Closing notes on evil, activism, resistance, and the films that deserve a second chance at the New Zealand International Film Festival.
It’s well-documented that the profusion of cheap filmmaking technology has led to an overabundance of movies (albeit, perhaps, not an overabundance of good ones). How do film festival programmers contend with this? After its opening weekend, I suspected that the New Zealand International Film Festival had deliberately selected films that were most dispiriting about filmmaking to stem this tide. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness showed that bringing joy to the lives of millions via Studio Ghibli was no reward, with Hayao Miyazaki believing “filmmaking only brings suffering.” Why Don’t You Play In Hell? took a crew of obsessed filmmakers to the logical end of their obsession, and to their ends as well. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter showed the dark side of obsession with filmwatching; one wonders how the Coens would feel about their profession in light of it. And Hard to Be a God, whilst not about filmmaking, was so suffused in grottiness that you could palpably feel just how unpleasant it would be to make. You could argue that Jodorowsky’s Dune was an uplifting exception, a happy story, and to some extent it was—a happy story about a film that was never made. Nice hint.
Meanwhile, the news kept us acutely aware that while sitting in (mostly) comfortable theatres, ISIS was cutting a swath through Iraq, Gaza was being laid siege to by the Israeli Army, and a passenger plane was shot down over Ukraine, only the three most prominent examples of unrest in a world full of it. As a filmmaker and film buff alike, I started to glaze a bit when a film asked me to engage with it, to surrender my emotions to its fiction, to believe its inevitable simplifications of real life.
Sebastiao Salgado, Serra Pelada, State of Para, Brazil, 1986.
It’s in this frame of mind I approached The Salt of the Earth, and for that reason I suspect that I’ve overrated it, as it asks and answers the question: “how can you create after being overwhelmed by the evil and indifference of the world?” A portrait of Sebastiao Salgado, the film begins on his images of a Brazilian gold mine, hellish images that evoked Hard to Be a God, a teeming, desperate mass of humanity mired in muck. Director Wim Wenders had been a fan of Salgado’s work, and combined his efforts with Salgado’s son Juliano to create a portrait of the artist from the outside and the inside. Salgado’s passion for his work—and for his fellow man—takes him around the world, increasingly focusing on the dispossessed, the marginalised, the victims. I didn’t know Salgado’s work or story going in, and while the former stuns on the big screen, it’s the emotional wallop of the latter that left me both reeling and optimistic well after the film was finished. I questioned some filmmaking choices (dissolving Salgado’s face over his stills, most notably), but can’t deny its impact.
As the festival progressed, the question of activism and making a difference continued to rear its head in varying forms. Kelly Reichardt eschewed the visual expansiveness of Meek’s Cutoff to create a claustrophobic portrait of ecoterrorists in Night Moves, opening a bevy of difficult questions about proper actions in the face of injustice without pretending to have a pat answer. Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley purports to use the master’s techniques to portray an objective report of campus life, but as student activism heats up one can’t help but notice by his selections that the filmmaker’s allegiances were firmly in the administration’s camp. And Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan suggests that any attempt to resist a corrupt Russian system is ultimately futile.
Across the border from Russia, an alternative narrative of resistance has been unfolding. For as objective as possible a view of resistance politics, it’s hard to beat Sergei Loznitsa’s Maïdan. Told in wide shots, almost entirely without camera movement, this immersive Ukrainian documentary covers the occupation of Independence Park in central Kiev by anti-government protesters. Early shots don’t feature anyone on camera talking, with voices heard entirely off-screen, unless they’re singing the national anthem. This is a story of rebellion told without characters, a rare and curious thing, and one that sometimes leads to drifting attention: David Larsen’s description of “the Brownian motion” of the crowds came to mind as I focused on geometry instead of politics, as did Jacques Tati’s Playtime, another film that asks you to scan the frame. To describe Maïdan as slow-burn isn’t quite the right analogy: it’s closer to boiling the lobster, where you don’t realise the temperature’s gotten hot until it’s too late. Suddenly, boredom has turned into anxiety: where is that rock going? Where is something go to blow up? You don’t know where to look next; nowhere is safe.
Eye-scanning also played a major part in It Follows, whose central conceit involves a slow-moving, shape-shifting, implacable entity that is coming for you and cannot be stopped—but can be redirected to another target via sexual transmission. Filmmaker David Robert Mitchell debuted a few years back with The Myth of the American Sleepover, which I didn’t love as much as some, while still maintaining that it was the work of a talented filmmaker in search of a compelling premise. Asked and answered. Mitchell’s film is smart, scary, funny, and quietly clever in its establishment of an alternative normalcy—lots of 4:3 black and white TVs combine with a makeup compact-shaped e-reader to delocate the viewer in time—while still being deeply specific and knowing about its suburban (and, eventually, central) Detroit setting. Don’t be fooled about thinking this is a simple parable about the dangers of teen sex à la Halloween; despite the stunning John Carpenteresque score, this is just as concerned about the emotional lives of late teens as it is about delivering scares, and discharges both responsibilities with aplomb. It may be my favorite film of the festival.
Many of the festival’s other films will return—the quietly revolutionary and powerfully moving Boyhood opens in a few weeks time, with the previously-reviewed Housebound and the modestly touching Love Is Strange to follow—while others, such as Jonathan Glazer’s gloriously trippy Under the Skin, are already fated by their distributors to never grace screens again. While there’s plenty I’d love the chance to catch that I missed, there’s two other films in particular that aren’t scheduled that I loved and that I think could connect to an audience. (As opposed to, say, Manakamana, a deeply soothing experience that I thoroughly enjoyed and never expect to see inside a cinema in New Zealand again; no distributor would risk it, and I can’t blame them.)
Wild Tales is a film that aspires to no greater intent than entertaining the audience; Tarantino comparisons are partially misplaced, but there’s a shared joy in mayhem and sheer disinterest in realism, with an opening on a plane (no spoilers here) that seems to set an unattainable bar for the rest of the film’s revenge-themed short stories. That is, until you get to the wedding, which seems at first a setup for an obvious punchline, then runs farther past that point then you would imagine.
Force Majeure, meanwhile, may be a less obvious sell, but it too deserves a chance for a wider audience. Ruben Ostlund’s portrayal of a family in crisis combined the ruthless observation of Michael Haneke with a merciless sense of humor and an uncanny eye for compelling composition and camera movement. Almost everybody I talked to was smitten with it, and it’s a film with sufficient ambiguity and intrigue to warrant a second viewing while still providing enough satisfaction to not require one. The rest of the calendar year at the movies is looking simultaneously cramped with titles and empty of exciting ones; surely, for films such as these, exhibitors can make room.