There have been women making films since even the start of cinema, as evidenced by the new documentary about French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, and this documentary takes a personal look at an important indigenous New Zealand woman filmmaker who isn’t perhaps as well known as she should be.
I’m rather surprised this gained a release (however small) in the UK, given that it’s hardly likely many people in this country have access to have seen Merata Mita’s work. I studied film when growing up in Wellington, so I’d seen her key works: Patu! (1983), a documentary about the 1981 Springbok rugby tour in the face of anti-apartheid protestors; and Mauri (1988), an evocation of small town Maori life. We get clips of those works here, contextualised within her career, but most fascinating is the figure she cuts: from being a working mum — a teacher in a small town bringing up several kids from a couple of unpromising husbands — to getting into film almost by accident, as a byproduct of her own outspokenness on social issues (which within the context of conservative New Zealand society of the time, made her something of an activist). Her earliest screen appearance is speaking out about an abortion in the late-70s, and from there she went on to make several short films which culminated in the work on Patu! But throughout her career, in the clips marshalled here by her son Heperi (an archivist, who also narrates the film), we see the way she confronted the kind of changes she wanted to see in NZ society and the actions she took to achieve them. Later in her life, she advocated around the world on behalf of indigenous filmmakers, living in Hawaii and working extensively among First Nations peoples in the US and Canada. Hers is an inspiring story, and despite its framing as a family documentary, her voice and work on decolonisation and the representation of indigenous narratives is wonderful to see.
Director Heperi Mita; Cinematographer Mike Jonathan; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 7 May 2019.
This compilation of short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by Mark Williams, director of Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, who helped curate the programme and who stayed for a Q&A afterwards that I sadly had to miss, again due to running off to another screening.
The last film I need to write about for my 2015 LFF is the one I’m probably least able to write about, as the world of artists’ film works is still largely obscure to me, experimental pieces more likely to be seen in a gallery installation than an actual cinema. Nevertheless, having grown up in Wellington NZ, I thought it only right to turn my attention towards the filmmaking of artist and poet Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003). Five of her short films from the late-1970s are presented here, and they are largely little snatched fragments of domestic life, further distanced by the silent black-and-white photography, grainy and indistinct, like messages from another world, which in a sense they are. Interspersed between these are recent works by New Zealand artists made in response to her films, emphasising both the mundane (“Third Revision” has a sort of provisional structure, as if hastily extemporised, though I don’t doubt there is plenty of work in putting across that impression) and the picturesque (“By Sea” is a particularly beautiful and strange film of oddly domestic seascapes). Whereas most of Paul’s original films are entirely without sound, rachel shearer — whose work has been as much with sound as image — finds poetry in the combination of these, and the other films also tend to use both aspects of their medium. It’s difficult to really write about, given the almost intangible evanescent presence of these works, but they are fascinating and even enjoyable if you’re willing to be open to this form of expression.
Contents: “Aberharts House” (1976); “Napkins” (1975); “Bosshard Family” (1976); “Jillian Dressing” (1976); “Thorndon” (1975, all by Joanna Margaret Paul); “I Am an Open Window (2015, Rachel Shearer); “By Sea” (2015, Sonya Lacey); “Still Light” (2015, Nova Paul); “Third Revision” (2015, Popular Productions); “Sky” (2015, Miranda Parkes); “Untitled (Epilogue)” (2015, Shannon Te Ao); Length 68 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 18 October 2015.
