What to Watch at NZIFF 2015, Part 1

FILM, Film Festivals
img_partisanThe dramatic and documentary revelations you may have overlooked at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.

We know, we know: you meant to read the booklet by now. But with 150 or so films in the New Zealand International Film Festival, you might have got burned out by page 45. Or maybe you flicked through and skipped over the names you didn’t recognise. But there’s that voice, that voice that pops up every year: what am I missing?

Well, probably quite a lot. We all do, sadly, between budget, the number of hours in the day, and the lack of freely available cloning devices. But having had a look at eleven features—three dramas and eight documentaries—there’s ample proof that beyond the Cannes prizewinners and name auteurs, the NZIFF presents a particularly rich programme this year.

Almost sure to be slept on, then talked about in hushed tones by those who saw it and were attuned to its wavelength, is Ariel Kleiman’s debut feature film, Partisan. It’s unlike any Australian film I’ve seen, not least because it stars Vincent Cassel and a cast speaking in a hodge-podge of non-Australian accents, and is set in an unrecognisable war-torn city. Deliberately enigmatic at the outset, the film posits a scenario where Cassel’s Gregori runs a commune that hovers somewhere between the fierce absurdity of Dogtooth and the surface placidity of the Jonestown-like cult of The Sacrement. The genius of the film is knowing that something is wrong—but, with Cassel for once underplaying his role, it’s up to Alexander (young Jeremy Chabriel, who should be safely guaranteed a career after this) to work out what danger Gregori truly represents (and, increasingly, vice-versa). The electronic soundtrack that recalls Tangerine Dream, longeuers for karaoke scenes, and deliberate pacing all demonstrate an uncommon confidence for a first time director.

img_haemooHaemoo translates to Sea Fog, and unsurprisingly the fog is deployed to both literal and metaphoric effect in this adaptation of a true story. Kim Yun-Seok (Chaser, The Yellow Sea) stars as a desperate fishing boat captain struggling to keep his rusty vessel in shape and his crew paid. When he approaches a local smuggler, he’s expecting that he might be able to diversify into smuggling watches, perhaps. But the conversation quickly goes elsewhere, and it’s not too long before everyone’s in over their heads. Those used to the crueler and unsentimental films Korea is renowned for (see also I Saw the Devil or producer and co-writer Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder, which first time director Sung-bo Shim also co-wrote) may initially be taken aback by what seems to be a gentler film featuring sentimental music choices. But as the story unfolds, sentiment is increasingly short supply. While it may not be indulgent in viscera, there’s no flinching as Haemoo gazes into the abyss; comparisons to the gut-churning series of poor choices in A Simple Plan are apt.

By definition, any possible followup Andrew Bujalski might have had to 2013’s Computer Chess would have been something completely different, but even by those lights, Results is unexpected. A comedy high on star power (Guy Pearce, Kevin Corrigan, Cobie Smulders, Giovanni Ribisi, and Anthony Michael Hall) set around an Austin, Texas gym, Results is neither a return to Bujalski’s mumble-core roots (Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax) nor a high-polish indie calling card, but fundamentally is an off-beat romance with shambling, likeable rhythms that manages to leave room for some formal experimentation. From the repurposing of long-lost cinema tropes—both wipes and a training montage get a workout—to a late-breaking piece of sound editing between two runners, there’s as much to offer the observant cinephile as the casual filmgoer out for a few laughs. Call it the date movie of the festival (unless you’re of a mind to take your significant other to Gaspar Noe’s Love 3D).

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Despite not having a moment of violence or nudity, Pervert Park is possibly the most confrontational film of the festival, and the best that I’ve seen. The title is slightly unfortunate, as it implies a sensationalist aspect to this portrait of convicted sex offenders living together in a small community in Florida, one that the movie itself eschews entirely. Instead, it merely—as if such an act could be mere with such a marginalised and vilified populations—observes their lives and lets them tell their stories, both of their lives now and of the events—sometimes tragic, sometimes reprehensible—that brought them to Florida Justice Transitions. Handsomely and tastefully shot, it will stretch most viewer’s limits of what empathy they are capable of, possibly to the breaking point.

img_finderskeepersAlmost as good and equally full of empathy—but also incredibly hilarious—is another portrait of the American South. Ripped from the headlines, or at least the amusing stories that punctuate the end of a news broadcast, Finders Keepers tells the bizarre true story of John Wood, who lost his leg in a plane crash, and Shannon Whisnant, who found it inside a barbeque he bought at a storage locker auction. Most of the obvious questions about this scenario—bar “where is the leg now?” and “what does it look like?”—are answered early on, which leaves one wondering how the documentary could possibly sustain to feature length. The answer is that the director keeps going beyond the surface answers to expose the underlying humanity of each of its leads. Comparisons have been made to The King of Kong, and if it gets people into the theatre, great; but while they’re not misplaced, that film was content to tell a simple good vs. evil story, while this one undercuts what initially seems architected to follow a similar arc with the uncomfortable truths about Wood’s personal history and demonstrations of Whisnant’s vulnerabilities. While it does perhaps overreach in its final attempts to join together a resolution of both Wood’s familial and leg-based narratives, and the coverage is often more workmanlike than inspired, these are minor complaints.

