Whakanuia: 14 Films Worth Celebrating at the 2018 New Zealand International Film Festival
A selection of films we think are worth celebrating from the 2018 New Zealand International Film Festival spanning fashion, censorship, cultural critique and of course Merata Mita.
It wasn’t so long ago that films would show up at the NZIFF a year or more after their release elsewhere in the world, ushered in on wings of praise from overseas. In 2018, that’s no longer the case. With 30 films freshly debuted at Cannes, a passel more from February’s Berlin Film Festival and May’s Tribeca Film Festival, a fistful of local premieres, and the festival’s trademark determination to ferret out undersung gems, this year’s festival guide is packed with relatively unheralded films that may leave the casual viewer at a loss.
But fear not. We’re here. Our team of film writers and editors have put together their recommendations. From Australian mash-up culture to Mexican firework festivals – with a little bit of manic Nicolas Cage thrown in for good measure – there’s something for everybody.
Proudly sponsored by us here at The Pantograph Punch, we of course would recommend Shoplifters. Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, Shoplifters delicately observes the Shibatas, a low-income Tokyo family of five, who as the title may suggest resort to shoplifting to survive. When the father and son are out shoplifting for groceries they come across a homeless girl, whom despite the family’s own tight situation they informally adopt. Having won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Shoplifters is said to be Kore-eda’s most “socially conscious” film yet, with one poignant question, what makes a family?
I don’t usually gravitate towards fashion documentaries during the sad 49 weeks a year we don’t have the NZIFF, but they’ve become one of my most anticipated festival treats. The combination of impassioned storytelling, outrageous personalities, and a devotional obsession with aesthetics, texture and movement, especially when combined with a big screen in a grand theatre, is just too delicious. This lauded, emotionally loaded biopic charts the extraordinary life of the visionary designer Lee Alexander McQueen, from his upbringing in working-class London, to worldwide fame, to his suicide at the age of 40. Extensive interviews and archival footage celebrate his artistic genius, his business acumen and his audacious, provocative life’s work, while poignantly addressing the darkness that underpinned the creative light.
Aussie-born, New York-based video artists Soda_Jerk, aka Dominique and Dan Angeloro, have created a pop-cultural Ocker Frankenstein, and it’s pissed off and ready to fight ya. TERROR NULLIUS is a “political revenge fable” that radically revises Australian political and cinematic history, subversively stitching together footage ripped from classics of Australian film, with video and audio of public figures. The audiovisual collage, which has been screening at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image, has been touted as wickedly funny, borderline malicious, and as politically subtle as an empty bottle to the back of the head, although this belies the film’s sophisticated understanding of politics, power and cultural trauma. The funding body that offered the artists $100,000 even pulled its support at the last minute, labelling the work “un-Australian,” which says a lot about how mainstream accounts of history are safeguarded. I dunno about that – Skippy the kangaroo musing on Aboriginal genocide, and Lord Humungus from Mad Max 2 spouting an anti-refugee John Howard election-night speech both sound pretty Australian to me.
What’s Spanish for “the return of the repressed”? Terrified taps into Argentina’s fascinating history of gothic art and literature, in which the country’s historical and cultural trauma festers and leaks out from unexpected places. In this supernatural horror film, a troubled cop (approaching retirement, natch) and a group of ageing paranormal investigators try to make sense of a series of distinct but interconnected supernatural events that are plaguing a cluster of homes. Voices threatening death wafting up from bathroom pipes? Terrifying apparitions? Furniture flying about the place? Children coming back from the dead? Loaded comments about people having blood on their hands? Mmmm, yes please. Overseas critics have praised the film for its sense of mounting dread, its cinematography, its outstanding editing and its visual effects. This is a must-see for horror ghouls and their unsuspecting friends, as well as anyone who wants to see how well genre filmmaking can offer an alternative perspective on cultural history.
Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen
Years in the making, this documentary tells the story of filmmaker Merata Mita through her voice and those of her children. All at once it speaks to loss, love and the immense opportunities to learn about those who have gone before us through the things they leave behind. In an adjunct way, the project speaks to the problematic nature of the archive and the power play in what is remembered through collecting and cataloguing, and perhaps most pertinently what can be lost. Merata Mita was not just a revolutionary for Māori in cinema, but for all Indigenous peoples working in cinema, and this documentary directed by her son Heperi Mita is a must see.
The NZIFF programme is stacked full of highly anticipated films, from well-regarded filmmakers, who regularly make waves at Cannes, Venice, Berlin and other prestigious international film festivals. Kore-eda Hirokazu's Shoplifters, Christian Petzold’s Transit, Lynne Ramsey's You Were Never Really Here, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree, and Lucrecia Martel's Zama are just the tip of the highly credentialed iceberg. I hope to see many (if not all) of these masterworks, but I also find that my favourite NZIFF experiences often arrive via works and filmmakers of which I have little prior knowledge. And so, for my NZIFF 2018 picks, I want to highlight three less-familiar films in the programme, in the hope that each may proffer unexpected delights.
A number of years ago, when I worked in a university medical school library, I remember stumbling across a chapter in a haematology textbook, entitled “Surgery in the Jehovah's Witness.” That faith community’s stance on giving and receiving blood is fairly widely known but is usually reported on (for understandable reasons) with little sympathy. So when I sighted a film seemingly grappling with the messy ethical considerations of this anti-transfusion stance, from an insider perspective, I was intrigued. The first feature from Brit writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo, Apostasy has been given the thumbs up by the BFI and, for a relatively straightforward-sounding dramatic narrative work, sounds as if it might be unlike anything else offered on the NZIFF programme. Count me in!
