Mid-Festival Report 2012:
Transparency and Illumination

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
A sense of emerging new directions for contemporary world cinema marks the halfway point at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut feature of American newcomer Benh Zeitlin, was the opening night film of this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival. In his introduction, festival director Bill Gosden said that it was a terrific but near-impossible film to describe, and so it is. The film has an almost feral urgency that impresses from the get-go, losing momentum only when plot-points need to be advanced, or when the largely non-professional cast occasionally hit the limit of their abilities. Beasts tells the story of Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old girl (remarkably played by Quvenzhané Wallis) attempting to make sense of an uncertain, chaotic, often dangerous world, surviving apocalyptic acts of nature, her father’s harsh, sometimes raging tough-love, and her eventual ‘rite-of-passage’ confrontation with giant ‘Aurochs’, child-eating mythic creatures she imagines have returned to life with the thawing of the icecaps. The film was adapted from a play, and while it may be a little rough-edged in places, Zeitlin and his collaborators have created a wholly cinematic treat that barely hints at its theatrical roots. While Zeitlin has obvious affection for his characters, I struggled to fully buy into his portrayal of these salt-of-the-earth fringe-dwellers. However, I’m sure that most viewers will have no such qualms, and will wholeheartedly embrace this often-mesmerising gem.

Beasts is only one of many films in this year’s programme that convey a sense of emerging new directions for contemporary world cinema, and as I write this at the halfway point of the festival, I anticipate many fresh and inspirational films to come. Admittedly, this impression is partly due to the eye-popping clarity of DCP projection. One could argue that the history of cinema has been a tussle between the contemplative gaze typified by the early wonders of the Lumière brothers and the magical diversions of Méliès, or to put it another way, the never-ending tension between art and commerce. Most would concede that the battle was won long ago, but every new technological advance enables cinematic art to endure. The 2012 programme is packed with films that not only offer proof of the health of cinema today, but also the inspirational potential of new technologies. It was ironic therefore that Side By Side, a documentary about the impact of digital technology on cinema production and exhibition, was projected using the older DigiBeta format—a reminder that with new technology comes new cost for venues, not all of which can instantly afford the upgrade. Despite this, and regardless of the arguments for and against, Side By Side left no doubt that digital is here to stay. Some commentators expressed concerns about the democratisation of the medium, but others reminded us that while the pen is available to everyone there is only one Dostoyevsky. Indeed, there is only one Robert Bresson.

The opportunity to see new work from Russian documentary filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky (Belovy, Sreda, Tishe!) is cause for celebration, even if the premise of his new film, ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, is a tad flimsy (four pairs of global locations that are each others antipodes). The vivid transparency of high-definition digital imagery enhanced Kossakovsky’s largely understated contemplation on the connectedness, interdependence, and majesty of our planet, suggesting a world without borders or boundaries, where the similarities and differences between peoples, places, and all living things speak to our shared commonality and fragility. The film isn’t intended as an overtly grand statement à la The Qatsi Trilogy; in fact, it’s at its weakest when the unchecked use of grandiose music causes moments of unnecessary overemphasis. I had concerns too about the sequences in Shanghai, which have a disconcerting orientalism about them. Perhaps I’m being over-critical here, but the Chinese were viewed at a stereotypically unknowable distance: long-range telephoto shots of hordes of commuters, or people living in decaying inner-city landscapes with whom there was no engagement. The juxtaposition between the relative peace and tranquillity of toll-collecting brothers in rural Argentina with the anonymous bustle of Shanghai was striking, but as commentary it came perilously close to being facile. Perhaps Kossakovsky could be accused of overreaching in a few places, but for the most part the weightless grace of his patient images spoke for themselves. If ¡Vivan las Antipodas! lacks the formal rigour of his previous work (and labours its point somewhat), the textural and aural contrasts, and the various rhymes, reflections, and shifts in perspective offer a giddy, perception-altering view of the Earth that is both philosophically and aesthetically sincere.

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry is a documentary about one of China’s most important contemporary artists and high-profile political dissidents. It’s also about the extraordinary potential of social media (in this case, Twitter) as a powerful tool for political awareness and mobilisation. First-time director Alison Klayman recorded Ai’s activities over a three-year period, from his campaign to generate awareness about the thousands of unreported student casualties in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (the direct result of shoddy building practices), to his arrest (ostensibly for tax evasion) in April 2011. Along the way we follow Ai as he stages his conceptually brilliant Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern, and as he stands up to the oppressive authoritarian system in China. As a portrait of a person of courage and conscience the film is compelling, but there is no real critical analysis of Ai’s work or activities. Questions about his infidelities or his relationship to money, the arts economy, and the gatekeepers and high priests of the art world are pretty much ignored. The film ends on an intriguingly unresolved note as Ai, released from 81-days of internment, uncharacteristically declines to comment—evidently due to bail restrictions. You’ll be hard pressed to find less than glowing reviews of the film, but in fairness, Ai Wei Wei is an inspirational man. His willingness to use his art, reputation and profile to confront political oppression and encourage others to do likewise cannot be over-emphasised.

