Further dispatches from the first week of the New Zealand International Film Festival, including Western, Tehran Taxi, Ixcanul Volcano, and The Postman’s White Nights.
Opening with a smooth shot moving slowly up the Rio Grande Bill and Turner Ross’ documentary Western plays with the mythic ideal of the American Western simultaneously honouring the form whilst subverting many of its tropes. Having decamped (for 13 months) to across-the-bridge sister towns Eagle Pass (Texas, USA) and Piedras Negras (Coahuila, Mexico), the filmmakers bedded into the local communities to capture a fly-on-the-wall perspective of life on the Tex-Mex border. Dogging the footsteps of well-loved Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster and rancher-cum-solo-dad Martín Wall, the Ross brothers turn out a warmly shaded document of a culturally blended way of life threatened by lawlessness and violence worthy of any genre classic.
In a classic Western an implacable lawman and his posse might ride off to deal with gun slinging cattle rustlers but in the modern world Mexican drug cartels are not so easily dispatched. Mayor Foster’s hands are tied as he has to contend with fear-based, ill-informed federal intervention which halts the all-important cattle trade between the two towns. Consequently Martín and his ranch-hands are as likely to be seen horsing around with his tough young daughter Brylyn as they are riding bulls and branding cattle. Backgrounding the film are the unspoken disparities of wealth, power, privilege between the two towns which no amount of harmonious synergism can expel. Cattle is raised more cheaply in Mexico to be raised and sold at a profit in the U.S. Resource is pumped into border beautification schemes meant to create a sense of solidarity, but it’s hard not to wonder if these funds might be put to better use on the Piedras Negras side of the river.
The film is sectioned into acts utilising weather as a signifier. The first act is all fiestas in dry, wind whipped locations and threatening electrical storms. In the second act the rain finally appears in force and the skies are as sullen as the people discussing the latest act of brazen cartel violence and the resulting trade shutdowns. The third act brings with it sunshine and hope bolstered by weathering the storms and the new (literal and figurative) seasons. Western proves an earthy study of everyday folk evincing a good dose of creative intelligence and filmmaking nous.
Continuing his exploitation of the bounds of Iran’s state mandated creative regulation in Tehran Taxi, Jafar Panahi surfaces another fascinating ‘not-film’ which blends reality and fiction into a kind of mirthful polemic. The filmmaker’s pointed socio-political commentary coming from the mouth of his scene stealing niece can’t fail to raise more than one smile, and yet Panahi can’t stop the frustration and sadness showing on his own face as he drives his way (inexpertly!) through his city. The driver’s interactions with his various passengers—including a man and woman having an argument about crime and punishment, a distributor of ‘illegal’ films on DVD, a man who’s been in an accident and his nervous wife, a lawyer-friend who specialises in helping government persecuted artists—spark conversations on a wide array of topics. Panahi turns what could easily have been be a ‘reality’ style dashboard-cam confessional into a fascinating study in present day Iranian life, unearthing dissatisfaction with the social controls the government exerts on the populace.
Probably the first film I’ve seen out Guatemala and definitely the first in an indigenous Mayan language, Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul Volcano presents a bizarre blend of the everyday and the otherworldly. This tension is mirrored all through the film: in the syncretistic amalgam of Spanish Catholicism with ages old worship of the Volcano which dominates their vistas and lives; in the clash of tradition and modern life; in the Mayan world encapsulated in a broader colonised Hispanic context. Yet at its heart the film is not some culturally specific exploration but a universal coming-of-age story about young María’s struggle for independence and the resulting consequences.
Talk about small town universality! In the far north of Nowheresville Russia weather beaten folks inhabit weather beaten houses, which greatly remind me of the (not quite so) isolated rural settings of many of my modestly situated relatives. Andrei Konchalovsky’s chequered filmography—from writing credits on some of Tarkovsky’s early masterpieces to directing credits on such classics of modern cinema as Tango & Cash—comes to full fruition in his pseudo-docudrama The Postman’s White Nights. Impatient sequences cut using a ’90s MTV show style fold into long languid takes of boats traversing the ever-present lake at the centre of the community in question. What begins as disjointed movement morphs into the slow driving rhythm of a film in which not a lot happens. Simple routines built around a small community of people and a limited set of daily tasks and interactions. Konchalovsky presents the beautiful monotony of such an existence with a rich set of characters ably lead by the eponymous Postman Lyokha (Aleksey Tryapitsyn). The auteur manages to slowly tease out a tale of loneliness and desire with odd splashes of the surreal. The sum of the film’s parts proves visually and narratively fascinating if you can find patience for the director’s idiosyncrasies.
There are competing strains of feel-good humour and voyeuristic cynicism entwined within Incredibly Strange section documentary Finders Keepers circling the lost‘n’found foot of John Wood. Filmmakers Carberry and Tweel wisely choose to background the limb in question using the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale to explore the lives of its opposing main characters. It is no surprise to see the producer credit for The King of Kong writer/director Seth Gordon, whose fingerprints can be felt in the predominance of the feel-good tone and the clear setup of protagonist vs. antagonist in down-and-out foot owner John Wood and opportunistic foot finder Shannon Whisnant. The film goes on a smidge longer than it needs to, dragging in the tail section, but contains enough real life twists to keep the audience shaking their heads in disbelief.
As an ending observation, I might subtitle my first half festival run ‘The Week of the Cat’, as several films have featured a significant feline presence. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has perhaps one of the best cat characters committed to screen. The appealing beast moves between characters provoking a differing range of responses whilst seemingly observing all. Far into the background but just as occasionally observant is the mystical ‘Jaguar’ in Embrace of the Serpent whilst the equally portentous (and perhaps imagined) puss in The Postman’s White Nights stares discomfort into Lyokha’s illuminated night-time hours. I’ve not noticed such a strong cat presence in my festival line-up before but I have to say it has been striking.