Film-maker carrying his weight

20:52, Aug 29 2013
Daniel Borgman
BOY'S OWN: Daniel Borgman, writer and director of The Weight of Elephants. The film was shot in Invercargill.

For many New Zealand film-makers, even our most successful ones, there's a familiar pattern to their career.

Most begin by making short films. They then make their feature debut in New Zealand, or, more rarely, go overseas. Occasionally, a Kiwi will even make their first short film only after they leave the country.

Daniel Borgman, originally from Invercargill, is one of those. But his road has been the one less travelled. After studying film at Otago University, he worked in the film industry as a runner and post production assistant in Auckland.

But instead of heading off to the default film destinations of Australia, Britain or the United States, in 2007 he moved to Denmark.

From his base in Copenhagen, he teamed up with a Danish producer, Katja Adomeit, and made three short films: The Man and the Albatross in 2008, Lars and Peter in 2009 and, shot on location in Kazakhstan, Berik in 2010.

The Man and the Albatross premiered at The Leopards of Tomorrow Competition in Locarno, effectively telling the world: This is a new name to watch.


That was confirmed when Lars and Peter screened in competition in the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. Then Berik won the Grand Prix for best short film in Cannes in 2010 - a rare feat for any New Zealand film-maker.

But rather than make his debut feature overseas, Borgman, 32, returned to New Zealand to make The Weight of Elephants, released this week. There's still a strong link to Denmark.

The film, shot largely in Invercargill in 37 days, is a co-venture between the New Zealand Film Commission, the Danish Film Institute and Swedish film company Film i Vast. It also got support from Invercargill City Council and Southern Institute of Technology.

Borgman says his unusual route to becoming a film-maker has meant there is still confusion about where he comes from. "I get a little bit sick of having to explain to people that I am really a New Zealander and that I'm from the south and part of that," he says good-naturedly.

"But I don't think I would have been directing if I hadn't left. I had to find a kind of anonymity to feel OK [about directing], in a way."

Borgman is explaining this while waiting at Auckland Airport this week to board a flight to Invercargill. He's attending special screenings for cast - many were locals - in the city, as well as catching up with family.

The Weight of Elephants centres on Adrian, a sensitive 11-year-old who is being cared for by his extended family. Adrian watches reports on television about three local children who have gone missing. He then meets Nicole, a mysterious girl, who moves in next door with her little sister and brother.

Borgman, who grew up in Invercargill and then moved to Dunedin at age 12, also wrote the screenplay and says there has been some speculation about how much of the film was autobiographical.

"It's weird actually. I didn't think it was when I started out. But now I can see things that are autobiographical. Then there's a lot that isn't, so it's kind of an awkward situation."

This is because, while Borgman had been toying with some of the ideas for The Weight of Elephants, the film coalesced when he came across the 2002 prize-winning novel Of a Boy by Australian writer Sonya Hartnett.

The book features a 9-year-old Adrian and, while set in Australia, the core story is the same: Three local children go missing and Adrian makes friends with three children who move next door. Borgman was inspired by the story, but wanted his to have some differences.

"I met with Sonya in Melbourne, talked the story through and went to the locations there. There were a lot of similarities, especially in suburban areas between Australia and New Zealand. It was quite natural."

Borgman says a lot of time was spent in Southland to find the right place to shoot. He needed two houses that were near each other, but were also bordered by a kind "no man's land".

In Of a Boy it was a park. Instead, they found an abandoned playground, with weeds sprouting up between gaps in the concrete, a sign of population changes in region. "It was this idea that nature can claim back things that aren't being maintained."

While The Weight of Elephants boasts a strong cast, including Matthew Sunderland - whose previous roles include Aramoana murderer David Gray in Out of the Blue - as Adrian's uncle, the film is carried by the performance of newcomer Demos Murphy as Adrian.

Borgman says finding the right boy to play Adrian was one of the most challenging tasks of making the film. At first, he wanted a boy from Southland. "We looked down south for six months and we saw everyone. We went to every school. But we couldn't find him.

"We went to Wellington and Auckland and we even had a look in Australia. Then we bumped into a friend of a friend in Auckland in the dying days. We were postponing the shooting and everything and we got extremely lucky."

Demos' performance is stunning, and as memorable as James Rolleston's in Taika Waititi's Boy, Anna Paquin in Jane Campion's The Piano and Penelope Stewart in Vincent Ward's Vigil. Borgman says he's an admirer of Campion and Ward's work, but he is especially a fan of Ward's earliest work and Vigil, Ward's feature debut. "He is amazing and very expressionistic."

Vigil is often described as a "dark" film. But while there may be a tincture of similarity to The Weight of Elephants, Borgman - who is already working on his next feature - doesn't think The Weight of Elephants is in the same category.

"The sad thing, I find, is that when I travel with it we get a lot of ‘Oh, it's another dark movie'. That's not the purpose of it. The purpose was not to make a dark movie. It was to make a film that really expresses something that's not the same thing."


The Weight of Elephants is screening now.

The Dominion Post