Reel life returns with festival

Oscar-worthy: The Invisible War presents an unflinching report on rape in the United States military.
Oscar-worthy: The Invisible War presents an unflinching report on rape in the United States military.

My prediction is that summer will finally throw up its hands in surrender come Wednesday.

Don't be cross with me for tempting fate - this, in fact, presents a perfect welcome to the new season and an opportunity to head indoors to catch some world-class international documentaries, thus broadening your mind from the comfort of your seat.

The Documentary Edge film festival (now known on the streets as "Doc Edge") returns next week, first to Auckland, then to Wellington for a couple of weeks mid-May. Considered Australasia's pre-eminent documentary festival, Doc Edge has been going from strength to strength in its eight-year life, bringing a universally high standard of non-fiction stories to our screens. This year's freshly baked batch is no exception.

The huge success of last year's Searching for Sugarman, which garnered the Oscar for best documentary feature, is evidence that audiences have never been hungrier for true-life tales. Now, thanks to Doc Edge, you'll get to see the Oscar also-rans: The Invisible War would have been an equally deserving winner, for its unflinching report on rape in the United States military. A horrifying expose of serial assaults committed by those whom the victims often consider to be brothers in arms, it casts a dark shadow over the armed forces and those responsible for running an organisation that effectively allows recruits to live under the tacit threat of personal horror. It's a hard watch but absolutely compelling, and the statistics will blow your mind.

Another Oscar nominee, the hard-hitting How to Survive a Plague, looks at how Aids was turned from a death sentence into a manageable illness.

Also under the Festival's human rights banner is Reportero, which details the dangerous job of those who dedicate their careers to reporting on drug crime in Mexico. With more than 40 journalists murdered or gone missing in the past six years, the film is shocking as much for its depiction of the ruthless killing of innocent people as it is seeing colleagues go back to work the next day and keep up the cause. It's a fascinating insight into highly principled journalism.

The enthralling Tales from the Organ Trade is cannily narrated by David Cronenberg, the master of "body horror". However, the film is not remotely tongue in cheek in its impressively unbiased and enlightening account of illegal organ donation. We meet impoverished Filipinos for whom $2000 is worth a lifelong scar, and the wealthier Western recipients who pay 50 times that for something even more life-changing. Surgeons, fixers, the desperately ill and their desperate donors all play a part. The story's lack of judgment or "angle" is to be applauded.

Slightly lighter in touch, though no less meaningful, First Comes Love will strike a chord with many a woman in the audience. Film-maker Nina Davenport is a 41-year-old, single New Yorker whose yearning to have a child has been hampered by her inability to meet Mr Right. Deciding to go it alone, the deeply personal film tracks her journey over several years, never shying away from uncomfortable moments (her conservative father's response to her decision is maddening and saddening all at once), which makes her story all the more raw. Also a "women's picture" but something completely different is the New Zealand film Pretty Brutal, a fascinating portrait of young women who don rollerskates and knee pads to compete in the fast-paced, violent world of roller derby.

It's not difficult to choose your protagonist when you're filming characters like tough-as-nails Pieces of Hate, a small-town lass whose commitment to the sport extends beyond weekly training into mentoring and haranguing the other players. We follow the teams through competitions in and off the rink, and get a taste for what is making this one of the fastest growing sports in the country.

Those with an interest in South Africa will find much to recommend in Finding Mercy, the beautifully told, gripping tale of a young woman raised in Zimbabwe before moving to New Zealand, who returns to her homeland to seek out a childhood friend. Robyn Paterson is white; Mercy is black. We can surmise what might have happened to Mercy along with thousands of others under Mugabe's regime, but the quest Paterson and her secret cameraman undertake is nerve-racking and eye-opening. "Everybody knows somebody who's disappeared" makes for a sobering catchphrase but it's the cold, hard truth.

And, of course, documentary often provides us with the only opportunity we'll ever get to experience another person's world. What stark contrast, then, between our New Zealand audiences and the young people of a small town in Georgia who front up to tell a film-maker what their biggest dreams are. And yet, how universal our aspirations and experiences are. The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear is a touching portrait of youths growing up in a post-Soviet era, holding on to ideals while accepting defeats.

The Documentary Edge festival screens in Auckland from April 10-21, and in Wellington from May 8-19, documentaryedge.org.nz

Sunday Star Times