There’s an interesting moment early in Never Sorry where we apparently see a cat opening a door. We are told that the cat can open doors before we see a shot of it jump up to a door handle, followed by another shot of it walking out the door. We never actually see the cat open the door, but we accept it did because of what we were told, and because of the way the two shots were edited. I’m willing to accept that the cat did open the door (and that the cut was purely expedient), but it highlights the fact that film is intrinsically a manipulative medium. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, the director of The Law In These Parts, goes out of his way to remind us that there is no such thing as an unbiased documentary, telling us that he will only use material that supports his viewpoint in his film. He explains that the formal structure of the film will embody his central theme of political bias, specifically that of an occupying force (Israel) over an occupied people (Palestinians). Comprised of a series of interviews with military and Supreme Court judges who helped draft and/or enforce laws designed to deal with dissent, the film examines the efficacy of these laws by asking the men to discuss cases they have judged. If you have any doubt that justice and law have very little to do with each other, this is the film for you. Alexandrowicz gradually reveals the perfect Catch 22, in which no Israeli judge would question information provided by the Israeli military because to do so would undermine the system that protects them and every other Israeli citizen. It is as blatant an admission of ‘necessary oppression’ as you are likely to hear, a revelation that explains why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so intractable. Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s Five Broken Cameras offers palpable evidence of the daily reality of the Israeli occupation. It focuses on the people of Bil’in, a Palestinian village being steadily eroded by encroaching Israeli settlements. The villagers attempt to maintain their faith in non-violent protest despite overwhelming powerlessness, and without allowing anger to draw them into nihilistic despair. Five Broken Cameras provides an unintended additional chill to the moral expediency depicted in The Law In These Parts. These films inform each other in ways neither could have anticipated, so it’s worth seeing both if you can.

The engaging French animation Le Tableau is a thoughtful parable that intellectually inquisitive children of all ages are sure to relate to. While the film embodies relatively weighty themes (the search for individual identity and spiritual wholeness, privilege and freedom, oppression and powerlessness, the controlling power of class and caste systems, superstition, misinformation and dogma, prejudice and racism), it is in fact as light and delicious as a perfectly judged soufflé. Charming and resolutely life affirming, the film has a vibrant visual palette (a crisp, deep, blemish-free DCP projection) that celebrates the differences between people of all ‘colours and hues’. Perhaps best seen before one moves onto the aforementioned documentaries, as to see it after may take the blush off its rosy optimistic faith in the intrinsic goodness of people.

It might seem an odd choice for the director of Red Road and Fish Tank (films set in harsh and unforgiving urban environments) to tackle Emily Brontë’s hysterical tale of doomed love, but thematically Wuthering Heights sits very neatly alongside Andrea Arnold’s other work. Heavily dependent on others, and in no position to determine their own destiny, the options available to Cathy and Heathcliff are just as limited by economic and social constrictions as they are for characters in her contemporary films. Wuthering Heights also has a similar visceral energy to her previous work, in fact if anything it’s pushed further here, particularly in the first half where you can almost smell the sweat of the horses, the mud in the fields, and the stale air of bedrooms. Arnold’s images have terrific physical presence, perfectly complimented by the art direction, beautifully minimal score, editing, costumes, etc. Even the largely non-professional cast acquit themselves extremely well for the most part, with cracks appearing only when they are required to step it up in the more melodramatic moments of the second half. Nevertheless, the elemental poetry of Arnold’s vision is a wholly captivating cinematic experience, one that not only contains the narcissistic self-destruction of Brontë’s mad young lovers, but that also comes remarkably close to suggesting something near-spiritual within its non-emphatic subtext. The pacing may test some, and others may have an issue with the lack of conventional period tropes, but those with a taste for aesthetically sophisticated restraint are sure to be rewarded.

The Sun Beaten Path is the debut feature of Tibetan cinematographer Sonthar Gyal. Appropriately light on dialogue, this visually accomplished account of a young soul searching for atonement is made with confident understatement. It’s a contemplative road-movie of sorts, the story of a young man wracked by guilt and grief who attempts to exorcise his demons by trekking across a vast and arid Tibetan landscape. Eschewing human contact, young Nima can’t seem to shake the attention of an older world-wise man who takes it upon himself to keep a watchful eye on him. The reason for Nima’s internal crisis and adamant pilgrimage is slowly revealed, and the old man’s simple wisdom provides additional substance to a metaphor about the ultimate journey all of us are on. Formally contained and showing very fine judgment, The Sun Beaten Path is a strong first film from a director worth keeping an eye on.

