Festival celebrates challenging, thought-provoking cinema
Hamilton's 34th International Film Festival finished just over a week ago. In terms of attendance perhaps there have been bigger festivals though with 7000-odd tickets sold over 25 days, it was certainly the most successful this century. The Lido theatre had never been busier, something that bodes as well for our world-class art house venue as it does for its culturally inclined patrons.
For me the strength of the event had as much to do with intelligent programming as bums on seats. For the first time in living memory, a film festival in this town opened and closed with genuinely challenging, cutting-edge cinema.
Beasts of the South Wild, the feature that kicked things off, was that rarest of finds, a movie that defied categorisation. It is impossible to adequately describe a narrative that seemed to spring from the fervid imagination of a 6-year-old child as she contemplates the end of the world.
Part ecological commentary, part ethnographic study, there was no dividing line between the girl's subjective fantasies and her objective fate as the polar ice caps melt and her little island is overwhelmed with torrential waters and freshly thawed prehistoric creatures.
Holy Motors, which brought the curtain down, was more of an acquired taste. The judgment of a learned friend - “indulgent tosh” - would likely represent the majority opinion. Starting off with Lynchian pretensions, with films within films and people with keys for hands, as the strangeness quotient was upped things became tedious. The protagonist was some kind of metaphysical character actor, assuming a range of wacky roles that included a pan-handling bag lady, a finger-biting psychopath with a plastic erection and the pater familias in a family of chimpanzees. Even the warbling of Kylie Minogue and a ridiculous denouement featuring talking cars could not save this one.
There is always some risk when attending a festival film, or at least there should be. If Holy Motors was the cinematic cup of tea of too few, it was the only real dud and arguably the event was stronger for its inclusion.
My personal favourite was this year's Palm d'Or winner, Michael Haneke's Amour. Has there ever been a more honest on-screen depiction of old age, illness and death?
With a sympathetic, yet rigorously unsentimental eye, Haneke addresses issues that are fundamental to our humanity.
The scenario of elderly devotion was in its tone the polar opposite of feel good fare like On Golden Pond. Though hardly an advertisement for euthanasia, Amour should be mandatory viewing for those who would put quantity of life before any rational assessment of its quality.
The Danish film, The Hunt, took on an equally controversial topic, telling the story of a kindergarten teacher who becomes a social outcast after unsubstantiated claims circulate that he has abused a student.
Powerful as drama, gripping as thriller, The Hunt was a major return to form for director Thomas Vinterberg and a tour de force of performance by lead actor Mads Mikkelsen. The parallels with New Zealand's own Peter Ellis case were there for those brave enough to make the connection.
Another side of Danish cinema entirely was evident in Klown, a robust black comedy in which the relaxed Scandinavian attitude toward sexuality was to the fore. It is difficult to imagine a running gag about the size of a 12-year-old's penis ever featuring in a Hollywood film, even envelope-pushing vulgarities like The Hangover. The coarsest of jokes seem more sophisticated in a European language and there is thankfully little of the tear-jerking odes to buddyhood so beloved of American sentimentalists.
The best New Zealand film I saw was the documentary, The Last Dogs of Winter. Costa Boates' finest work since Forgotten Silver, a character study worthy of Werner Herzog, Dogs profiled an eccentric Canadian and his determination that the indigenous Eskimo canine, the Qimmiq, survive. With its beautiful ice vistas and awe-inspiring shots of polar bears at play, Dogs had a visual richness to match its subject's ornery, suffer-no-fools manner.
It was heartening for both film-maker and distributor alike that screenings of The Last Dogs of Winter sold out. The fact this happened at the outset of the third week, at a time where in years past audience numbers might have dropped off, is even more impressive.
As it enters middle age, the festival at last may well have come of age in this city.