maybe Sunshine’s the one this year.
Finally, to wrap up, any thoughts on changes, improvements, or disappointments in programming? I’ve been wondering a lot about the rapidly shrinking life-cycle from international festival to digital and the place a yearly film festival has in it - this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, had already had its small-screen premiere, as had Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja. It feels a bit feast-or-famine to try to suck up all the worthwhile films in 2 weeks, then let the rest of the year’s highlights consist largely of returning festival films. And yet the former outlet for off-season new releases, World Cinema Showcase, has been abandoned for Autumn Events, which this year was exclusively retro programming. Would it be greedy to ask for a monthly NZIFF Presents? Or for some bold figure to step up and do an off-season film festival to pick up the avant-garde or just less commercially promising films that NZIFF skipped? (I still can’t believe the last two Malick fiction features have gone/are going straight to video here…)
EH: This feels a little churlish, and gift-horse-mouthy… I am not sure what it was about the Christchurch programme this year, but even though I got a lot out of all bar one of the films I saw, and even though there were terrific films on offer, there were only a few titles that made me grab a big red vivid and circle them with ‘yes! this!’ during the requisite Christmas morning trawl through the programme. The films I saw by and large stimulated / excited / pleased / entertained me, but very few of them challenged me, not like recent years’ films such as The Forbidden Room, or Apple Pie, or A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, or White God, or even difficult but (interestingly?) flawed films like Neon Bull, Doglegs and The Tribe. I’d also love to see more indigenous cinema and films from places with emerging cinema cultures make their way south of Cook Strait. (I really liked I Am Not A Witch, for instance.) I was reading a friend’s schedule from Auckland – the NZIFF website tool for sharing these is so great – and I was really startled to see that there were a good two dozen or so films on his list that I would have been thrilled to see but that didn’t make it south. I grabbed a Wellington programme when I was up there recently, and much the same. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt a little empty in this way, even though this was our largest festival to date. Sad face.
I was really startled to see that there were a good two dozen or so films on his list that I would have been thrilled to see but that didn’t make it south.
I wonder if it speaks to this rapid turn around you’re talking about, Doug – that it’s just not practical or timely to screen some films. Perhaps it’s limitations in terms of space, screens and venues; as I mentioned above, we’re limited to three screens, and no small or boutique spaces. Perhaps the Christchurch audience is a little more mainstream and more interested in award-winners, high end European cinema and commercial crowd-pleasers, and maybe there’s degree of understandable financial conservatism in terms of investment – especially after some pretty hard years post-quake – that negates smaller screenings of films that won’t ever be otherwise screened or distributed. (I quite like seeing something totally sideways in a theatre with only seven people in it, but that’s good culturally, not economically.) Perhaps none of this is the case and it’s just the luck of the draw! Nonetheless, there was a real dearth of avant-garde, genuinely challenging or transgressive shit down here, and not a whole lot that I thought I wouldn’t be able to find myself after the fact. It’s telling that the only Incredibly Strange film we got here, Blade of the Immortal, was folded into another category. I do think that there’s an audience for edgier cinema and midnight weirdness that doesn’t get looked after – not to imply, though, that that should be NZIFF’s job – and I’d be all over some sort of genre-centric, off-season or anti-festival.
BG: I agree with Doug and Erin above – although in Wellington at least, the programming has retained its bite. I think my biggest regret is that the NZIFF is now our last chance to see a lot of these sorts of films in any sort of public space. It definitely is a narrow window, and if you’re otherwise occupied / get a winter cold / have work - then it can be tough to see such quality filmmaking in cinemas otherwise. That’s not NZIFF’s fault though – but it does ensure the urgency with which the NZIFF should be preserved and celebrated.
Jacob Powell: One change for me, which signifies both improvement and slightly saddening loss, is that this year I went totally online for both my ticketing and scheduling experience. The marked upgrade of the NZIFF site in the last few years—especially the Wishlist functionality and the integration with Ticketmaster (despite some wrinkles on Ticketmaster’s end)—has made the experience super convenient. I didn’t print a single ticket, instead just used the PDFs on my phone to gain entry. I almost didn’t even do a Festable (my personal schedule spreadsheet, replete with all necessary extra info, which usually lives, permanently open, on multiple screens, as well as printed and stuck with magnets to the fridge at home, laid in the top drawer of my work desk, and folded in the pocket of whatever bottoms I happen to be wearing that day). But then the negatives of this less-analogue festival experience hit home. I have a drawer full of tickets from festivals past, which I occasionally enjoy trawling through. I added none in 2017, and only a few in 2016. I regularly consult my past Festables for details such as dates of screenings, who I went with, a reminder of exactly what I saw and in what order: sometimes for personal interest and sometimes as a reference for writing. The idea that, due to convenience and time pressure, I almost didn’t do one this year actually sickens me a little.
