Distractions and Denouements:
Final Thoughts on NZIFF 2011

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
As ominous clouds gathered both on and off the screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival, nothing could deny the quality of cinema, nor for that matter the event’s staying power and relevance.

Online chatter around the New Zealand International Film Festival this year trended towards the behaviour of audiences when films weren’t on the agenda—a shame, given that Internet film criticism in this country remains largely underdeveloped, and come festival time, could do without ill-tempered bloggers drawing the conversation away from the unique and challenging cinema on offer. Though certainly valid, the most visible complaints directed at talkers, cellphone users, and perennial latecomers came across as overheated rants, vented after the fact and from the comfort of home. It’s apparent to me, at least, that if cinema etiquette is so blatantly ignored by some, it is partly perpetuated by adjacent audience members unwilling to lift a finger—the bystander effect, or ironically, politeness at work. Granted, confrontation isn’t in everyone’s vocabulary (nor our national character, it has been noted), and documenting one’s frustrations online is a reasonable response to having a perfectly good movie ruined by some bonehead with an iPhone. But I would much rather see disgruntlement—short of actually making it known to the person in the moment—relegated to the din of status updates than threaten to dominate the blogosphere during the festival, where in spite of all the whinging, some decent film commentary has emerged. (Hugh Lilly’s Cinefile is definitely worth a look, as is Doug Dillaman’s blog post inspired by Steve Garden’s opening Post-Festival Report.)

At the same time, I must confess to being spared the problems recounted by other less fortunate patrons of the festival. I can’t recall a single bad experience with audiences in Wellington this winter, and if there were sessions blighted by inconsiderate filmgoers, I did well to avoid them. Reports of substandard projection out of Auckland held no bearing either: apart from a mid-screening correction of the framing on Meek’s Cutoff (“Kelly Reichardt was asking for trouble,” joked Bill Gosden in reference to the director’s use of the old Academy aspect ratio), the presentation of every film I attended was immaculate. Touch wood, though: regardless of whether things go according to plan, there’s a nagging feeling that the festival continues to tough it out each year in an increasingly cheerless climate. Organisers by now must be resigned to the churlish feedback that rears its ugly head each year—unduly centred, as usual, on ticket prices and programme omissions—even when they outdo themselves by reeling in their biggest catch from Cannes. And the question grates: whether social networking, with its contagion of moaners and haters, adversely affects the festival’s bottom line in the same way piracy or a recessionary mindset does. It’s impossible to say, except that the influence of opinion on Facebook and Twitter is more pervasive than ever.

A welcome diversion was the festival’s 40th Anniversary in Wellington, commemorated with a fine digital restoration of Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos. Studied, yet mysterious in its impression of the elusive childhood experience—heightened, to no end, by the perturbing presence of one-of-a-kind child actress, Ana Torrent—Saura’s allegorical masterpiece certainly fit the occasion, where long-time associates were invited to delve into their own memories of festivals past. Looking back on highlights (and lowlights) with good humour, their positive testimonials provided a much-needed affirmation of the festival’s staying power and relevance. Indeed, it’s extraordinary that ticket holders have accounted for more than 90% of the festival’s profit in recent times. As another year rolls by without the backing of a principal sponsor, this audience support remains crucial—not only to the festival’s reputation and viability, but also to the wellbeing of film culture in New Zealand. In his personal recollection, Russell Campbell reminds us that cinemagoers were, at one time, “deprived of all the bold, imaginative, experimental and disturbing films… emerging from all corners of the world,” and although the playing field has levelled considerably, the role the festival plays in facilitating the diversity and flow of movies into the country has not diminished in importance. The obstacle that outdated legislation poses to the availability of international cinema is still hugely restrictive (especially when it comes to local distribution), and if not for the festival’s expansive programming, the collected works of auteurs such as Bela Tarr, Hong Sang-soo, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and the late Raul Ruiz (whose Mysteries of Lisbon was a joy to behold on the Embassy screen) would have never seen the light of a projector.

