Highlights from the New Zealand International Film Festival’s showcase of first- and second-time filmmakers.
Auteur-heavy in recent times, this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival (opening in Auckland on July 19) strikes me as comparatively unencumbered by the weight of expectation—a good thing, when it means there’s more to discover and chance upon in the coming weeks. Whereas plotting a course through the 17-day schedule last winter was a matter of compulsively joining the dots between Malick, Kaurismäki, the Dardennes, Reichardt, Ceylan, Ruiz, and Tarr, among others, this season’s line-up contains fewer directorial landmarks, and thus a less obvious roadmap towards what’s noteworthy and deserving of our attention. If new Cannes-approved works by Michael Haneke (Amour) and Leos Carax (Holy Motors) are impossible to ignore, and the hype surrounding festival circuit standouts Beasts of the Southern Wild and Tabu is too good to walk away from, an air of mystery hangs over the rest of the programme, none more so than the freshly-minted “Aotearoa New Zealand” sidebar—its self-contained section of 14 features the most promising assembly of local product for some time. (More on a few handpicked Kiwi films and filmmakers to come.)
Elsewhere, curious festivalgoers motivated by the element of surprise should cast their eyes over the “New Directions” programme, an annual selection of works by first- and second-time filmmakers that never fails to yield exciting results. While it’s too soon to make the call, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s debut feature Neighbouring Sounds makes an arresting case for one of the discoveries of the 2012 festival. Observing contemporary Brazilian society from a vantage point outside of—although directly adjacent to—the volatile favelas exploited by the likes of Elite Squad and City of God, the film focuses on the lives of several comfortable middle-class families in the same apartment block on a secluded inner city street. One of those families owns the majority of real estate in the area, and from the shelter of their ivory tower, they hire a private security firm to patrol the street below—a shrewd plot device that enables Filho to monitor his characters from a close, but surreptitious angle, often from the perspective of the guards, housekeepers, and deliverymen who orbit around the fringes of this unsettled microcosm.
Rest assured, Filho’s film is more sophisticated in its exploration of class friction than the current popularity for all things “upstairs, downstairs” suggests, principally because it never feels cordoned off from the wider world (despite the gated, gentrified setting), and that it examines conflict on a scale beyond the range of basic human interaction. Indeed, it would be more accurate to describe Neighbouring Sounds as a film about community, defined not by fraternity and common concerns, but uneasy proximity and the active role of surveillance. To that end, Filho erodes the privacy of his characters with a sense of exterior claustrophobia; their personal space constricted by the heaving population and cityscape. As per its title, the film’s awareness of an underlying discord filters through the remarkable sound design; the mix capturing the din of high-density urban living with incredible texture and dimension. Largely unseen, yet richly audible, the neighbouring environment is imagined in such a way that, more than existing as a frame of reference, it envelopes the characters with a throbbing, nervous energy—a distinctive tension that has plenty to say about human behaviour, anxiety, and tolerance in relation to the social conditions.
A recipient of the Hubert Bals Fund for feature films by innovative and talented directors from developing countries, Neighbouring Sounds has been diligently conceived in the art cinema mould. Aside from its rigorous formal qualities, tidy narrative resolutions are reassuringly kept at bay, although as a completely separate issue, it lacks a sound exit strategy to end things on a truly satisfying note. Nonetheless, Filho displays exceptional control over all aspects of his production, and in terms of craft, comparisons to one of the greats of South American cinema, Lucrecia Martel, are not entirely premature. Both filmmakers demonstrate an impressive plurality of approaches towards multiple characters and their physical surroundings, and there’s a clear affinity between Filho’s nascent worldview, and the stuffy enclosed spaces and idle human curiosity of Martel’s La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl (incidentally, also assisted by the Hubert Bals Fund). Kent Jones once wrote that filmmakers all over the world beat their brains in trying to achieve what comes so naturally to Martel, and to experience one of her films is, in part, to struggle to put a finger on what makes them so mesmerizing. On the evidence of Neighbouring Sounds, Filho has precious insight into what Martel does right, and to an extent, is also conscious of what her films don’t necessarily do well—namely, the inability to breakout of a vacuum-sealed reality. Private and public merge potently in Filho’s film; whether conveyed through the furtive glance of an elderly night watchman, or the harsh sound of a key scraping against paintwork, it’s certain to leave a mark on audiences.