Apart from the annoying formal device of having something out of focus at the edge of virtually every shot (in an attempt, one presumes, to suggest a lurking cinéma-vérité camera catching life as it happens), Our Children is a solid and respectable attempt to deal with a subject that in lesser hands could have been very unpleasant. The denouement is handled with tact, and it’s fitting that the film leaves more questions unanswered than it presumes to answer, wisely choosing not to offer explanations for infanticide but to instead consider the circumstances of one young mother gradually coming undone. I couldn’t help feeling that the subject matter was too much of a burden on the film, which at times felt like a superior TV movie. The performances were generally fine, especially Emilie Dequenne as the young mother (first seen as the central protagonist in the Dardenne brothers extraordinary Rosetta back in 1999), but the performances from Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup were as mannered as their self-congratulatory turns in the questionable A Prophet a few years back, or so it seemed to me. Perhaps it’s simply one of my blind-spots, but I find it difficult to see passed what seems to me to be acting (or directorial) styles that are self-aware to the point of vanity, where we feel we are being over-sold by actors (or directors) who try too hard to engage our empathy and/or identification. Dequenne on the other hand judged the tone of her performance perfectly.

Another solid but ultimately unsatisfying film was Julian Roman Pölsler’s The Wall (Die Wand). Featuring great acting from Martina Gedeck (a superb solo performance in what must have been a physically demanding role), this visually impressive adaptation of a famous Austrian novel from the 60s was compromised (or diluted in terms of its formal potential) by the profuse use of narration. According to the director, the intention was to create a platform for Marlen Haushofer’s original text (which he regards as one of the great texts in German literature), but I couldn’t help wondering how different the film would have been if the verbose narration had been seriously stripped back, or better still, none at all. Would it have worked? That questioned was answered by Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, a similar film in some respects (a solitary character in isolated circumstances), but entirely free of narration or written dialogue. In The Wall, a woman finds herself inexplicably trapped in the Austrian mountains by an invisible wall. The subsequent events align with the journal she writes during her entrapment (hence the narration), which is generously loaded with philosophical musings and observations about the meaning of existence and the human condition. Given our current environmental vulnerability, The Wall is very timely, thought provoking, intelligent and involving, but it’s far too dominated by text in my view, by what the director saw as “doing justice to Haushofer’s novel.” Of course, no text at all would have made for a much tougher viewing experience. As it was, Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea had a relatively small audience, and even that was to shrink with walkouts before the end, so I accept that while formal austerity can deliver great works of cinematic art, in can be alienating. I overheard comments suggesting that for some viewers The Wall was unconventional and challenging enough, so perhaps that says it all.

Shot on discontinued 16mm Kodak film stock, Two Years at Sea took a bit of adjusting to at first, particularly within the context of a festival dominated by the crisp, high-definition articulation of DCP. The terrific opening shot of Jake Williams (the sole protagonist in this intelligently conceived and executed work) trudging forward through the snowbound Aberdeenshire landscape, establishes the tone for this uncompromisingly measured and contemplative film. The grungy, defiantly low-fi images were much rougher and degraded than I expected, but the film stock and the way Rivers treats it is fundamental to the meaning of the work, where the medium is to a large extent the message. Even the whir of the 35mm projector in the booth seemed integral. The film has the feel of footage discovered in some forgotten archive, perhaps many years in the future when we have all become DCP projections. It is in fact an ode to all things analogue, a film reminiscent at times of the spirit of Eustache, Rouch, and Garrel (among many others), with an almost glacial pace that should have made it a contender for the “Go Slow” section of the programme (as could a number of other films for that matter, such as The Loneliest Planet). As the themes are slowly revealed, the inherent poetry of the work comes to the fore. A key moment occurs when Jake constructs a raft and sets out on a lake to slowly (very slowly) and quietly do a spot of fishing. The result is a mesmerising passage of existential stillness that will inform every scene that follows. At times, the images have the almost apocalyptic feeling of early Sokurov, Tarkovsky or Tarr; in fact, the long Rembrandt-like closing shot reminded me of the final shot of The Turin Horse, with its similarly powerful, sombre implications. Two Years at Sea requires patience and concentration from the viewer, inviting us to reflect on our place in the world, our contribution to it, and our values and aspirations. Only cinema this open and contemplative can offer the viewer this degree of reflexivity, and it is rare to find a film with such an agenda so firmly integrated into its formal construction. While the wonders of DCP projection dominate this year’s festival, it’s telling that one of the most spiritually affecting films of the programme has been the most technically archaic.

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2012 opens in Auckland on July 19, Dunedin on July 26, Wellington on July 27, Christchurch on August 9, and the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.