Grateful as I’m sure most of us are for the opportunity to see these films in an actual cinema, there’s no escaping the ubiquity of electronic media, and to a generation privileged by digital technology, the impact and community of the theatrical viewing experience is no longer necessarily preferred. (Much to the outrage of David Lynch, as conveyed in this well-circulated clip.) But as the means by which we watch and obtain movies have drastically altered over the past two decades, the future of film seems troubled less by mutations to the medium than the sudden explosion of choice. By deserting “the cinema” and becoming the custodian of our own “home theatre,” where our experience of movies is shaped by unlimited choice and access, do we run the risk of fracturing our connection to film in its fundamental form? Does a passion for cinema, when spilling over into fetishism and completism (through the obsessive collection and consumption of movies), actually limit our perspective of the world? And as liberating as it is to have an infinite archive of titles at our fingertips—whether it be through DVD, online streaming, or clandestine file sharing—are we also not prone to paralysis, where we might just as likely be frozen by the sheer volume of choice?

Without elaborating any further on the discourse around cinephilia in the 21st century, these were just some of the lingering issues that entered my mind during A Useful Life, the programming of which couldn’t have been timelier. Though sobering in its reflection on the abandonment of cinemas and the frailty of arts institutions, Federico Veiroj’s artfully poised film struck me as equal parts homage and elegy, with the concept of curation upheld as a meaningful one in this overwhelming information age. Far from pitying the cinephile-as-hermit, Veiroj affords the subject—a benevolent, tirelessly devoted cinematheque employee named Jorge—a degree of dignity and stoicism in his otherwise insulated existence. In honouring the curatorial efforts of Jorge and his colleagues, examples of pure film boffinry (sorting through screeners for an Icelandic cinema retrospective, discussing the calibration of projectors, hyping a forthcoming series dedicated to Manoel de Oliveira) are beautifully played out against scenes of humbling, everyday work (balancing the books, maintaining the venue’s worn out seating, drumming up annual memberships)—a sort of reverence through relatability. As for whether cinema is in fact dead, or merely being reinvented, Veiroj crucially allows for the question to remain alive, if not open to the possibility that a love of movies and a true understanding of the world are not mutually exclusive, but entwined. This potential for reconciliation is expressed wonderfully in A Useful Life’s modest finale, where Jorge, having been forced from the shelter of the movie theatre following its permanent closure, plucks up the courage to ask a woman on a date. Both a “surrender to escapism” as I first described it, and a liberating escape, Jorge’s last act may have been one of the festival’s smallest in scale, yet in light of my own thinking around the nature of film appreciation, also one of its most profound.

I should hasten to add that another excellent South American film, Pablo Giorgelli’s Camera d’Or winner Las acacias, triumphed with an ending of improbable potency—blink, and you were likely to miss its breathtaking seize-the-day moment. Not everyone I’ve spoken to has responded to the film’s underplayed, overwhelming emotions, and so incredibly subtle was its delivery of human feeling that I’m not surprised it passed some viewers by completely. Its secret, however, was to know exactly when to speak, and when to shut up—something other less tactful filmmakers (erhm, Lars von Trier) ought to take note of. As for the be all and end all of the festival, that honour went squarely to The Turin Horse, Bela Tarr’s arresting and definitive march towards mortality. Marking his retirement from filmmaking with this final opus, the Hungarian auteur consciously acknowledges his mortality as an artist—a staggering irony, given that the images he’s created (in collaboration with the great cinematographer, Fred Keleman) are nothing short of immortal, many of which are seared into my permanent memory. (The potato eating scenes, for instance, have been etched into my mind ever since.) The one genuine masterwork programmed, Tarr’s film took us to the very ends of the Earth—as Jonathan Rosembaum explains, “it goes beyond any necessity to reach final conclusions about anything but extinction”—and because of its utter conclusiveness, not in terms of what it says about the human condition, but what it simply puts forth, it must be admired.

