Last words on the New Zealand International Film Festival for 2014.
Has this New Zealand International Film Festival been the coldest on record? Winter was not the only commonality among films selected for the 2014 edition, though it was certainly an unmistakable one: storylines characterised by snow, rain, subzero temperatures, and stormy horizons brought the inclement weather into the very venues we were seeking refuge in. The atmosphere, however, was far from chilly. It has been a great few months for long-form cinema and for hunkering down in the cinema. Case in point: the eminently watchable Boyhood, an everyday epic committed to the passage of time, and therefore deserving of a cinematic space not circumscribed by traditional notions of duration and resolution. Programmers duly fortified this space with at least half-a-dozen films in the three-hour-plus range—quite a boost from last year’s lone flag-bearer, the exceptional Norte, the End of the History.
Of generous length and narrative scope, Edgar Reitz’s Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision is one such film contingent on extended screen time to richly immerse us in its world. Centred on a group of neighbouring German villagers in the 1840s and their life experience as a series of cycles—from birth, to marriage, to death, and back again through the constant changing of seasons—it absolutely derives its power from the breadth of the story and from characters who are permitted to grow and age within its novelistic format.
Essentially two feature films back-to-back, Reitz’s modest prequel to his 50-hour masterwork Heimat begins unremarkably as an ordinary peasant melodrama, but builds to a full and resonant portrait of a family who play their small part in history. Visually, the film is austere yet majestic with occasional tonal flourishes that relate back to Reitz’s alternating use of colour and monochrome in the Heimat series. I was also struck by the image of a large convoy of horse drawn carriages about to make the arduous voyage from rural Germany to South America—a sweeping panorama that suddenly and evocatively connected the film to the earliest American westerns about migrating pioneers. Not unlike The Big Trail, Jacques Tourneur’s community westerns, or more recently, Meek’s Cutoff, the daily, material weight of time informs every setback and triumph for the people in Reitz’s film.
And with the benefit of time, the minutia of their existence is allowed to culminate late in the piece with the reading of a humble yet monumental letter from afar. Home from Home’s themes of aspiration, stoicism, hardship, and familial bonds really hit home in this pivotal scene. It’s difficult to think of a more emotionally rewarding moment at the festival, one all the more overwhelming when we consider the months it once took to travel between continents, with no guarantee of reaching the destination, the enormity of such a journey gathered into a few hundred words inked on a piece of paper. Four hours in a movie theatre? Not so hard.
A chronicle of a family in the present century, Boyhood charts a different kind of journey—12 years in the life of an average American boy—as authentically as possible by watching an actor grow up in the role. Shot over the same lengthy gestation period, Richard Linklater’s film is not an unprecedented feat: Michael Winterbottom attempted a similar dramatic conceit with Everyday; Michael Apted has been documenting the same people for half a century with his ongoing Up Series; Shane Meadows has watched a cast of misfit teenagers mature into damaged adults across multiple This is England film and TV projects; and François Truffaut gave us a quintet of films with the character Antoine Doinel, played indelibly by Jean-Pierre Léaud, at various stages of his life over the course of two decades. And then there’s Linklater’s Before trilogy. Still, Boyhood is something else entirely, a film boldly distinguished by its controlled naturalism and ostensibly casual depiction of lives in motion. A project as ambitious as this doesn’t come together without the structure of a script, and yet it all appears so unaffected and incidental—only intermittently does the writing force an issue or contrive a moment of strained comic relief, forgivable quirks in a film that marks time completely organically.
In terms of other films that age characters as seamlessly as this, you have to look to animation, and no further at this festival than The Tale of Princess of Kaguya. Isao Takahata’s beautiful swansong is the epitome of distilled simplicity, and a final testament to his perseverance as Hayao Miyazaki’s artistic antithesis. Whereas The Wind Rises felt like a summation of Miyazaki’s personal and creative philosophies, The Tale of Princess of Kaguya gestures towards self-expression and renaissance—it literally reaches for the moon—which makes its status as conceivably one of the last chapters in Studio Ghibli’s legacy even more bittersweet.
