A trio of encounters at the New Zealand International Film Festival. By JOE SHEPPARD.

AFTER collaborating with the Berliner Philharmoniker in earlier festival hit Rhythm Is It!, German director Thomas Grube secured unprecedented access to the brilliant and famously autonomous orchestra and filmed their tour of East Asia’s grand cities. The resulting documentary Trip to Asia: The Quest for Harmony is as much a journey of self-discovery for the filmmaker as it is for the 120-odd musicians and flamboyant conductor Sir Simon Rattle, all of whom explore the tensions implicit in being an individual – and often a perfectionist – working collaboratively in search of the artistic sublime.

Throughout the road trip Grube treats the orchestra as a discrete entity with a life of its own, scrutinising its personality and culture by interviewing the members, who reveal frank opinions, doubts, hopes and insecurities. The wise owls of the old guard are juxtaposed with four young musicians who discuss their probationary period – for at the end of the tour, this democratic orchestra will vote on whether or not they may join the group. Sir Simon is an impeccably British leader, a private and polite voice among more forthright and philosophical Germans, yet all are united in the search for the greater achievement of harmony (Einklang).

Grube’s exotic photography makes for some very pleasant interludes to the introspection of these intense outsiders, along with the stirring orchestral rehearsals and performances of course. But Trip to Asia is at its most charming when Grube stumbles across those unexpected and special moments of cross-cultural adventure and discovery known well to seasoned travellers. The master classes in Shanghai are simply hilarious, and the sight of Taipei’s enormous Liberty Square filled with adoring fans clearly touched Sir Simon. One violinist hunted butterflies in Hong Kong’s gardens on his day off, while two colleagues assembled immaculate racing bikes for an exhilarating ride out of the megacity.

The swelling dynamics of the two heroic centrepieces – Richard Strauss’s Heldenleben and Beethoven’s third symphony – are supported by the challenging polyrhythms and eccentricities of Thomas Adès’s Asyla, as well as an original and innovative score composed from the sounds of the trip. In the end Grube’s journey into the Orient demystifies much of the stuffy tradition and inflexible elitism that unfortunately still dog classical music, as the musicians, conductor and filmmaker open up to the world the richness of human emotion and expression we all share as individual members of our social groupings.

I CRINGED my way through Humpday as indie writer / director (and supporting actor) Lynn Shelton hilariously exposed the blinkered bravado and sulky intolerance underpinning the relationship between two confused beasts – thirty-something suburban male Ben and his long-lost friend Andrew, an art-school drop-out and aging bohemian. The laughs are chiefly mined from miscommunication and the actors are clearly given rein to wander as freely as Shelton’s shaky hand-held camera, but there’s a clear sense of logic and control at play that staggers surely to an inexorable conclusion.

Ben and Andrew’s uneasy reunion – as they justify to each other their different paths walked over the years – is exacerbated by Ben’s picket-fenced wife Anna, who is now looking for a baby to complete the postcard ideal of family life. The two lads quickly ditch the wife and find themselves drinking and toking at the flat of a lesbian that Andrew “typically” met at some coffee shop that afternoon. While “Dionysing” they concoct a high-concept and utterly crazy “art project”: for this year’s Humpfest – Seattle’s art festival that aims to reclaim pornography from the trench coats and sex addicts – Andrew and Ben will have sex on film as two heterosexual men. It’s “beyond gay”, representing both the redemption of Ben’s squashed liberal roots and Andrew’s last chance to actually achieve something with his life.

So begins a riotous game of sexual chicken. (Of course Ben will easily talk Anna around, and if Andrew has second thoughts he doesn’t have to go through with it, and so on). With this simple scenario Shelton has tapped into a similar well of so-real-it-hurts embarrassment that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant did with The Office. I would defy any dude not to admit at least an ounce of their own stupidity or pride is reflected in one of the male leads, whose paranoid self-consciousness and hyper-analytical minds fail so spectacularly to recognise their own dysfunctions and poor decisions. Like that hangover the morning after a night spent talking shit, Humpday is a wonderfully awkward mess best watched between closed fingers.

CANADIAN-American director Astra Taylor has also distilled and bottled a very simple premise to devastating effect with Examined Life, where she pretty much just nails down and chats to eight of contemporary philosophy’s heavyweight thinkers for ten minutes a piece. For all the philosophy majors out there, that’s Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler – but these aren’t impenetrable texts from ivory towers so much as walks along the many paths of wisdom in the garden of human experience, not a million miles away from the informal chats that Socrates would hold in the Athenian agora.

To her credit, Taylor lets the philosophers do the talking, and it’s obvious that Zizek and especially West are no strangers to celluloid – the Slovenian psychoanalyst dons a high-visibility vest to stage his essay on ecology in a colourful rubbish dump, checking out the skin mags and half-eaten burgers along the way. Next to investigations into more conventional topics such as ontology, ethics, justice and that most sympotic and human of themes – love – are fresh challenges that threaten to smack us all in the face over the next century, such as globalisation, disability rights and revolution.

Each philosopher must also play raconteur and MC if they are to reach the full potential of the popular audience that film grants them, and aside from dropping formidable reading lists and radical conclusions, the flashes of wit and digressions into unchartered waters are often more exciting than the theses each academic has spent a lifetime defending and polishing. Poor Hardt literally runs aground on rocks as he discusses revolution from a rowboat in Central Park, while an airport terminal proved to be an inspired choice for Appiah’s piece on cosmopolitanism. Best of all the broad brushstrokes of the format afford no room for detailed footnotes or self-indulgence.

I left the matinee session of Examined Life in that rare state an excellent documentary can reach: hungry for action, crammed full of a dizzying medley of brilliant ideas, galvanised by an intense empathy for fellow mankind, and never once patronised or manipulated by excessive dogma or rhetoric.

See also:
» Thomas Grube’s Trip to Asia
» Thinking Aloud: Examined Life