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New Zealand International Film Festival 2015: Roll credits

Aug 2, 2015 Film & TV

If you were wondering, the answer is yes, they do all blur together sometimes. Towards the end of a film yesterday evening, someone dropped a scarf on the ground. I immediately saw the significance: a call-back to the poignant moment when the only sympathetic figure in a young boy’s life drops her scarf out the window to him, as she drives off to the big city. It was several seconds before I remembered that this occurred in a different film I’d seen earlier in the day.


That earlier film was Lamb. (Ethiopian drama, strong sense of place, balanced slightly uneasily between harsh realism and fable; the persistent use of out-of-cultural-context piano music to evoke an elegiac mood distracted me more than it might have earlier in the festival). The one with the day’s second scarf-dropping was Under Electric Clouds. (Russian, elegant, haunting, well over the WTF threshold; it recalled the novels of Victor Pelevin and I think it may have been about the fall of the Soviet Union, but really, I have no idea. Apologies to The Assassin, which looked to be such a lock for “Film I enjoyed this fortnight that I most totally failed to understand”.) These are not the two least similar films I’ve seen at this festival, but it’s still curious to find them in dialogue inside my head.

Holding the Man
Holding the Man

There are so many points of view available during this festival, Bill Gosden, its director, commented in his closing speech last night, that contradiction is inevitable. He was talking about the fact that the festival opened with The Lobster (SOCIETY IS TOO KEEN ON RELATIONSHIPS) and closed with Holding The Man (SOCIETY NEEDS TO VALIDATE GAY RELATIONSHIPS). You can restate the driving idea of each of these films as “Respect people’s right to be themselves”, but as examples of the wildly original and the likeably conventional, they do give you a sense of the range the festival spans.

I had the vague idea that this final blog would be a list of all the random cross-connections I’ve noticed over the last sixteen days. (Attempts to spare the lives of chickens! The harems of Vincent Cassell!) The more interesting point to make is probably the opposite one: for all their odd points of similarity, the breadth of vision and diversity of opinion in the 50-odd films I’ve seen is breath-taking. (There are easily twice that many films I missed.) I am, frankly – and forgive the anachronistic term in this post-celluloid age – reeling. Some final things.


First, a couple of films I somehow managed not to write about in earlier blogs. Mustang: involving, searingly powerful drama about five orphaned sisters discovering the limits of Turkish social tolerance for the notion that girls are people, rather than someone’s future matrimonial property. I was mildly bugged by some covert inconsistencies, but the film is so well made, and the acting is so good.

The Tide Keeper: Alyx Duncan’s beautiful, strange study of an aging body transformed into a polluted ocean (yes, really) was my favourite of the six short films in the New Zealand’s Best programme. What struck me about this session was that when it came time to announce the winners of the jury prize, the cinematography prize, and the audience choice prize, I didn’t really care which films won, because they were all so strong. (Usually I’d care very much.)

Second, for festival-goers in parts of the country where these have yet to open, or for if they come back, or for watching at home (hope you have a big screen…) – my recommendations from this year’s festival.

The Forbidden Room
The Forbidden Room

The food of the gods: my top tier.

  • The Forbidden Room (You’ve never seen anything like it. Emphatically not for all tastes.)
  • Song of the Sea (The family film of the year.)
  • A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (Made me so happy. Made me so sad. If you expect there to be an actual pigeon, this is not for you.)
  • The Lobster (There may or may not be an actual lobster.)
  • The Clouds of Sils Maria (Three of the above are evidence that my tastes run to the strange and the dark. This one will please anyone who likes intelligent drama made for grownups.)


Merely excellent: strong recommendations that missed the top spot.

  • Sherpa (essential in so many ways; your understanding of colonialism will expand in ways that may, if you happen to be one of its beneficiaries, disturb you deeply)
  • ’71 (thrilling thriller; with Mad Max Fury Road, this year’s best evidence-by-contrast that Hollywood’s genre film-making has become stale)
  • Victoria (one-take film; intense)
  • Seymour: An Introduction (or, why you should find classical music more interesting)
  • Grandma (Lily Tomlin, Lily Tomlin, Lily Tomlin)
  • The Assassin (gorgeous; you will not understand it) (if you do understand it, please contact me)
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (contains vampire)
  • Embrace of the Serpent (goes very well with Sherpa)
  • Far From Men (Viggo Mortensen, Viggo Mortensen, Viggo Mortensen)
  • Tehran Taxi (how to make a big film by making a small one)
  • Mustang (see above)
  • Rams (funny, sad, slow)
  • New Zealand’s Best (what it says on the tin)

Ixcanul Volcano
Ixcanul Volcano

Imperfect treats: mildly flawed things I’m absolutely glad I saw. I have run out of energy for parentheses. See previous blogs for descriptions.

  • Ixcanul Volcano
  • When Marnie Was There
  • Out of the Mist
  • Results
  • Partisan
  • The Russian Woodpecker
  • Tangerine
  • Ex Machina
  • The Measure of a Man
  • A Most Violent Year
  • The Postman’s White Nights
  • Under Electric Clouds
  • Holding The Man

Under Electric Clouds
Under Electric Clouds

Random last thoughts

I was sitting in the front row upstairs at the Civic at some point last week, and as I stood up after the film I could see dozens of screens flickering to life down in the stalls. Above me the Civic stars were still out. It’s one of the more beautiful and unlikely images I’ll take with me from this festival. Note also: cell phone etiquette has improved out of sight over the last five years.

Greatest regrets: not seeing Under Electric Clouds earlier in the fortnight when I had more brain. Not having the energy to go to tonight’s extra screening of The Assassin. Not getting to Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses.

One of the best ways to have a good conversation is to turn to a stranger at the festival and say, “What have you seen that’s been good?” This is also an effective way to have a strange conversation or a disturbing conversation, but mostly that didn’t happen.

I have seen more of my friends in the last two weeks than I usually do in two months.

I try not to make sweeping remarks about the shortcomings of New Zealand film distribution, because downloading is rife, the business model is shot to hell, and I’ve never personally had to attempt to stay in the black as a distributor. But guys. You did not release ’71. You did not release Ex Machina. In what universe does this constutite anything besides letting down the public and leaving money on the table? (By way of conciliatory remarks, The Forbidden Room is my favourite film of this festival and yeah, I understand why it will never turn up at the Lido.)

I was a single parent with preteen children when I began reviewing film professionally, eight years ago. Taking my kids to everything that wasn’t R-rated was initially about having no better babysitting solution. (To all the publicists who got used to fielding my requests for extra tickets, thank you. You were very patient). So I do not mean to claim parental superiority when I say that kids thrive on a much, much wider range of films than most New Zealand parents seem to think; I only found this out by accident. But taking my now adult and near-adult children to the festival with me over the last decade has given us so many good memories. (And, yeah, some other ones. Those are good to have too.) I would like to see more kids at more festival films.

And that will do. See you at the movies.


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