It just wouldn’t be a film festival unless there were something uncategorisable, and that’s sort of where this poetic documentary sits, a blend of personal narrative and a voiceover narration that suggests a story that goes a little beyond the real. But it deals with the director’s family history, limning different cultures (Algeria and Brazil), and which of us really knows where our family’s history ends and fiction begins, anyway? I have somehow contrived never to have seen any of the director’s films, not least his breakthrough (2019’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão) — possibly due to moving countries and, you know, the pandemic — but I really want to now.
The first film I’ve seen by this director, but it’s a haunting, poetic documentary in a sort of Chris Marker mould, though maybe its just the framing narration that puts me in mind of him, given that it seems to take place at a different narrative level, more like a fictional story in which is set the documentary footage of Karim journeying back from Brazil (where he was born and grew up) to his father’s village in Algeria. It shoots Algeria with great sensitivity and beauty, and really imparts a sense of life there, along with his own emotions (for he is also narrating) about his past, his father, his heritage. Locals are shot with an inquiring eye, and Karim isn’t afraid to let us hear him interacting with his subjects, because he is part of the story even if largely unseen. There’s something complex here, with many layers working beautifully together to evoke a place but also a personal journey.
Director Karim Aïnouz; Writers Aïnouz and Murilo Hauser; Cinematographer Juan Sarmiento G; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.
Another early highlight for me at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is this new Iranian film, which simultaneously feels like a lot of earlier Iranian films but also has its own voice and strengths. Nepotism is very much alive in the cinema of that country, but luckily it reaps some rewards with some fine films.
It seems that the Makhmalbaf filmmaking dynasty that runs through Iranian cinema has some competition now that Jafar Panahi’s son Panah has made this debut feature. This deceptively simple story has many of the hallmarks of contemporary Iranian cinema, in setting up a journey that harks back to plenty of antecedents — a 4WD drive vehicle with a family crossing alternately rocky and lush landscapes. We get to know them gradually, that they’re a family and that they’re mysteriously travelling without mobile phones, and little details like this are dropped that something a bit deeper and more emotionally turbulent is going on. However, throughout there’s a sense not just of the familiar familial bickering in a comic register, but also little flourishes of magical realism (not too much to be offputting, mind). Each of the people in the car copes in their own way with what seems to be a journey being undertaken on behalf of the eldest son, and even the end brings no clear answers to what’s going on: the important thing is getting to know these four people, and how the each are handling a time of heightened stress. It suggests a lot without ever saying anything concrete, and that only adds to its enigmatic spell. Plus it is heartwarming and funny and likeable, and all the performances are excellent (even the precocious brattish younger child).
Director/Writer Panah Panahi پناه پناهی; Cinematographer Amin Jafari امین جعفری; Starring Pantea Panahiha پانتهآ پناهیها, Hasan Majuni حسن معجونی, Rayan Sarlak رایان سرلک, Amin Simiar امین سیمیار; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.
The day after seeing director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s elegant and literary Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival — one of my favourite films — I watched this one, which may be the greater and is certainly likely to be my favourite of the year. It works in a similar way, following a theatre director and actor in a way that resembles Rivette but in a very Japanese way. It’s hard to describe (I have a go below), but it’s great. Well worth checking out despite the extensive running time.
Of course those of us who’ve seen Happy Hour (or indeed any of his previous films) know very well that Ryusuke Hamaguchi is very capable of pulling off deeply empathetic multi-character stories with a literary bent, but this latest film is particularly excellent. It takes for its milieu the theatre world, which gets going once our recently-bereaved but well-known actor/director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima; it seems somehow relevant that the pronunciation of his character’s name is close to “Kafka”) puts together a production of Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival in Hiroshima, from a cast of variously Japanese, Taiwanese, Filipino and Korean actors.