While it may sound like a contradiction, The Turin Horse spoke powerfully of the creation and possibility of cinema through its pursuit of The End—more so than the programme’s other existential epic, The Tree of Life, a fascinating mess that I will nonetheless reserve judgement on until a second viewing can be had. As the most high-profile opening night film in recent memory, Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner offered a polarising introduction to the fortnight’s prevailing theme, for this was truly a festival of life and death matters. Regrettably, the grandiosity of von Trier’s self-parodying Melancholia—named so after a fictional planet on a collision course with Earth, as well as a persistent feeling of depression that the protagonists experience and the director himself has openly struggled with—overshadowed a far superior movie about End Times and contemporary malaise. Refreshingly literal in its approach to modern anxiety, Take Shelter is the most rational film about mental illness that I can recall. Played by a compelling Michael Shannon, the central character’s premonitions of a rapture-like disaster are anything but rational, however it is the methodical exploration of those visions—both what’s causing them, and how they are affecting the recipient—that makes the piece absolutely convincing. Ordinarily, delusion is exploited for ambiguity or viewer disorientation, often within the realms of dream logic; here, it is given a rare dose of self-awareness, as Shannon’s Ohio family man to attempts to diagnose and treat his madness (through a series of straightforward doctor and counsellor visits), all while grappling with its destructive force and other external pressures on the horizon (namely, a failing economy and its stress on the working class home owner). Director Jeff Nichols places Shannon at the eye of the storm, and it is this unusual calm that makes Take Shelter so damn terrifying. Although the denouement ultimately betrays the script’s thoughtful response to this imaginary terror, how it ends—or specifically, how it is interpreted—seems beside the point. Such is the congruity of an entirely different, but absolutely compatible reading of the film by a friend of mine, who considers it “a poetic expression of how, in an irrational way, family bonds and trust mean more than the fate of the entire world.”

To that end, Take Shelter reinforces the love of family in spite of an act of God, whereas The Tree of Life asserts that the family and cosmos are inextricably linked. Malick’s visualisation of life as we know it and how it was conceived before us was undoubtedly thought provoking (unlike any Hollywood movie I can remember), however it would be a great disservice to continue to discuss it in shorthand, if not in the same breath to overlook another beautiful film, Le quattro volte—for me, the more clear-sighted and wondrous celebration of the “circle of life.” Admittedly, Michelangelo Frammartino’s wordless quasi-documentary does not begin promisingly: it chronicles, rather unremarkably, the quotidian routine of a frail old shepherd who tends to his goatherd in a mountainous region of rural Calabria, Italy. But while at first going through the motions of art cinema minimalism—a disciplined formalism of “real time” silences, long takes, and static camera set-ups that, no matter how essential as an antidote to the conventional wisdom on film narrative and visual grammar, has arguably reached the point of saturation—the film soon carves its own distinctive path with the second of its “four times” (as its title translates), brought about incidentally by the passing and arrival of life. More than simply an adoption of style as dictated by a meditative vision of nature and regeneration, Le quattro volte also magically eschews—indeed, there is no other way to describe its extraordinary choreography of baby goats and a now-legendary sheepdog—the prevailing trend for stasis in movies as contemplative as this. Within Frammartino’s still focus, there’s an enormous amount of latitude for constant, organic motion—from the rotation of the planet, to the changing of seasons, to the process of photosynthesis via, quite literally, a tree of life—that makes for a work as awestruck and reverential about life as Malick’s, albeit on an entirely different wavelength.