I’m also not convinced that the very excellent NZIFF Wishlists last longer than the current year. I certainly can’t find my one from 2016 anywhere. And though online ticketing is super convenient, I don’t get to choose my seats. The system assigns you the ‘best available’ seats, which inevitably means as close to the middle (and everyone else) as possible. For me, who, like David, prefers to be near the front, overwhelmed by the screen – why else go to the cinema?! – and, if possible, unsociably away from others, the system assigned seating is most assuredly not the best available. I’m thinking that next year I’m going to revert back to my trips to The Civic box office where I can choose my seats and collect my precious strips of card. But I will still appreciate and use the Wishlist function, and hope that it becomes even more flexible (a CSV export option would be fab!) as the NZIFF web design peeps keep working on it.
Audiences for me this year were probably the most civil I’ve experienced in a while. Fewer determined talkers and only one obsessive phone user (a boomer gen lady too!), and after a talking to by the NZIFF staff at Event Queen Street mostly managed to control herself thereafter. As I mentioned above, I experienced relatively few walkouts this year and only one occasional snorer in my screening of Austerlitz. (I know, he paid good money for that ticket, right?) In one relatively full daytime screening at The Civic I got talking (before the film started) to a friendly older gent and it turned out his wife was a former colleague. All-in-all, 2017 proved more congenial times for me than for you Erin.
Well, except for after my screening of Sami Blood at Academy Cinemas. Possibly my pick of the fest, as well as being a fascinating and necessary story, excellently told, Sami Blood brutalised me emotionally in a way no others did. Though probably for some very family specific reasons. So when a group of well-to-do middle-aged white folks started spouting ignorant, privileged nonsense-takes while I was watching the credits roll, I almost lost my shit. I managed to white knuckle my way through their slow leaving and swore (under my breath) my way back to the car and then the entire drive home. Thinking back to that night, I still wonder how we saw the same film. But yeah, aside from those utter twatcocks, I enjoyed a swanky old festival!
So when a group of well-to-do middle-aged white folks started spouting ignorant, privileged nonsense-takes while I was watching the credits roll, I almost lost my shit.
DL: Jacob, I am so with you on the loss of cardboard tickets! This is a ridiculous bit of festival ephemera to care about, but… it turns out that even the festival box office in Wellington only gives you white paper printouts of your tickets. I use old festival tickets as bookmarks, and seriously, matching the right ticket to the right book has a lot of meaning for me! (That’s “seriously” as in “I know this is not something any other human will take seriously.”) As with all the other little things we lose through digital disruption, I guess the lesson is… accept that things pass and change is constant. (A lesson whose deeper/darker meaning is one day you will die, but never mind.)
Erin, I noted the absence of anything to match The Forbidden Room this year as well. But I also note that I saw fewer than half the films on the programme, and I could very easily have ended up not going to The Forbidden Room in 2015 – it was one of those coin toss moments where you win way more than you hoped to. This year my coin tosses came up according to the law of averages. It’s maybe unwise to hope for more. (I am unwise.)
Doug, the famine/feast thing. I am very interested in this and very unsure about it. World Cinema Showcase was dropped – I believe – because ticket sales were too weak. I miss it, but I don’t have a good enough understanding of the festival’s finances to be clear on whether bringing it back would be sustainable for them. Last year I talked to the programmer for the Auckland Philharmonia about the challenges and opportunities of running an expensive classical music operation in our largest city, here’s a bit of the transcript that I go back to every time I get into an exchange about what any given arts organisation ought to be doing: “The market only seems to be getting busier and busier. I've only been here six years, and the changes from when I arrived – I don't think you were getting those big international musicals through Auckland, like you do two or three times a year now. When they're here, they're hoovering up people's disposable income and their free nights. A lot of people who come to APO are also going to theatre and ballet and musical theatre. The Popup Globe was fantastic, it was great. It sold, what, 80,000 tickets at the very start of our 2016 season. People have only so much time to be going out in the evenings.”
So there’s that. And also, or perhaps I mean “and another way of making the same point” – as I write this it’s day two of the Miyazaki festival. (Um, that is, the Studio Ghibli festival; to me, the Miyazaki festival.) I didn’t manage to get to any films yesterday, and I may not today. But by damn, I’m going to get to some of them. So, two weeks after NZIFF wrapped in Wellington, it’s back to the movies for another as-much-as-you-can-fit-into-your-life big screen event. I don’t mean to suggest there isn’t room for more. But speaking personally, there isn’t much room for more.
DD: And I think, a week or two having drifted by since this chat started, there probably isn’t much room for us to continue either. Other than to say: The Forbidden Room rules. Ghibli’s way more than Miyazaki. (Isao Takahata is wonderful. Go see Pom Poko!) I hope someone takes Erin’s challenge and starts a genre festival. And I can’t wait to do it all again next year.