Around the world in three films
Yesterday I travelled around the world from the comfort of my seat.
I shouldn't have been surprised that the Civic Theatre was packed out for the World Premiere of Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Kiwi filmmaker Anthony Powell has spent most of his adult life working on the great freezing continent, and has thoughtfully created a mind-blowing account of life there for those of us who will never get the chance to experience it for ourselves.
I have to admit, I wasn't necessarily going to see this one - not much of a National Geographic girl, me - but my father visited Antarctica briefly some years ago, and I thought he'd enjoy it, so I dragged him along.
I was therefore (naively) quite unprepared for how simply stunning and enthralling every minute of footage was. Not only is Powell a keen user of time-lapse photography, he thought to interview the various people living at McMurdo and Scott bases throughout nightless summers and sunless winters. We therefore get an incredible insight into Polar T3 syndrome (the vague madness that seemingly prevails when one hasn't seen sunlight for months) as well as the fun that incarceration produces.
If you missed Sunday's screening, Aucklanders have only one more chance to see amazing night skies and 24-hour sunscapes in the best possible format. Get along to Tuesday's session - you won't regret it. (Those of you in the rest of the country - book your tickets now!)
Then I was off to Israel to interview the former heads of its Shin Bet secret service agency, in the documentary The Gatekeepers. It's the first time any of the men has spoken publicly about the controversial and sometimes seat-squirming work carried out since the Six-Day War of 1967 in the name of Israel's own War on Terror.
The documentary is subtle in form, but the message is profound. There is nice use of historical still photographs rendered almost like a moving image to give a sense of re-enactment - otherwise, mostly through talking heads, we hear about torture and collateral damage, and in some cases the growing regrets felt by certain Shin Bet leaders about actions taken. But for every equivocal response, there is another who makes no bones about the necessity of crushing the opposition. It makes for uneasy viewing.
The Gatekeepers is fascinating, and provides a helpful snippet of background for those of us gearing up to see the festival's other Middle East stories (I'm looking forward to seeing Omar this afternoon, a West Bank thriller that won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year).
I finished my cinema-going day in India, with the beautifully restored classic Charulata, by acclaimed director Satyajit Ray. WHAT a delightful surprise this was. Black and white, set in 1870s Calcutta, the subtitles call the film "The Lonely Wife" which sets the scene for our eponymous heroine to develop feelings for her husband's young cousin. You can't take your eyes off lead actress Madhabi Mukherjee, not because she is beautiful, but because of that indescribable X-Factor that true movie stars possess. Whether embroidering a hanky or dishing out withering glances, she is captivating.
Granted, if the film were in colour I would be raving about the costumes and jewellery too, but perhaps it's just as well this is muted into greys, so we can concentrate on the action.
All the performances are charming, with no one drawn as such a villain or a spoilt brat that our loyalties are decided for us, and therefore the narrative is all the more moving. I'm so glad I got to see this in a proper cinema context, too. Catch Charulata if you can.
I've been lucky enough to see a couple of other gems now playing that are worth special mention. Stories We Tell is a deeply personal documentary by actress/director Sarah Polley, who interviews her father and siblings in an effort to paint a portrait of the mother who died when she was young. Well, every family has skeletons in its closet, right? but it's not every day your investigations blow open the whole question of your identity AND you capture it on film. Polley's home movie is nothing short of fascinating.
Matthew McConaughey has been on our screens a lot in the last year, playing increasingly edgy characters from the stripclub entrepreneur in Magic Mike to the serial killing statutory rapist in Killer Joe. In Mud he plays a much softer kind of outcast, an ex-crim, granted, but a man mostly driven by love for his former flame (Reese Witherspoon). He's aided and abetted through the roughness of river life by young Ellis - the incredible Tye Sheridan from Tree of Life - and though some may feel the film's ending doesn't live up to its considerable efforts, most of it is terrific. And at least it's not Killer Joe.
What do you think of this year's crop of films so far?