The Wolfpack opens up an equally bizarre world, this one the size of a New York apartment and home to six children who live under lock and key, let out into the larger world no more than a few times a year. Filmmaker Crystal Moselle magically infiltrated her way into the lives of this family, whose principal hobbies are recreations of their favorite films (Tarantino films and Nolan’s Batman movies are particular recurring favorites, although they profess that The Godfather I + II top their personal lists). If it seems at a distance like an unholy shotgun marriage of Dogtooth and Be Kind Rewind, in the telling (and thanks to whip-smart editing) it becomes a woozy impressionistic experience of endless captivity and what happens when the centre of power in the household slips away from its patriarch. Director Moselle is a guest of the festival, making it unquestionably the way to see The Wolfpack: it’s the type of film that asks as many questions as it answers.

img_welcometoleithFor the first 45 minutes or so, Welcome to Leith had me almost crawling out of my skin with tension and anger. The story of a very small town in North Dakota (population: 24) who find themselves selected to be a future colony for neo-Nazis is presented with no judgment—not that any editorialising will be necessary for viewers when new arrival Craig Cobb arranges a series of flags outside his new home commemorating other “white states.” It’s a situation that’s destined to boil over, and a narrative film would build to a third act climax and tidy resolution. Life had other plans, and so this film takes a very different shape, one that eventually foregrounds the question: what happens to people when they are exposed to evil, and how are they changed by it? A troubling, powerful film that will have you Googling the moment the lights come up to find out what happens next. (Or just read here—ideally after you’ve seen the film, and when you’re ready to be angry all over again.)

Two American documentaries that document its two largest cities fall short of being great cinema, but provide satisfying proxy explorations of their messy complexity and contradictions. Banksy Does New York starts unpromisingly, with a cavalcade of talking heads describing the obvious response to the street artist engaging in a 31-day “residency” on the New York streets. But as the documentary moves forward with each day, progressive complications and nuances—both in the work and in New Yorkers’ responses to it—bring the viewer in. A fitting “outside” counterpart to Exit Through the Gift Shop’s “insider” take, Banksy Does New York’s reliance on Instagram and YouTube footage moves from weakness to strength—a pluralistic city deserves pluralistic voices driving a story about it—and the film ends with rich questions hanging in the air.

img_cityofgoldCity of Gold, meanwhile, doesn’t build so much as meander through Los Angeles, under the guidance of its leading stomach, Pulitzer-Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold. The discovery that Los Angeles is not just the home of megastars but a rich cultural and culinary tapestry may prove to be a revelation for some viewers, though not myself. Regardless of the novelty, however, Gold’s gift with words combined with mouth-watering food footage is irresistible, and Gold himself is an entertaining character, a peripatetic gourmand, a notorious procrastinator, a loving husband, and an expert on hip-hop. In a cold New Zealand winter, 90 minutes in Los Angeles is a perfectly pleasant way to spend the day.

24 hours after watching, I’m still struggling to determine whether Cartel Land is an ambitious documentary that falls short of its goals or a brilliant documentary that subverts traditional expectations. Ostensibly telling parallel stories on both sides of the United States and Mexico border, director Matthew Heineman embedded himself first in Arizona Border Recon, Americans who function outside the government while protecting the border from purported (but rarely visible) cartel violence. Meanwhile, in Michoacan, Mexico, a group of vigilantes are fighting back against the drug cartels—and the police who have been supporting them. The latter story quickly comes to dominate the film, and it’s intriguing as an audience member to chart one’s sympathies, and how they shift as the story crosses from one side of the border to the other—and how they shift as the Autodefensas gains strength and begins engaging in behaviour not unlike what it was designed to prevent. Despite the uneven structure and overcooked soundtrack, it’s a compelling, thought-provoking film with visceral chills as the filmmakers dodge bullets alongside its subjects in pursuit of their own visions of justice.

img_westernBut if there’s only room for one U.S./Mexico border documentary in your schedule this year, and you prefer finely observed detail to bombast, I recommend Western. Set in both Eagle Pass, Texas and its twin city across the border, Piedras Negras, Western first seems to be a corrective to narratives of violence overtaking the borders. A bridge brings the two communities together, avuncular Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster is just as likely to be found speaking Spanish or dining in Mexico as at home, and cattle rancher Martin Wall plies his trade across the border. It seems like a bucolic paradise impossible to reconcile with stories of drug cartels, until the real world intervenes. The Ross brothers speak in multiple vernaculars as documentary directors; on a scene by scene basis, their observational qualities recall Frederick Wiseman, but they’re more interested in characters than institutions (parallels with The Ground We Won are appropriate, with politics replacing rugby), and they’re more prone to idyllic bursts of river, sky, and fireworks; and as even a storyline emerges, there’s still much room for song, cute six-year olds and (viewer discretion advised) bullfights. Their previous documentary, Tchoupitoulas, is also playing at the film festival, and Turner Ross will also be a guest of the festival. Expect a fuller review from Auckland correspondent Jacob Powell.

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2015 opens in Auckland on July 16th, Wellington on July 24th, Dunedin on July 30th, Christchurch on August 7th, and in regions nationwide through until November.
Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Doug Dillaman is an American expatriate living in Auckland. He wrote and directed the feature film Jake. He is writing his first novel, edits television for a living, and plays drums for Climate Change.