Another early highlight, Valérie Massadian’s Nana finds striking middle ground between Jacques Doillon’s guileless child drama Ponette, memorable for the purity of its four-year-old protagonist’s performance, and Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, in which a pre-teen princess embarks on an enchanting, if at times disconcerting bucolic adventure through the dreamscape of her 100-year-slumber. Far from a deliberate strategy to play both sides of ledger, I get the impression that Massadian has allowed her subjects to dictate the tone of the film, resulting in a blend of unconscious realism and uncanny atmosphere. Although centred on the titular four-year-old (Kelyna Lecomte), the two supporting adult cast members, Alain Sabras and Marie Delmas, perform their scenes with natural, yet knowing gestures, as if responding to direction off camera, or attempting to guide their inexperienced co-star (especially Delmas, in the role of the girl’s loving but detached mother). Lecomte, on the other hand, is seemingly oblivious to the ‘act’ of those around her, and is ultimately left to her own devices, just as all children possess the innate ability to occupy themselves through play and imagination.
In this untethered state, Nana often feels at the whim of its young star. It is to the director’s credit that she manages to shape the documentary tense of her raw material into something that progressively darkens in mood and increases in peril. Initially in the care of her mother, Nana eventually becomes the sole occupant of a remote country cottage; whether inexplicably abandoned or swept up in her own solitary fantasy, her capacity for imagination is unnerving for what it reveals about a child’s indeterminate perception of the world. Through these quietly fraught stretches, Massadian’s background in artful still photography nudges the film closer to the folklore of Charles Perrault, although thankfully, not far enough as to place us completely inside the head of Nana. In interviews, Massadian has oddly distanced her work from definitions of documentary, however I would argue that it is another kind of distance—an objective restraint—that enables the fairy tale elements to appear grounded and uncontrived. Like Take Shelter, Nana is ostensibly a first person account of real and imagined situations, yet remains firmly in the third person at all times. Though not without cryptic moments, it’s a rational, adult viewpoint of childhood reverie that’s at once lucid and perturbing.
Policeman, Nadav Lapid’s sharp, searing debut feature, is also a full-bodied political howl, rescuing the self-parodying anti-capitalists of The Edukators, and relocating them to the Israeli state, where much more is at stake. Although Lapid’s brilliantly conceived film is vivid and attractive in appearance, the surfaces are lit and framed with a subtle transparency; this is not a slickly made film, but a shrewdly directed one. Adopting a bifurcated structure, Policeman begins rather neutrally as a dispassionate portrait of a Special Forces officer (Yiftach Klein, the embodiment of a certain kind of state and civic pride), both at home and at work, before shifting perspective to a firebrand group of young activists whose equality agenda is to be delivered through the only remaining course of action: terrorism. What transpires feels no longer rooted to the material world, but instead, unfolds as a sort of internal visualization of a plan of attack by delusional revolutionaries. A moral dimension brings proceedings back down to earth in the final moments, as the titular policeman searches his conscience in a scene that could’ve come straight out of Police, Adjective.
Briefly: Sister, Ursula Meier’s familiar, if high-functioning drama of a self-sufficient 12-year-old boy and his good-for-nothing older sibling (the eye-catching Léa Seydoux). Not quite measuring up to the international standard for social-realism, as set by the unerring Dardenne brothers, the film nonetheless finds its own independent voice and rhythm in the resourcefulness of its youngest protagonist, who scavenges for lost or unattended ski equipment, and then hawks it off in order to feed and clothe himself and his sister. Meier’s trump card is the untapped Swiss ski resort setting: an unlikely, unusually unglamorous landscape of bland snow-covered slopes and garish outdoor apparel, all crispy photographed by Claire Denis’s indispensible cinematographer, Agnès Godard. Also of interest, especially to ticketholders to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom: Cristián Jiménez’s pleasant literary comedy Bonsái, in which Proust provides the backdrop for a roomy, warm-hued novella on erstwhile love and the remembrance of things past.