It’s always nice to see a movie western, even if it’s not shot in the United States, though I am partial to the New Zealand landscape as someone who grew up there. I would say it seems to me to be pretty distinctive as far as landscapes go, but then this is a film shot through with plenty of style (and stylisation). If some of the still-life framings are reminiscent of Jarmusch’s Dead Man (albeit in colour), a lot of the film’s tone comes closer to the deadpan of the Coen brothers, and is freighted with some of their archness as well. The narrative is based around a one-sided romance of one young Scottish lad, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for Rose (Caren Pistorius). Rose has left Scotland to go on the run from the law with her father, while Jay pursues her out of love. He is taken in by Silas (Michael Fassbender), who turns out to be a bounty hunter on Rose and her father’s trail. As a film shot in NZ starring Irish, Scottish and Antipodean actors, it’s really strong on that sense of the modern US as a nation of immigrants, though the Native Americans get fairly short shrift (and one overtly comedy sequence of horse rustling gone awry). So even if I don’t wholeheartedly embrace it, there’s enough in the film to suggest interesting work in director John Maclean’s future.
Director/Writer John Maclean; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 July 2015.
I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing.
Big Eyes (2014, USA)
The Craft (1996, USA)
D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal)
Get Over It (2001, USA)
Holes (2003, USA)
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA)
Into the Woods (2014, USA)
Loser (2000, USA)
Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand)
Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA)
Tabu (1931, USA)
Continue reading “January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”
This is a curious little film to get distribution over in the UK, half a world away from where it was made, as a New Zealand television documentary about an air crash that took place in Antarctica in 1979. Still, true-life stories of people operating in extremis are always fascinating, and this particular take is a well-mounted blend of talking head documentary testimony along with dramatic re-enactments which move the story along at a fair clip (the two directors attached to the film being responsible for the two different strands). The film’s chief setting is on the icy lower slopes of Mount Erebus in Antarctica, the site of what is still the deadliest disaster in the country’s aviation history, where a team of police detectives were dispatched to coordinate the body retrieval as “Operation Overdue”. This is the story the documentary is most interested in, this small group of guys, almost to a man entirely unfamiliar with mountaineering or icy conditions, required to do the grisly task of clean-up, and the dramatic recreations are keen to try and convey a sense of what this would have been like. The other story taking place in the background (one largely set in a series of glumly-decorated 1970s offices), is the inquiry into the reasons for the crash, which heavily implicated poor management within Air New Zealand, and led not just to management changes but also the colourful phrase “an orchestrated litany of lies” (which gained much traction in NZ popular culture thereafter). Still, whatever conspiratorial boardroom politics the film occasionally suggests, the focus remains squarely on the police officers and their own story. It’s a documentary that will interest those intrigued by stories of real-life tragedy, but it remains one probably best suited to the small screen.
Directors Charlotte Purdy and Peter Burger; Cinematographer DJ Stipsen; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Tuesday 13 January 2015.
The ‘mockumentary’ is a canny choice of genre for a New Zealand film, as its documentary form hides some of the shortcomings that come from low-budget production. We’re relying on the charisma of the performers and their comic writing (already tested in such ensembles as actor/writer/director Jemaine Clement’s Flight of the Conchords, who had their own US TV series for a couple of seasons), rather than the quality of the sets and camerawork. And as a comedy take on the popular vampire legend — appropriating all the iconography and transposing it to a quotidian situation of three mates in New Zealand sharing a flat together — it certainly has its pleasing moments, with strong turns from its three leads, particularly Taika Waititi as the upbeat central vampire, Viago. It was also nice for me to see my adopted home city of Wellington on screen for a while, as a lot of it is shot on location in the streets. Yet despite there being some good laughs, it still feels like a bit of a throwback to the 80s and 90s when this kind of film was at the height of its popularity, and stylistically it’s particularly reminiscent of the Belgian film C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992), with its similarly deadpan mockumentary take on a serial killer — functionally, not a million miles removed from a vampire. As ever, a lot of the good gags are in the trailer, and the feature length doesn’t always make them more resonant (I gather that the film originated in an earlier short film by the same team). Still, I did laugh (quite a bit at times), so for those looking for some light relief and a bit of meta-humour at cinema’s expense, it’s a fine choice.
Directors/Writers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement; Cinematographers Richard Bluck and D.J. Stipsen; Starring Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 26 November 2014.