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At the end of Boyhood, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), now 18 years of age, departs for college, his head filled with excitable opinions—a perfect segue into Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley. One of the more relatable observations of Linklater’s film is the moment it captures when, as a burgeoning teenager approaching adulthood, the mind begins to open up and start thinking critically about the world. Gaining access to the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, Wiseman’s documentary also witnesses young brains working furiously away, though the naivety of their postulating is just as plain to see. Those old and disillusioned enough will surely recognise in these two films the earnestness of youth and how one’s theories about art, politics, and society seemed so much more profound at that age. Wiseman’s portrait of tertiary education, while inspiring and edifying, comes with a hint of cynicism—indeed, there’s an apparent favouritism at play in the film’s juxtaposition between student idealism and the pragmatism of administrators. Protest, it concludes, is just another folly of youth.
At Berkeley is not as black and white as this message suggests—at four hours long, it takes in all shades of the preeminent public university. Rightly, it acknowledges that people on faculties “like to talk, are used to hearing themselves speak, and are used to watching other people nod in response.” (Speaking to a captive audience about self-evaluation, this was former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s cutting assessment of the numerous staff meetings we encounter throughout the course of the film.) It also reminds us that not all students are young, impressionable, and unworldly. (For example, we sit in with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have gained entry to Berkeley through a military academic programme—an echo of the promise of higher education glimpsed in Boyhood through the mother’s proactive study towards gainful employment, and on the flipside, her boyfriend’s ennui as a returning war veteran unprepared for civilian life.) Overall, though, Wiseman’s take on this particular institution is schematic in the way it pieces together university life; his editing patterns, recognisable at first and yet more regimented than usual, score a hard line between the classroom and boardroom that feels, no pun intended, academic.
The same can’t be said of Wiseman’s superior National Gallery, where the flow and arrangement of scenes is nigh on perfect. With this latest documentary, he achieves a more nuanced blend of observational, conversational, and contemplative elements, appropriate inside the walls of a museum long considered “just right” in terms of scale and accessibility. Compared to the cavernous hellhole of The Lourve—a sprawling palace more akin to a shopping mall than a resting place for some of the world’s greatest artworks—the National Gallery is a dignified site, free to the public like the majority of London’s museums, and crucially, is safeguarded by a “no photography” policy. Granted, this would have been a very different film made in the company of iPhones and other unwanted handheld devices—a mark of how conspicuous the act of recording has become, if not a dispiriting reminder that image capture nowadays is a prerequisite for every action and reaction, from eating a meal, to appreciating art. Wiseman duly satisfies the need for a substantive cinematic record of the gallery’s collection up close and in situ, though perhaps motivated by the ideal viewing conditions, it is less the art itself than the people thinking and talking about the art that is foregrounded from his vantage point.
Recalling Jem Cohen’s soulful Museum Hours, National Gallery privileges the fine art of people watching, a quality all but missing from The Great Museum. What’s worth noting about this snapshot of Austria’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is that it is a very good imitation of a Frederick Wiseman film—this is not faint praise, but an acknowledgement of director Johannes Holzhausen’s willingness to show rather than tell (like Wiseman, he dispenses with title cards, exposition, and narration). In doing so, he quietly inspects the meticulous work of art historians, restorers, and technicians parallel to National Gallery, and even the scenes included of administrators deliberating over marketing strategies and budget cuts are virtually indistinguishable from those seen in Wiseman’s documentary. Holzhausen, however, has opted for a finite study of the Kunsthistorisches as it undergoes major renovations, and the film’s insight into the function of art is thus limited to how it is managed, conserved, and installed. Sure enough, The Great Museum reveres the unseen role of the museum professional, but in neglecting the common people the art is exhibited for, as well as the ground-level employees who present the art and represent the face of the Kunsthistorisches to the public, it retains an air of (Viennese) elitism that Museum Hours—a film also set in the Kunsthistorisches—fought hard to eschew.
While Holzhausen’s documentary lacks perspective, its narrower focus nonetheless complements the expansive vision of Wiseman’s film. Taken together, they form a rich analogy for the importance of film curation, preservation, and culture. Among other associations, National Gallery touches on the malleability of art, the invigorating act of seeing and thinking about art, and the validity of interpreting art through a myriad of openings. Film art can and should be approached from the same wide angle—not merely reduced to a notch on a yardstick. I can’t recall any of the paintings featured in National Gallery being spoken of in such perfunctory terms. Quite the opposite: as we are lectured on various paintings highlighted throughout the film, Wiseman’s spacious editing actively encourages our own thoughtful, imaginative, and independent reading of each work.
