Spectral Visions: New Zealand at the NZIFF
New Zealand's presence at our own international film festival is the smallest it's been this decade - but that's no longer a bad thing, writes Doug Dillaman
Those hoping for a sign that New Zealand cinema is healthier than ever might take pause after a quick perusal of this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival line-up. In Auckland, a mere eight features — a low for the decade — represent Aotearoa, and that’s counting Pietra Brettkelly’s A Flickering Truth, filmed entirely in Afghanistan. Wellington adds two local premieres, Hayden J. Weal’s indie drama Chronesthesia and the seventh instalment in Tony Hiles’ long-running documentary series on Michael Smither, while other local premieres may sneak into the regionals. You can really pad out the numbers if you include local American expat Jake Mahaffy’s American-filmed drama, Free in Deed, New Zealand expat Heath Cozens’ documentary on disabled Japanese wrestlers, Doglegs, and Ant Timpson’s latest international genre break-out (and gross-out) hit The Greasy Strangler. While we’re reaching, Sunset Song’s exteriors were filmed here. But to call some of these films fundamentally New Zealand films is a bigger stretch than calling Russell Crowe fundamentally Kiwi.
Doesn’t matter. At least, not as it used to. While the Festival has historically been seen as a holy grail, crucial to survival or even completion, this is the case less than ever. In 2016, the NZIFF is no longer a gatekeeper for local films reaching cinemas: The Greenstone, Groove City, Baseball, Penny Black, The Great Maiden’s Blush and This Giant Papier-Mâché Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy have all found their way to theatres on their own in the past couple months, rubbing shoulders with traditionally-funded New Zealand Film Commission releases like Mahana, Hunt For The Wilderpeople (respect, Taika) and 25 April. The (almost) million-dollar success ($977,851 domestic, to be precise) of the entirely self-funded Three Wise Cousins this year is a sign for more commercially-minded filmmakers in particular that the road to success for independent features need not involve NZIFF (or, for that matter, the NZFC) at all.
Meanwhile, the insurgency of the DocEdge festival has added a major outlet for local documentaries, and its impact can be felt positively in its DOC Pitch Initiative. By providing seed funding for both A Flickering Truth (then A Flickering Timebomb) and David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled (birthed as Tickle King, and which premiered at NZIFF’s sister festival, Autumn Events), they’ve had a clear hand in shaping this year’s selection.
Introducing said selection at the Auckland launch, Festival director Bill Gosden - while acknowledging the reduced selection - took pains to point out that, exceptionally, two local films have pride of place. The Opening Night film, Tearepa Kahi’s Poi E, is the long-in-the-works documentary of Patea Māori Club’s infectious earworm, deeply encoded in our national DNA, and the story of the man behind it, Dalvanius Prime. It makes its premiere in the mighty Civic, as does the Centrepiece film, Alison Maclean’s The Rehearsal. With Eleanor Catton’s debut novel already part of our national canon - an arguable claim, but with its surgically precise language and inimitable blend of formalism and social commentary I’m willing to argue it - a screen adaptation has giant shoes to fill. But with novelist Emily Perkins co-adapting the screenplay, a cast of youths frontlined by Aotearoa’s finest and most prominent young actor James Rolleston, and Maclean’s long-overdue return to feature-length drama (in a just world, 1999’s Jesus’ Son would have led to a dozen features, not a 17-year purgatory from feature filmmaking), all the ingredients are in place for a film that can earn equal pride of place in our film canon.