The “house style” of art cinema was certainly in liberal supply at the festival this year, and its increasing familiarity calls for greater scrutiny from critics and audiences alike. One such exponent under the spotlight was Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose two previous films, Climates (2006) and Three Monkeys (2008), were received with as much scepticism as praise: “all film-fest friendly smoke-and-mirrors,” wrote one reviewer, as others fawned over the Turkish auteur’s brooding evocation of Tarkovsky and Antonioni. I’m one of the doubters, having been unconvinced by the heavy-handedness of Ceylan’s craft since the memorable Uzak (2002). Like those former works, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a robust and poetic mood piece in its own right, but in a welcome progression, Ceylan plunges us deeper beneath the surface. As straightforward as it sounds, Ceylan’s employment of the police procedural genre—a readymade investigative framework—and his stubborn refusal to condense the Chekhovian narrative is the key to the film’s porousness. Where Three Monkeys was a stodgy and ponderous crime story, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s moral tale achieves a clarity and coherency beyond the haunting imagery, which the director is an undeniably a master of. While there’s no disputing that Ceylan’s films tend to exist (and sometimes, flounder) on a moment-to-moment basis (even when those moments are stunning), the whole of his latest is, for once, more than the sum of its parts. Who would have thought that another filmmaker could follow the conceptually brilliant Police, Adjective so soon with an equally engrossing, if aesthetically and philosophically individual film about bureaucracy, responsibility, guilt, and compromise?

Traditionally the most fruitful section of the festival, and the one I look most forward to each year, the “New Directions” programme felt a little short on originality. Instead, films by other filmmakers were constantly echoed in the thematic and formal designs of first and second-time directors—not always a bad thing, especially when the source of inspiration is an exceptional one. Take Pia Marais’s inconsistent At Ellen’s Age—a nonetheless engaging study of dislocation and identity that, as Steve Garden notes, tantalizingly approaches something akin to Claire Denis. More on my mind, though, were the nomadic stories of another important female filmmaker, Chantel Akerman, particularly the semi-autobiographical Les Rendez-vous D’Anna (1978), a film attuned to “the difficulty of fitting in, of feeling at home, of being,” as critic Dennis Lim wrote of her central themes. Even more conspicuous in resemblance was Maurice Pialat’s influence over Love Like Poison, a sound, sensitively made portrait of a fourteen-year-old girl’s ambivalence towards sex and the Catholic faith. Katell Quillévéré’s debut feature can’t escape the ghost of Pialat’s À Nos Amours (To Our Loves, 1983)—right down to the uncanny likeness between actress Clara Augarde and a young Sandrine Bonnaire—however clear to see in the performances and emotional exchanges is a heart and soul all of its own. Wisely, Quillévéré also privileges the struggle of characters on the periphery, whose angst and internal conflict is as salient as the personal turmoil of her protagonist: principally, the role of the village priest (Stefano Cassetti), an affable, easy-going spiritual confidant in person, yet in private, a man wrestling with desire and, in a glimpse of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, his service to God.

Pialat’s presence was again felt in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s sturdy The Kid with a Bike. Ignoring the brothers’ strong lineage to Bresson and their film’s apparent nod to Bicycle Thieves, I was immediately transported back to L’enfance nue (Naked Childhood, 1968), Pialat’s superb debut about a troublesome foster child shuffled from one surrogate family to the next. Unfortunately, the Dardennes’ film nears sentimentality where Pialat’s holds firm—an unusual concession underscored by the non-diegetic use of music (nonexistent in their body of work until now), and the casting of French beauty Cécile De France (somewhat stiff against the remarkable candour of youngster Thomas Doret). I would hardly write off the brothers for softening their stance though, for as orthodox as The Kid with a Bike appears to the sceptical eye (it meets all the criteria for arthouse exhibitors catering to the blue-rinse set), their social realist methods have never been more durable, their technique never more fluent. As other critics have recognised, the Dardennes’ footprint on modern cinema—as significant as Michael Haneke’s, whose pall over the riveting Michael was oppressive, but in no way detrimental—cannot be underestimated. However, even Haneke cannot claim to have swayed the Hollywood mainstream (i.e. Darren Aronofsky)—reason, if ever there was one, to accept no imitations.

