Art on the arts: DocEdge Picks 2017

Doug Dillaman on the documentaries you can't miss at this year's DocEdge Festival.

Every year DocEdge brings us a fistful of powerful political documentaries and this year’s no exception. Our recommendations, if that’s your jam: the provocative and confrontational refugee policy doco Stranger in Paradise, which provides a challenge to pieties on both side of the fence (and about which more here), and the bluntly observational Last Men In Aleppo, a bruising account of the final siege on Aleppo that pulls no punches as it pulls body parts from the ruins. Both are among the best films you’ll see this year.

In addition to politics, this year’s programme runs notably deep in arts documentaries. This commitment is underscored by the choice of opening film by the director of Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac: Whitney, Can I Be Me, a profile of the late R&B singer. The selections span the gamut of tastes: The Pulitzer at 100 gathers prizewinners to share their reflections on winning and actors to read prizewinning writing, while Burma Storybook profiles emerging spoken-word poets in Myanmar. Ken Dewey: This Is A Test resurrects a lost New York art world figure of the 60s and 70s. Videogame fans have Thank You For Playing, which explores the intersection of grief and creativity. Fans of photography (This Air is a Material and Max Gimblett: Original Mind), drag ballet (Rebels On Pointe), and even wrestling (Wilbur: The King In The Ring) are all catered for.

We can’t watch everything, but we’ve watched a few of this year’s selections. Some are for hardcore fans, others are surprisingly resonant beyond their obvious audience, and all have their directors or subjects present at their screenings.

The Last Laugh

This film about the limits of humour focuses unrelentingly on one particular taboo: the Holocaust. Is it okay to make jokes about it? Charmingly non-prescriptive, the film transcends a talking-heads (Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Larry Charles, David Cross and many others) and clips (“Soup Nazi”, Louis CK, The Producers) by adding the perspective of Holocaust survivors. While told from a more mainstream perspective - don’t look for, say, Anthony Jeselnik here - The Last Laugh nevertheless does a surprisingly effective job of creating space around a complicated idea, even staging a fierce debate over the merits of the praised and reviled Oscar-winning Holocaust comedy Life Is Beautiful.

Wellington | The Roxy
Mon 15/5 4.15 PM / Sat 20/5 8.15 PM

Auckland | Q Theatre
Thu 01/6 8.15 PM / Sun 04/6 4.00 PM


90 minutes discussing one scene: namely, the shower scene in Psycho. You’ve probably either bought your ticket or scrolled on, but if you haven’t, you might be surprised to discover just how engaging bringing dozens of perspectives to bear on a short sequence can be. A bevy of talking heads include directors (Karyn Kusuma, Richard Stanley, Eli Roth, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro), actors (Elijah Wood, Jamie Lee Curtis), editors, sound designers, and perhaps the last living person to participate in the scene itself. The dizzying array of perspectives provides the pleasure that comes from appreciating any hidden dimensions in an artwork - even one this horrific.

Wellington | The Roxy
Sat 20/5 7.45 PM

Auckland | Q Theatre
Thu 25/5 6.00 PM

The Cinema Travellers

While 78/52 is the more superficially gruesome film, The Cinema Travellers had my heart bursting out of my chest in fear far more often, albeit for less visceral reasons. Filmed over eight years in rural India, this observational documentary shows a traveling group that brings cinema to small villages, keeping their projection equipment running on offerings to the gods, elbow grease, and sheer desperation. Eventually, as the digital wave which has swept our cinemas reaches them, they have to choose whether to keep supporting the old trusty technology or make the leap. While much of The Cinema Travellers is bucolic travelogue, if you’ve ever been at a performance that was threatened by technical problems - and especially if you’ve been responsible for one - this film will have you cringing in your chair in sympathy, as well as considering whether progress is all it’s cracked up to be.

Wellington | The Roxy
Wed 17/5 5.45 PM / Sun 21/5 8.00 PM

Auckland | Q Theatre
Sun 28/5 8.30 PM / Mon 29/5 9.00 PM

Delaney Davidson: Devil in the Parlour

Some musical documentaries transcend their subject or reach for wider significance. I can’t say that’s the case for Delaney Davidson: Devil In The Parlour. Instead, it’s a deep dive straight into Davidson’s music and psyche, dark red gloom and the grain and glare of the road as he brings his one-man post-Waits growling gutter loop blues to the stage. Augmented by interviews with the man himself, it’s as loving of a portrait as fans could hope for.

Wellington | The Roxy
Sat 13/5 10.15 PM / Mon 15/5 6.00 PM

Auckland | Q Theatre
Sat 03/6 10.15 PM / Sun 04/6 4.30 PM

On an Unknown Beach

If Davidson’s music is a bit much for you, you’ll probably be tempted to give the abrasive sounds of noise legend Bruce Russell a wide berth. But there’s a reason that DocEdge has brought back this film from last year’s NZIFF, and that’s because it wasn’t just the best Kiwi documentary of last year, but the best Kiwi film of last year. Artfully weaving Russell’s arcane academic and even more arcane musical interests together with undersea exploration and hypno-therapy, On an Unknown Beach doesn’t sell itself easily on paper. And if you’re looking for a ‘conventional documentary’, it’s bound to disappoint. (Just ask this commenter.) But on the big screen, if you surrender to its aesthetic, its elemental power (and astounding cinematography) will leave you awed and speechless.

Wellington | The Roxy
Thu 11/5 2.30 PM / Sat 13/5 12.15 PM

Auckland | Q Theatre
Thu 01/6 8.00 PM / Sun 04/6 10.00 AM

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