In the context of a festival exhibiting its own suite of image works, National Gallery emboldens us to take a longer and deeper engagement with film. It also establishes the idea of looking away from the literal centre of a work, and that there is usually not one but many different focal points. There’s a wonderful passage in Museum Hours that asserts the same principle through Auden’s poem inspired by Bruegel’s Landscape and The Fall of Icarus. Both artists were interested in the margins, as was arguably Giovanni Bellini in composing The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr. Arriving at this striking 16th century painting, Wiseman gives us a tour guide who cites Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” while drawing our attention to figures in the background—seemingly insignificant yet alarmingly indifferent witnesses to murder. What to make of this moral paralysis in relation to, say, Sebastiao Salgado’s socially conscious photojournalism surveyed in The Salt of the Earth, the impotence of the activists in Night Moves, or the questions of complicity and responsibility raised in The Reunion and The Last of the Unjust? Not only an exemplar of Wiseman’s cinema, the salient themes and motifs National Gallery freighted into this festival—too many to recount here—made it the most connected film in the programme, and in terms of addressing our interaction and relationship with art, arguably the most important.
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Ideas, of course, only form part of the picture. Ethical dilemmas emerged powerfully in some films, falsely in others. The social conscience of Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys, for instance, remains ever-present despite the narrative changing its spots several times over. At once thrilling and tender, it’s an impressively versatile feature concerned with France’s East-European underclass, the materialism of its white-collar urbanites, and the possibility of paternal love through lust—a moving, rather than creepy, plot development. By contrast, Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night, with its practiced social-realist milieu and strained cinéma vérité tension, is a test of our credulity. I for one couldn’t break through its melodramatic register and heavily telegraphed storytelling, which put paid to the quieter—albeit, still forceful—desperation of the brothers’ earlier films. Centred on a woman (Marion Cotillard) who is given the weekend to convince her workmates not to vote for her redundancy (and in lieu of a wage bonus), Two Days, One Night unfolds as a series of procedural will-they-or-won’t-they confrontations. That it systematically pushes our buttons will be a red flag for some viewers, an emotional hook for others.
Closer to the ethics and formal exactitude of Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl’s cinema, Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross is a model of German precision. Along with Fish & Cat, another masterful exponent of the long take, it’s one of the unsung films of the festival. Accounting for a teenage girl’s psychological decline in the grip of extreme Catholicism, this is a film that uses tableaux and the parable of Christ’s road to crucifixion as an evocation of religious portraiture. Framed within its 14 unerring compositions is a devastating tale of delusional martyrdom, or alternatively, virtuous sacrifice—neither of which, graciously, is favoured in the final analysis. Comparisons to Pawel Pawlikowski’s superb Ida are warranted: the stillness of newcomer Lea van Acken’s central performance mirrors that of Agata Trzebuchowska (also a novice actor), spiritual awareness and human curiosity are explored in equal measure, while both films are completely absorbing aesthetically.
A few final notes: out of the 140+ features screened in Auckland and Wellington, I managed 40, though not nearly enough by local filmmakers, an oversight I hope to rectify before not too long. Trend-wise, there was a surplus of films fixated on troubled marriages (Winter Sleep, Exhibition) and their effect on children (The Wonders, Force Majeure); defecation (Story of My Death, Goodbye to Language 3D, among others, bizarrely); the alien experience (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Hard to Be God, Under the Skin); animals amok (Of Horses and Men, When Animals Dream, White God); the agony and ecstasy of filmmaking (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?), and satirising Hollywood (The Congress, Show People, Maps to the Stars). Other films by old favourites (Hong Sang-soo’s Our Sunhi, Fernando Embicke’s Club Sándwich) were comforting in their familiarity. And was it any surprise that Scandinavia featured prominently? Never mind that some of the festival’s best films originated from the Nordic region; this was programming at its shrewdest, an offering to all those Forbrydelsen/Borgen/Broen zealots who apparently have given up on movies. Judging by the box office upturn this year, cinema is more than holding its own.