We get a lot of the rehearsals, not unlike some of the longer and more ambitious Rivette works (Out 1 for example), as this company slowly starts cohering, but the film remains focused on just a few of the interactions between Kafuku and various members of the company — those with Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a somewhat shady young man whom Kafuku had witnessed in a compromising position earlier in the film, or with his Korean cast member and her translator/partner, but centrally with his driver Watari (Toko Miura), a sullen young woman appointed by the festival to drive him and who over the course of the film gradually starts to open up (but in her own way, and without compromising her character, as she remains largely unsmiling for much of the film).
As you might expect with a piece that’s about the theatre and acting, and is constructed with such care towards the actors and the performances, it’s all immaculately acted, especially by the relative newcomers — the Korean actors don’t seem to have many credits to their names, but a simple stage scene near the end of the film with the young woman using sign language had me in tears and I’m still not even certain why. A lot of the film feels both richly textured and also a little bit aloof like that, where the characters maintain just enough emotional distance that you really need the film’s running time to break it down a little bit and allow you in. It’s worth sticking it out.
Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi 濱口竜介; Writers Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe 大江崇允 (based on the short story by Haruki Murakami 村上春樹); Cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya 四宮秀俊; Starring Hidetoshi Nishijima 西島秀俊, Toko Miura 三浦透子, Masaki Okada 岡田将生, Reika Kirishima 霧島れいか; Length 179 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.
One of the best things about film festivals — and where they differ most markedly from commercial film distribution — is the way they feature a multiplicity of filmmaking techniques. This is especially evident amongst the documentaries. Whereas most of what gets released is deeply conventional (and there were certainly some of those at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival), you also see more poetic, dreamlike, experimental examples. This Georgian film, for example, very much follows the poetic route, with no narration or on-screen text, very few interviews, and is largely just a succession of grand, thought-provoking, curious images of trees being moved.
If the most common type of documentary is the talking heads method of personal testimony, usually about an individual subject and blended with archival footage or even recreations, then another major form — and perhaps more prevalent at film festivals — is this one, which eschews narration or on-screen text to provide contextualisation, and instead just observes its subjects, using the rhythm of the editing, the elegance of the framing and a few musical cues to draw out its inherent drama. It’s slow cinema, in which we just seem to spend time watching trees, watching trees being dug up, watching trees being transported, in slow lumbering ways because these are very large, very old trees. We never even really see the person who’s taking these trees, and only at the end do we get a sense of why they are being taken, but instead we see the communities and the villages of Georgia, where its set and we get a sense for the rhythms of life in these places. It’s not an easy sell, but it has an emotional centre along with a lot of hydraulic diggers.
Directors Salomé Jashi სალომე ჯაში; Cinematographers Jashi and Goga Devdariani გოგა დევდარიანი; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.
In looking at the documentaries featured at the New Zealand International Film Festival, this is formally one of the less interesting ones. It’s a TV documentary originally, and though it has a sweet framing story whereby her daughter learns something about her mother’s past, the real interest is in the subject, who is endlessly fascinating, a mass of contradictions and relentless energy.
In learning about and listening to punk music when I was younger, I somehow contrived never to really engage with X-Ray Spex, although I certainly was passingly aware of its singer and frontwoman/band leader Poly Styrene. This film is as much about her daughter (the co-director Celeste Bell) learning about her mother and retracing her footsteps, as it is about Poly Styrene herself, and so some of it feels a little bit meandering. However, it presents enough interesting archival footage and testimony to fully justify its feature length, as Poly Styrene makes for a riveting central character. Watching those early performances, you can see just how young she was, writing from a very specific place of identity and anger, but whose ideas were clearly still under construction, being in her late-teens when she first took the stage. We discover her real name was Marianne Elliott and that there was a certain amount of pull between these two identities that she was never fully comfortable with, but clearly there was also a lot in her life that was uncomfortable, and it made relations with her daughter and family difficult at times. It’s lovely to see her and to hear from those who knew her and were influenced by her (we never see any of the voices on screen except for Poly and her daughter — this film is about a moment for each of its two protagonists, not about ageing, or speculating on how those we see in 40-year-old images might look now) and as a result she is now my favourite punk persona and I urgently need to listen to those albums.
Directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell; Writers Sng, Bell and Zoë Howe; Cinematographer Nick Ward; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.
The second day of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival was very productive for me: two of what would be my favourite films of the festival screened, the French film Gagarine and this Japanese film, one of two films from the same director at the festival. A few years back his curious diptych Asako I & II was a festival highlight, and then of course there was his five-hour long breakthrough Happy Hour. He makes literary films with cunning structures that suggest multiple storylines, characters, threads, ways of entering his fictional constructions. This particular film is three separate short stories and billed as such in the title card. They are all lovely, though I think the final one was my favourite.
If there’s any quality I associate with Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s films it’s an elegance of construction, almost a literary sensibility — which makes sense given that here he’s presenting three short stories, the central one of which specifically revolves around a written text. These stories are all focused on women reflecting on their lives and the missed opportunities within them, that revolve around themes of chance or coincidence to drive the narrative. In the first and second there are essentially three characters, whom we largely see in two-shots speaking to one another in long stretches of dialogue, while in the third the two central women are joined together by two unseen other women from their past through which their stories resolve in an odd yet satisfying way. There’s a slightly formal, stilted quality to it — this doesn’t feel like naturalistic improvisation — but that goes along with the constructedness, and I take the filmic choices to be rather deliberate in that regard. The entire initial conversation between two women in the first story takes place in almost complete darkness in the back of a cab, the love triangle brought to light by the end of the story, while elsewhere intertitles move the action around in what almost feel like arbitrary ways, but all becomes clearer if no less emotionally fragile by the end of each story. It’s an elegant film, done beautifully.
Director/Writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi 濱口竜介; Cinematographer Yukiko Iioka 飯岡幸子; Starring Kotone Furukawa 古川琴音, Hyunri 玄理, Ayumu Nakajima 中島歩, Kiyohiko Shibukawa 渋川清彦, Katsuki Mori 森郁月, Fusako Urabe 占部房子, Aoba Kawai 河井青葉; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.
Continuing with my reviews of films at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is this dreamy, almost magical realist French film about a housing estate. Now generally I dislike magical realist films, but this one — for all its spacy themes and title — is very much grounded in lived reality. It’s set in a French housing project and while it eschews the gritty realism of, say, La Haine, it still captures a lot of the same anger and despair while hitting a very much dreamier and hopeful tone. And one of its central protagonists is played by Lyna Khoudri, so excellent in Papicha and surely destined to be a big star (I believe she has a small role in Wes Anderson’s latest The French Despatch).
It’s interesting to read the blurb at the top of the festival programme’s entry for this film — which speaks of Yuri (the central character, played by Alséni Bathily) and his dreams of becoming an astronaut and how he and his two buddies band together to save their estate (or banlieue if you will) — and realise how much it both describes and yet does not capture this film. Because it could describe this film (or at least the first 20 minutes or so), but yet it is so much more than this suggests, not just in complexity but in the wonderment and expressivity of its atmospherics. This is a film about social housing and displacement, about the institutionalised classism and racism of the state, about lives unmoored and threatened by almost unseen forces, and yet it’s really about dreaming, about imagination, about being with others and helping one another to be better but without losing sight of all the ever-present threats of the real world. It’s all quite beautiful and reminiscent a bit of Rocks (in its cast and setting) but without feeling constrained by the niceties of social realism. It cuts loose and just floats serenely, knowing it can take that ride with the central character, because crushing reality is always just around the corner. A very persuasive blend of melancholy and mystery that won me over.
Directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh; Writers Liatard, Trouilh and Benjamin Charbit; Cinematographer Victor Seguin; Starring Alséni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Finnegan Oldfield; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.
