At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Florian Habicht’s love letter to the character—and characters—of New York City.
New Zealand artist/filmmaker Florian Habicht has become a regular fixture on the New Zealand International Film Festival circuit, and for good reason: he consistently produces unique and striking works of idiomatic cinema that demand attention. If 2008’s Rubbings from a Live Man (a cinematic portrait of colourful New Zealand thespian Warwick Broadhead) was a documentary steeped in fantasy, then his latest outing, Love Story, is a fictional feature t-boned by the documentary truck. So effectively has Habicht mashed fact with fiction, reality with fantasy, that he has virtually erased the lines of traditional cinema. Despite this (agreeable) confusion of affairs, of one thing I am sure: true to its title, Love Story is well and truly overflowing with love.
The construction of this film is a story in itself, and becomes a vital part of the completed feature. Coming to the end of his (inaugural) Harriet Friedlander Residency in New York City, Habicht stumbled upon a young Russian woman, Masha, carrying a piece of cake on the subway, and subsequently convinced her to take part in his ‘love story’ film project. Now, what to do about plot for this film-within-a-film? Brainwave! Seek help from the people of New York. Armed with a handheld camcorder and one trailing camerawoman, Habicht took to the streets to confront an unsuspecting, and by turns, delighted/annoyed, intrigued/suspicious, reticent/loquacious populace to move his story forward. The camera films these interactions, which make up about two thirds of the movie. The rest is comprised of the ostensible ‘love story’ referred to in the title, and the whole is chaptered by regular intercut sequences of Habicht having Skype catch-ups with his father (back in New Zealand), mostly in subtitled German, talking about the project and receiving advice and feedback. These father-son conversations include some of the funniest, most touching interactions in a film full of such moments.
Where the real blending occurs is not in the documentary versus fictional elements of the film, but in the relationship between Masha and Florian. The pair play themselves in a ‘love story’ featurette, and simultaneously appear to be actually experiencing a real love story of their own. Forget that Habicht (as many have commented) should listen to his psychic/clairvoyant guide and opt stay behind the camera—in my opinion this misses the point—as the fact is that the raw, amateurish feel of the internal ‘mini-film’ makes their true feelings and relationship all the harder to decipher, which in turn gives the film some meaty complexity around themes of reality, experience, authenticity, and how we interpret these in our lives. It would be easy to say that the true love story here is Habicht’s obvious ode to New York City and its meat-and-potatoes inhabitants—and there is certainly much evidence for this broader reading in the documented on-the-street interviews and extended shots of the city—but I would argue that the film’s title encapsulates the personal as much as it does the communal. So, we the viewer, end up getting at least four ‘love stories’ for the price of one:
- Fictional Florian and Masha’s end-to-end romance.
- The possibly mirrored actual romance occurring parallel to the making of the featurette. (It doesn’t even matter whether this is ‘real’ or not, in fact that the ambiguity might be the point.)
- Florian’s love for New York City and its people.
- New Yorkers’ love for their city.
A further broadening of the tone and theme came out in the post-screening discussion, where a number of the crew joined Habicht onstage and effused (in a very understated New Zealand kind of way) about how much they loved being a part of this project, and how enjoyable the production process was.
The latter two love stories (above) are delivered visually through documentary-style interviews and footage, augmented (courtesy of photographer Maria Ines Manchego) by some striking shots of New York locales and views. Manchego shoots with obvious skill and passion, and the thoughtfully framed and composed sequences—such as birds taking wing from a rooftop in the inner city, or a long shot of Masha walking down a street filmed from a tight bend in the road—provide an effective tonal contrast to the often more urgent clandestine feel of the interview material.
Habicht’s deft hand weaves together all of Love Story’s wayward strands into a single joyous, effusive tapestry, which graces the screen beautifully in its own riotous fashion. I see Love Story, particularly in terms of cinematic construction, as a natural companion piece to Rubbings from a Live Man. Both films blur accepted genre boundaries, yet each approaches it from the opposite direction: a kind of yin and yang relationship. It’s cinema Jim, but not as we know it.