Unthinkable as it may have been only a few festivals ago, 3-D cinema made a splash this year courtesy of two German stalwarts: Pina, on the face of it a Wim Wenders film, but in spirit one authored by the late choreographer Philippina Bausch (and by proxy, her performers), was an irresistible celebration of radical dance invention; while Cave of Forgotten Dreams, furnished with mesmerizing visuals, and some downright silly ones, lacked the fire of Werner Herzog’s best work, save for an eccentric epilogue about radioactive albino alligators. As this big screen gimmick has only just infiltrated the arthouse circuit, thus retaining of modicum of novelty, neither 3-D feature had trouble filling seats. Meanwhile, some of the “stragglers” that either caught my eye, or left a lot to be desired: Na Hong-jin’s electric new thriller, The Yellow Sea, an unmistakable Korean crime caper on account of its endless knife violence and bludgeoning; The Forgiveness of Blood, Joshua Marston’s solid follow-up to Maria Full of Grace, noteworthy for its absorbing nonprofessional actors and fascinating milieu dissected by tradition and modernity; Incendies, easily the most calculated film of the festival, if one that matched the anticipation of revelation with a scene of startling implicitness; and, the contrasting fortunes of She Monkeys and Circumstance, the former a remote yet inquisitive coming-of-age drama centred on the fraught attraction between two teenage girls, the latter an airbrushed soap opera that smacked of lipstick lesbianism (despite the best intentions of director Maryam Keshavarz, whose homosexual-themed story was clearly a risky proposition to set in Iran).

As successfully as the blurb pitched Andrew Haigh’s Weekend beyond the parameters of gay cinema, I couldn’t help but feel that less people wound up seeing it at the festival than if it had been made as a heterosexual romance, or more pitifully, a fashionable bromance. What’s interesting about Haigh’s script—besides the fact that it is very good, of course—is that it directly confronts any misgivings or awkwardness the viewer may have towards the notion of “gay movies,” whether those movies contain love, sex, friendship, heartbreak, or all of the above. Pushed through the character of Glen (Chris New), a brash, wiseacre artist who’s out-and-proud, and against his conservative, semi-closeted love interest, Russell (Tom Cullen), the film’s discussion of gay politics isn’t always fruitful, and due largely to the polemic behind Glen’s amateur art provocation (an audio project revolving around taped conversations about homosexual intercourse, and by extension, homophobia and gay representations in media), digresses occasionally into the material of a first year Gender Studies paper. However, it’s the fine balance Haigh strikes between the contrived and the organic that gives Weekend its note-perfect quality, and part of its pleasure is witnessing the director and actors get it so right.

The film is almost too neat and tidy in places—the way Glen and Russell are exact opposites, an ideal flash point for conflict and attraction, or more revealing, the archetypes of classic unrequited love stories that their push-pull magnetism is obviously based on—and yet such is the naturalism of the performances and the visual treatment that one barely notices in the moment. Only after the poignancy of the finale has worn off does the arrangement of the film and the deliberateness of the structure become fully apparent, though rather than cloud its verisimilitude, these designs actually colour it. And if we listen closely to Glen’s diatribe about the hypocrisy of movie audiences (who, according to him, will watch pictures with war and refugees in it, but avoid anything with gay sex), or glimpse the mirror image of Russell, a reflection of every person who’s felt ashamed to come out, we recognise that the film is making a statement too. In a triumph of normalcy, Weekend is about as “straight” as movie romances come: an old-fashioned brief encounter whose narrative model is interchangeable with the boy-meets-girl scenario of a dozen affairs to remember, from Roman Holiday, to Summertime, to Before Sunrise, to Cairo Time. Haigh’s lovers, no matter what their sexual orientation, get to experience the same highs and lows of the couples inseparable from the iconic screen romances; they get to roam in the same world, one full of universal gut emotion, but also pure cinematic fantasy. And if the film’s intentions weren’t clear enough, it ends, as so many of its predecessors have famously before, on a train platform, an imminent departure hanging over its richly drawn characters. While much was written about Weekend’s virtues prior to its arrival here, it still felt like a discovery, and that’s all I, or anyone else, can really ask of the festival: to continue to surprise. Though I can only speak for the last decade as a dedicated festivalgoer, so far, so good.

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2011 continues throughout the country until November. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.