Parting thoughts and reflections on the New Zealand International Film Festival from TIM WONG and DOUG DILLAMAN.
This year’s NZIFF has been a strange one for me personally: I haven’t been writing about the festival, and I’ve only managed to see a fraction of the films I usually make it to on account of having my own film to worry about. Within that bubble, I’ve found it much harder to gauge the mood or attendance numbers; that it’s shaping up to be a record festival in terms of box office is a pleasant surprise. Indeed, in a year where two ‘difficult’ filmmakers occupied the Opening Night and Centrepiece slots—bold programming decisions I can’t praise enough—there is no better endorsement for the festival than the full houses The Lobster and The Assassin regularly played to throughout.
At one of the post-screening Q+As for Out of the Mist, I was asked why documentaries didn’t feature more prominently in my alternate history of New Zealand Cinema, to which I responded that our documentary filmmaking has always seemed in good health, and is not nearly as compromised as other modes of filmmaking in this country. We’ve certainly never been shy about making political documentaries, with the likes of Merata Mita, Barry Barclay, and the Vanguard Films Collective responsible for picking up the slack left by our largely apolitical feature filmmaking record. This shortfall was no more evident than in the festival’s Aotearoa line-up, which apart from its short film sidebar, comprised entirely of arts and social documentaries. Meanwhile, the two lone New Zealand features, Deathgasm and Turbo Kid, were out-and-out genre films tailor-made for the Incredibly Strange crowd. (Both were co-produced by the section’s longtime curator Ant Timpson—“conflict of interest be damned,” read the programme notes.)
After 2014’s purple patch on the local film production front, one might put the lack of serious narrative filmmaking down to seasonal factors—as an indication of the tide, there will be no New Zealand Film Awards this year due to insufficient nominees—or the notion that documentary is more conducive to addressing ‘reality’ head on. But I would argue that this absence will always be conspicuous at a festival bristling with world cinema that, year in year out, is consistently challenging and experimental in form and often deeply personal and political in nature. True to form, political narratives were both implicit and explicit in many of the films I encountered, namely Mustang, Cemetery of Splendour, and Tehran Taxi, and others I missed but was urged to see. The power of allegory was strong too, particularly in The Lobster, a satire of the kind of unyielding, one-size-fits-all society (to borrow a phrase from Brannavan Gnanalingam’s perceptive political analysis of said films) that stamps out difference and diversity. Under the film’s totalitarian regime, bisexuality is forbidden (one must either be straight or gay), a pointed statement that, when applied to culture, has grave implications for artists and thinkers whose practice relies on a fluid approach to history, gender, identity, and so on. Counteracting a homogenous culture, at least one that affects the making and reception of art, was also very much at the crux of Out of the Mist.
As it turns out, the best and most profoundly political film of the festival was a documentary. Improbably, The Look of Silence is an even better film than The Act of the Killing—less a sequel or companion piece than a corrective, where the victims now have the floor. Still present are the gut wrenching interviews with living war criminals who regale us with their kill lists and slaughter techniques enacted during the Indonesian genocide of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists. While the sheer horror of those testimonies will never dull, it is met with a kind of poetic justice in the form of the courageous Adi, the film’s quiet truth seeker, and a more cogent aesthetic treatment from director Joshua Oppenheimer. The power of The Look of Silence comes not so much through its confrontation of killers as its study of faces, and the way the simple act of eye contact can draw decades of unspoken guilt and humanity to the surface. Its devastating stillness also reminds us of the power of cinema in a cinema, for this was a film where facing the story and the image, in silence and darkness, was everything.
- The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Indonesia, 2014)
- Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
- The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)
- Lonesome w/ Lawrence Arabia and Carnivorous Plant Society (Paul Fejos, USA, 1928)
- Tehran Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
- The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece/Ireland/UK)
- Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, Columbia/Venezuela/Argentina)
- Phoenix (Christian Petzold, Germany/Poland, 2014)
- A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, Sweden, 2014)
- Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Turkey/France/Germany)
Let’s not get in to the whys, but for me personally, the festival was a bit of a washout this year; not in terms of its (excellent) programming selections, but in the number I could make it to, and the smaller number still I stayed awake during. (This isn’t including the session that I had severe chills during, or the one where I nearly passed out during its penultimate shot.) I missed Miike, Maddin, films by friends, word-of-mouth hits, and films I’d been anticipating for almost a year. Let’s hope that in 2016, NZIFF has the foresight to schedule the festival at a time when my body isn’t in a state of collapse.
