Berlinale Dispatch #5: Two Kiwis in Berlin—Maori Boy Genius, Two Little Boys

FILM, Film Festivals
Hobbits and elfin glades fade from the mind at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival.

A few years ago, a Vincent Ward retrospective ran at a film festival in Poland. What he liked about it, a Polish journalist told me this week, is that it showed such a different side of New Zealand to the one in The Lord of the Rings.

Maori Boy Genius: Volume I and Two Little Boys, the two Kiwi feature-length films accepted to the Berlin International Film Festival this year, will be a further education to Europeans—and perhaps to a few of those at home.

Pietra Brettkelly’s latest documentary Maori Boy Genius is a moving, polished work with a remarkable subject: 16-year-old Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti, a charming, disarming teen who might just become a great political leader.

The press kit for the film puts it like this: “At four, he learnt English. At 12, he began his first university degree. At 14, he Googled international politics and came up with Yale University… What if you could turn back the clock and watch the minds forming of those who would create political zeitgeist shifts in the future?”

It’s too early to make that kind of claim and I can’t help wondering about the wisdom of adding to the obvious pressure on Ngaa Rauuira. But he’s an exceptional individual and his story will no doubt inspire others to follow suit.

The film has the kind of narrative arc and visual polish more commonly found in dramatic fiction. Brettkelly (The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins) shares the considerable credit for this with Danish master editor Molly Stensgaard, most recently known for her work on Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. A hikoi (to protest the Marine and Coastal Area Bill) is used in the film as a kind of coda; the dramatic tension when we wonder if Ngaa Rauuira will succeed at Yale is impeccable. The stakes are high. Because of his age, he’s ineligible for a scholarship, so his family—on a modest income—have taken out a loan to pay the US$35,000 university bill.

There’s humour here (Ngaa Rauuira holding up a work by Aristotle, “this is mean”; his mate’s “old school poppin’ and lockin’”). There’s grief and anger, too, in the Maori youth incarceration and suicide statistics that open the film, at the inability of Ngaa Rauuira and his grandfather to speak together in te reo.

It’s a brave film for both Brettkelly and Ngaa Rauuira. Here’s looking to Volume II.

You’re in for a rough—and highly entertaining—ride with Two Little Boys, the Sarkies brothers’ first feature film together since Scarfies (1999).

It’s a darker, more subversive film than Scarfies but brings plenty of laughs along with it. Invercargill bogans Nige (Bret McKenzie) and Deano (Hamish Blake) are flatmates and best mates for life—or were, until Nige committed friendship infidelity with Gav (Maaka Pohatu) and got himself thrown out of the flat.

When dim, panicky Nige runs over a Scandinavian backpacker in the middle of the night and turns to his old mate for help, Deano leaps at the chance to win him back. Cue the obvious solution: drive away to the Catlins with big, saintly Gav in the backseat and a decaying, hacked-up body in the boot.

Nige becomes determined to pull away from Deano’s disastrous influence. Deano is equally determined to keep him there. Meanwhile, they just can’t seem to get rid of the body. Gav is cheerfully oblivious.

It’s the first feature film lead for each of the three main actors, who do a stellar job of it. The characters and dynamics are exaggerated, true, but there are some home truths about Kiwi masculinity and mateship lying in wait beneath. The pairing of spectacular South Island scenery—coast, waterfall, sheep spilling across golden paddocks—with the rough as guts plot works well in a similar way.

Robert Sarkies (director) didn’t make the film’s Berlin premiere but brother Duncan (writer) did. His explanation of the concept of “bogan” to a Berlin audience was priceless—“where did you get the idea for such funny characters?”—though might have been a sign not all the jokes made it through.

All up, if these are the films that help The Lord of The Rings fade from Europe’s first thoughts of New Zealand cinema, then I’m all in favour of it.

Nina Fowler’s dispatches for The Lumière Reader will continue throughout the Berlin International Film Festival, which runs from February 9-19.