NZIFF 16: Sarah Watt previews a selection of festival films
Rain, rain, go away – or at least, hold off until Thursday, July 14, when the Auckland leg of the annual New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF) begins at the Civic Theatre.
Things kick off with Poi E: The Story of our Song, the eagerly-anticipated and purportedly "irresistible" ode to part of our nation's cultural history. Riding high from record-breaking audiences at last year's festival, the NZIFF team have compiled yet another fortnight of pure cinematic heroin. So what sort of hit are you looking for?
They say that cinema holds up a mirror to reality, so it is sadly unsurprising that war stories regularly make for artistic fodder in this current climate.
Two extremely fine documentaries lead the pack: the enthralling Jim: The James Foley Story paints a compelling tribute to the well-intentioned, charismatic, freelance journalist whose kidnapping by ISIS in 2014 culminated in the shocking internet video of his beheading.
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While the film largely steers clear of his death and focuses on how he lived through archive footage and family interviews, the testimony from those who spent time with Foley in captivity is predictably sobering.
Local director Pietra Brettkelly's A Flickering Truth tackles a slightly gentler topic, following a native Afghan filmmaker and his efforts to restore previously hidden or damaged films which have been unearthed since the Taliban destroyed these crucial aspects of the country's cultural history. It is heart-warming to see a very different side of Afghanistan than we're used to, with remarkable footage of happier times and astonishing historical moments. Beautifully photographed, A Flickering Truth couldn't be a more apt vessel for its subject matter.
Fiction films embrace conflict as lifeblood, of course, and A War (director Tobias Lindholm's festival follow-up to the brilliant A Hijacking) portrays the everyday threat of the Taliban with horrifying resignation. Reminiscent of Brothers' quotidian realism, the audience is embedded with Danish troops whose job is peacekeeping, but whose well-meaning impact is anything but. The moral dilemma at the heart of it draws the viewer into questioning their own principles.
This is all sounding a bit rough, but wait, there's more.
Before turning the festival brochure's page to investigate lighter fare, consider the blistering eye-for-an-eye drama at the core of Italy's Suburra. It's a gangster movie where initially all of the players are so morally reprehensible, you wonder who to root for – and then, as vengeful carnage ensues, you are unexpectedly drawn into caring. Not for the faint-hearted, but definitely for those curious about the ordinary lives of Rome's provincial criminals.
If you can handle that, you will be champing at the bit to see Green Room, the most exciting, nerve-shredding and shocking film I've seen so far this year. A group of young people head into the middle of Nowheresville, USA to play a punk rock gig, and find themselves unwittingly and unwillingly caught up in the evil machinations of a surprising Patrick Stewart and his gang of skinheads. Starring the recently tragically deceased Anton Yelchin and a cast of bright young things, Green Room may be the highlight of your festival.
But let's not speak too soon – there is also love, intrigue and vicarious gluttony on offer from other sections of the programme.
You cannot go past Tanna if you're in the mood for love. This sumptuously photographed, instantly beguiling and yet unassuming offering from Vanuatu tells of a young woman who comes of age and falls for the chief's grandson just as tensions flare between her village and the rival tribe. With naturalistic acting and drama intermingled with delight, it's films like Tanna that the Festival exists to show.
For those whose tastes are considerably more First World, three more documentaries deliver fascinating insights into very different subjects.
US congressman and New York City mayoral hopeful Antony Weiner bears a name which is almost as ignominious as the exploits which overshadowed his candidacy. Inexplicably, he allowed a camera crew to follow him throughout his "comeback" campaign, but boy are we glad he did – Weiner provides the kind of schadenfreudean viewing that makes your mind boggle at the idiocy of politicians. His long-suffering marriage to Hillary Clinton's long-time right-hand-woman makes the film all the more timely and fascinating.
Or perhaps, you're a lover of My Kitchen Rules and the preponderance of restaurant documentaries of recent years; maybe you even have a visit to Copenhagen's consistently award-winning Noma on your bucket list. Ants on a Shrimp is a riveting recount of Noma boss Rene Redzepi's transposing of the iconic Danish eatery's reputation to a pop-up version in Tokyo. Filmed over several months as the team sets up and devises new menus under extraordinary stress, it will challenge even the most broad-minded (those averse to live turtles or the use of insects need not apply).
And finally, what would the festival be without Werner Herzog doing a spot of investigation and then narrating his own film about a topic close to all our hearts: the internet. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is a typically straight-faced, but undeniably fascinating quest to illuminate different aspects of the greatest technological development of our time. From the creators to the detractors, the addicts to the exploited, Herzog asks the right questions and informs us along the way.
That should be enough to be getting on with, but the Auckland and Wellington legs of the NZIFF boast more 150 titles, covering everything from European comedies and Australasian dramas to Cannes winners and literary adaptations.
Kudos to the Festival programmers that no fewer than 36 films are made by women, and as always, this is the best place to catch the more obscure foreign films.
Shake out that brolly, grab a programme, and get planning.
The NZ International Film Festival will screen in Auckland from July 14 to 31. The Wellington leg begins on July 22. It will then visit Christchurch, Dunedin, Hamilton, Gore, Nelson, Hawkes Bay, Masterton, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Timaru and Tauranga. For more information, see nziff.co.nz