As such, I feel that a top ten is inappropriate. But I do wish to single out some highlights, in whole and in part.
The Arabian Nights trilogy, Miguel Gomes’s dissection of recent austerity measures in Portugal as semi-refracted through the lens of an ancient masterwork, is a willfully distended, wooly, messy film, and one whose ultimate conclusion may work better for those who are obsessed with finches. (Word has it Gomes was considering making this section a stand-alone feature; excised from this trilogy, Arabian Nights might have been my highlight.) But my favorite breathless tight-rope act of the festival was the centerpiece of Volume 2, “Tears of the Judge”, in which a hearing at an outdoor amphitheatre involving a seemingly simple dispute escalates cartoonishly out of control without ever losing sight of the trenchant issues facing the poor. As a standalone 45 minutes—book-ended by two of the most distinctly confrontational images of the festival—nothing approached it for essential viewing.
My favourite feature, notable for its esoteric yet thoroughly consistent stylistic realisation, was The Duke of Burgundy. Peter Strickland’s previous feature, Berberian Sound Studio, might pip it to the post as far as an aesthetic object, but its depiction of a foley artist losing his mind in Italy had no particular thematic resonance for me. But in Burgundy, Strickland has taken ostensibly outre subject matter—ooh, a lesbian BDSM romance!—and stripped it down to a nakedly emotional story about the realities of any relationship where the demands of one party result in the dissatisfaction of the other. Managing to universalise this highly specific milieu (one with multiple lectures on lepidoptery) is feat enough; to do so while paying tribute to Jess Franco and Stan Brakhage in the same film is mind-boggling.
Hardly exceptional but thoroughly enjoyed by myself was While We’re Young, a film my colleague Brannavan Gnanalingam took exception to for choosing to depict the life of creative people. While perhaps this milieu is over-represented (and, at the risk of appearing ungrateful, Pedro Costa’s Horse Money or Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before or Storm Children, all notably absent this year, might have gone some way to redressing this), I found Noah Baumbach’s take on the aging creative class to be, despite my colleague’s complaints, thoroughly resonant—and even more thoroughly entertaining. That such a film, which feels like a natural for a two-month run at arthouse theatres, is heading to video shortly says something disturbing about the expanded mission of the NZIFF. If films like this, A Most Violent Year, and Ex Machina—all above-average entertainments, far more accessible than average festival fare—can’t get theatrical runs in this country, the system as we knew it is irretrievably broken. The consolation prize is that such entertainments can be perfect mid-festival tonics, breaks from heady fare. The fear is that they may eventually crowd heady fare out.
A few stray superlatives: Colin Farrell gave my favorite performance of the festival in The Lobster, a film that translated Lanthimos’s sensibilities into English surprisingly effectively and stands comfortably alongside Dogtooth and Alps in his oeuvre of casual surrealism, moments of unexpected cruelty, and arch performance. I found myself ultimately frustrated by The Assassin, perhaps a personal failing, but its title card may have been the single most rapturous shot of the festival. Our editor Tim Wong’s Out of the Mist received (due) credit for its deep archaeological digging into New Zealand’s cinematic history, but perhaps insufficient praise for its pointed challenge to New Zealand directors to try harder in integrating a personal, not corporatised or inherited, sense of place into their filmic sensibilities. It should be required viewing for all directors—I was about to say all New Zealand directors, but its systematic analytics could be applied to any country, with a bit of consideration.
On a lighter note: the sheep dog in Grimur Hakonarson’s Rams wins best dog of the festival (and probably my favourite since 2012’s sadly underappreciated Die Wand/The Wall). And Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux, apart from having the best name of any film (sorry, Roy Andersson), had the most memorable guest I’ve seen in my festival going career. Kidlat Tahimik concluded his exhaustive (and mildly exhausting) revisit of a film he began 35 years ago with a performance in cap and gown, proclaiming that he had now graduated and could make Hollywood movies, like Love on the Steppes or a Rambo sequel. I was thoroughly endeared; the elderly gentleman next to me, who seemed to have selected the film by accident, swore and left halfway through his performance. Proof that the glory of NZIFF is that there’s something for everybody to love, and something for everybody to hate. May it remain ever so.