What self-respecting genre hound would pass up the opportunity to catch Nic going ‘full Cage’ on the big screen, right? It seems strange to me now, but for reasons forgotten in the mists of memory, I spent almost the entire first decade of the 21st century assiduously avoiding any film starring Nicolas Cage. It wasn’t until his excellently seedy turn as Terence McDonagh in Werner Herzog’s subversive 2009 Bad Lieutenant outing (a film I could not pass up) that the situation flipped for me, and I was once again able to revel in Cage’s superior screen-chewing abilities. With great pleasure did I note that Cage would be bringing to bear all his manic batshit glory in the latest film from intriguing Italian-Canadian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos. Sure to be an “Incredibly Strange” section highlight, Mandy promises to combine a gory B-grade aesthetic with Cosmatos’s art-psych approach to genre cinema (as seen in his fascinating self-funded 2010 debut Beyond the Black Rainbow). The cherry on top of this surreal demonic-cult-alien-kidnapping-revenge pudding is English actress Andrea Riseborough – whose work I became properly cognisant of via the NZIFF 2012 screening of James Marsh’s espionage-thriller Shadow Dancer – in the title role of Mandy. I’m hoping Cosmatos, Cage, Riseborough and co will provide exactly the kind of brain-melting ‘cine-palate cleanser’ I’ll be needing midway through an intense NZIFF run.
I have a history of mixed reactions to works of found footage assemblage but something about the write-up for Australian documentary [CENSORED] grabbed me in the right way. Perhaps it is an affinity for filmmaker Sari Braithwaite’s ‘day job’ working as an archivist? Perhaps it is the idea of a film pieced together entirely from cut snippets of other films? (An idea that holds strong appeal for someone whose day-to-day is strewn with cinematic references at every turn.) Perhaps it is the sociological interest of a unique survey of the history of censorship via a show-me-don’t-tell-me approach? Yeah, you’re right: it is all these things wrapped together, along with the chance to dig a little deeper with filmmaker Sari Braithwaite in a post-viewing Q&A session.
Argentinian Lucrecia Martel is one of world cinema’s great filmmakers. She is a master of subtext, and her take on a classic anticolonial Argentinian novel is likely to be distinctive. I’m so excited about this film, I’m taking a day off work for it.
Ash is Purest White
From another one of contemporary cinema’s great voices, Jia Zhang-ke’s new film looks like it maintains Jia’s recent run of brilliantly subversive genre cinema. Of course, it being a Jia film, it’ll also be a pointed social critique.
The Image Book
I’m probably one of about five people in New Zealand genuinely excited about a new Godard film, but his post-2000s output has been as savage and exciting as his ‘60s high point. His previous film Goodbye to Language literally had people running for the aisles when it showed at NZIFF so I imagine this one will be similarly uncompromising.
Let The Corpses Tan
After the debut feature by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Amer, played at NZIFF 2010, audiences were violently split between those (like myself) enraptured by their heightened exploration of Italian horror-movie aesthetics and those who thought, “It should be in a museum, not in a film festival.” The failure of their bigger, bolder and more accomplished sophomore feature, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, to return to NZIFF had me afraid that Cattet and Forzani’s films had firmly fallen into the gap between the main programme and “Incredibly Strange,” and were unlikely to return to these shores. Well, not only is their third film, which expands their genre focus to the Western, featured at NZIFF (in “Incredibly Strange,” going toe-to-toe with Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy for the title of “most likely to make Doug fist-pump when reading an announcement”), but the filmmakers themselves will be here, making it doubly inexcusable to miss this sensual delight on the big screen.
Raise The Red Lantern
For years now, I’ve been complaining about the relative lack of retrospective features in the NZIFF programming, ever since an apparently poorly performing Edward Yang retro a decade ago pulled the plug on the focused retrospectives that were once a linchpin of the line-up. Well, the festival gods have heard my prayers, and returned to Auckland for its 50th festival with a boatload of releases from previous years. It’s the mark of their impeccable curation that no two people I’ve noticed have singled out the same title for excitement – Cold Water, The Atlantic, Wings of Desire and Chulas Fronteras are all top-tier for me – but somehow I’ve never caught Zhang Yimou’s groundbreaking Raise the Red Lantern, which is showing on the Civic screen from a glorious 35mm print. If you’ve seen Hero or House of Flying Daggers, you know Zhang’s a director unparalleled in his ability to create ravishingly beautiful images. Get lost in a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this at scale.
Brimstone And Glory
This year I’m drawn to catharsis on screen (it’s almost as if there is something troublesome going on in the world!). And while the gory revenge of Mandy, the sorrowful brutality of You Were Never Really Here, and the heartbreakingly powerful Minding The Gap all contended for this third slot, ultimately giving it to a fireworks show seems apposite. Not just any fireworks show, mind, but one that’s staged – and, sometimes, photographed – with seeming disregard for the safety of anyone involved, continually floating between the aesthetic reverie of glorious fireworks, the visceral fear of impending danger, and the painful reality of the economic conditions that perpetuate this festival. If you find yourself asking at this point in time why we as a species are drawn to that which might destroy us, you won’t receive a more visually intoxicating gut-punch of an answer than Brimstone and Glory.