Avid readers may also have been enjoying David Coventry’s The Invisible Mile, a novel about the 1928 Australasian Tour de France team; in a peculiar coincidence, Phil Keoghan’s documentary Le Ride covers the true-life story of that race, all while Keoghan recreates it, in 2016, on 1928’s finest riding equipment (to the best of his ability, given almost 90 years of progress and its attendant complications). A Flickering Truth travels to Afghanistan, and while it’s a country we’ve been to cinematically many times, we’ve never seen it from the inside of its film archive. Finely shot, eschewing voiceover in favour of immersive experiential storytelling, and braiding together both political and cinematic history with the finely observed day-to-day lives of the archive employees, it’s coming to us on the back of a premiere in the prestigious Venice Film Festival. Also seeing its premiere there was Jake Mahaffy’s tremendous, potent, and highly-recommended faith-healing drama, Free in Deed. Mahaffy is a low-budget inspiration and deeply thoughtful, and his Q&A should be on any aspiring filmmaker’s to-do list
Social-issue documentaries are a mainstay of local programming every year. This year, two films carry the torch, both by returning filmmakers. Art historian Luit Bieringa contributed 2009’s The Man in the Hat, a profile of art dealer Peter McLeavey; this year, The HeART of the Matter promises to be a more pointedly political experience. While gazing at the post-war renaissance in bicultural education in Aotearoa, it also can’t help but speak to who we are today and where we might go. Moving from the past to the present, The 5th Eye challenges our role in international intelligence-gathering and the GCSB’s contribution to the Five Eyes alliance. Filmmakers Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones previously contributed Operation 8 - one of our most prominent political documentaries - to NZIFF’s World Cinema Showcase. With contributors including Nicky Hager and Jane Kelsey, The 5th Eye seems set to continue Wright and King-Jones’ tradition of challenging authority.
The Festival’s enduring commitment to local work that falls outside conventional narrative borders is commendable, and this year, two features give zero fucks about convention. Once an NZIFF programmer for experimental shorts himself, artist/musician Sam Hamilton jumps from the gallery to the cinema with Apple Pie. Shot on 16mm, it’s reputed to be a dense farrago of performance art and narration, making it likely to earn the cliché 'not for everybody', but likely to hit those on his wavelength in the solar plexus.
On an Unknown Beach, meanwhile, couldn’t be more on my wavelength: from its title (ripped from a Peter Jefferies classic) and reliance on aquatic imagery to its tripartite documentary subjects (including Dead C. guitarist Bruce Russell) whose disparate but linked concerns recall the free associations of Errol Morris’s seminal Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, directors Adam Luxton & Summer Agnew have a rich well to draw from. I never saw their previous film Minginui, but reputedly both films work in a similar meditative register. It certainly won’t set any attendance records, but I won’t be surprised if, even in the face of stiff competition, On an Unknown Beach emerges as a local highlight.
Beyond the tyranny of the feature-length production, shorter works dot the landscape. In addition to the now-customary shorts programmes (New Zealand’s Best and Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Shorts), NZIFF continues an intermittent tradition of having an experimentally-focused shorts programme with Spectral Visions, featuring work from returning filmmakers including Phil Dadson, Gavin Hipkins, and Alex Backhouse, whose Unnatural History was an unexpected highlight of 2014’s programme. Two shorts from the Loading Docs initiative, How Mr and Mrs Gock Saved the Kumara and Water for Gold (again featuring Jane Kelsey!), premiere before features, along with eight other premieres, where familiar names Kezia Barnett, James Cunningham and Leon Wadham share space with first-time filmmakers.
I’m loath to sum up with a patriotic speech about supporting local filmmakers, even though NZIFF does make sure its filmmakers get paid for festival screenings (and, in the case of New Zealand’s Best, awards cash to boot). Certainly, even within the narrow lens of the South Pacific, it’s impossible to meaningfully weigh the importance of seeing one of these films versus Tanna or Chasing Asylum. I will say this, though: in researching the piece, I was struck by the number of local films from past programmes that seem to have evaporated. While some titles, like Costa Botes’ Act of Kindness from last year, may emerge eventually - both notes to eternity and Orphans and Kingdoms recently played in theatres after premiering in NZIFF 2014 - Adam Luxton’s previous films, Minginui and We Feel Fine, are missing in action, as are Campbell Walker’s Little Bits of Light, Park Ki-Yong’s Moving, Paora Te Oti Takarangi Joseph’s Tatarakihi: The Children of Parihaka, and many others. We’re in a transitory time, with the death of the video store and physical media on one hand and local filmmakers slow to adopt video-on-demand on the other. Some films will come back, sure, but others will be spectral visions that fade into the night. Catch a glimpse before they disappear.