James & Isey (2021)

Continuing with recent films, here’s another documentary, this time set in New Zealand and about a family relationship. Through charting the life of a centenarian, it also sheds some light onto historical traumas around the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand and the way they have been treated, but this is a wide-ranging film, perhaps too much so at times.


There’s something very sweet, very earnest and also rather unfocused about this film, but I think the sense of randomness (tied loosely together with the countdown format to Isey’s 100th birthday) ties in well with the charm of the couple at the film’s centre, Isey and her son James, who lives with her but hesitates to call himself her carer. It’s a portrait of familial relations which has a serious underpinning, which is the way that Māori culture and language had been eroded so much by the time of Isey’s birth in 1919 that she was never taught the language and forced to conform to pākehā beliefs, a situation that has only seen some correction in the past few decades. In that respect it’s worth mentioning that the title isn’t misleading: this is a film as much about James as it is about the 100-year-old Isey (she’s 102 now), and James has a collaborative co-creator role within the project. The film endeavours to show how he has taken on, later in life, a spiritual role within his community as a tohunga (which he translates, presumably loosely, as “shaman” at one point). However, there’s relatively little context for understanding this and so although I think the film is respectful to his practices, it’s still participating in a filmic lineage, elsewhere using still-life images that are set against the soundtrack or the on-screen text, that evoke a sort of deadpan humour. This then makes James’s genuine spiritual earnestness — the rituals, the use of language (a form of ‘speaking in tongues’ as I take it from the film, but I suspect there’s more to it than that), the dress and demeanour of James and other participants in it — come across as potentially absurdist, which I don’t think they are intended to be at all. But that’s a small point in a film that has a whole lot of feeling for its subjects, including Isey, very much pushing against the trend for films about older people to be films about dementia or other such conditions, when she is clearly still living her best life.

James & Isey (2021)CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Florian Habicht; Writers James Cross and Habicht; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2021.

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