The first film I saw at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is probably the most ‘commercial’ of the lot, though it still fits in a lot of darkness to its otherwise gaudily-toned story of… well, of Florida. It’s a setting that’s been done many times before (think Magic Mike for a start), but I can’t deny that there’s an energy to this setting that energises plenty of films, this one no less than any other.
Nobody’s really out there adapting Twitter threads and I can only applaud the ways the filmmakers here find to transfer some of that era-specific energy (Twitter, Facebook and… Tumblr all get a mention, because of course). There are bravura touches (a lot of toilet-focused exposition that’s revealing without being gross), a lot of humour (Cousin Greg!! sorry I mean Nicholas Braun, best known for his role in Succession) and the constant presence of Taylour Paige as Zola, being cool under pressure and rolling her eyes back into her head at Riley Keough’s character Stefani. Keough has played this type before but yet I didn’t recognise her; Stefani feels like a different character and a very specific one. It’s not all jolly laughs — there’s some very credible terror and some nasty men (okay those things are somewhat related) — but it is pulled through by the narrative voice and a sense of self-mythologising that’s ongoing and inherent to the narrative itself.
Director Janicza Bravo; Writers Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris (based on the Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner and the original tweets by Aziah King); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.
Just over a year ago, I posted reviews from the 2020 London Film Festival, of which I attended a few online sessions (and which has since returned fully to cinemas this year). However, since 2020 I’ve moved to New Zealand and in November it was the New Zealand International Film Festival, now bilingually rebranded as Whānau Mārama (which loosely translates as “family of light”). Although a COVID-19 outbreak meant that there were restrictions in place (every other seat left empty and very few filmmakers present), it was still great to see these films in person, even if some of the sold out houses seemed eerily quiet.
Anyway, as it’s now December and I’ve only been posting my Criterion Collection films for the last few months, I’ll take some time over the next few weeks to post reviews of the NZIFF films I saw, which will also help us get up to speed before we get to the inevitable ‘best of the year’ lists. I’m going to start with a New Zealand co-production which focuses on issues of indigenous rights and history embedded in a story that by its nature (science-fiction) looks to the future.
This is pitched as a dystopian post-war science-fiction set in a fascist state where kids are taken from poor non-citizens and brainwashed to prepare them for… well, the usual. You know the deal, big Starship Troopers crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale vibes. Many of these tropes are pretty familiar, but this film puts an extra spin on them by using a First Nations perspective, wrapping up race and class with its dystopian oppression and imagining an indigenous resistance movement. In fact it puts plenty of spins on its subject matter and is all the richer for all the ideas it pops out. Some plotlines feel as if they could be more developed but then it wouldn’t be such a fine, tightly structured picture. Plus it’s lovely to see the star and director of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) back on screen again as a fiercely-protective mother who has a heartbreaking choice to make near the film’s outset that resonates strongly enough that it pulls the whole film together even more effectively.
Director/Writer Danis Goulet; Cinematographer Daniel Grant; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Violet Nelson, Amanda Plummer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.
This film was released just as I was starting to properly get into film so I imagine I may have turned my nose up at it. Apparently I did see it on a visit to London in 1998, the day before watching Velvet Goldmine, the memory of which has stuck with me far more vividly (perhaps because it embodies the qualities that this film seems designed to erase, but more on that later). I imagine at the time it just seemed a bit odd and stilted but with the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s lovely.
Of course, it has a specific point of view: that of a straight white man with an acerbic New York aloofness surveying the landscape of his youth and you could say it suffers for that, but I prefer to think of it as a self-critique. It’s a film set during the disco era, absolutely packed from start to finish with classic tunes, but it’s a film about the gentrification of a scene, of that slightly hollow sadness when looking around at what was once about parties and drugs and, most importantly, its acceptance of, if not predication on, queerness and diversity (the things that made so many people unironically want to express their hatred for disco music at the time).
It’s not called The Last Days of Disco for no reason: the club here is half populated by bankers in suits with the kind of floppy hair that says 90s to me more than 80s but perhaps that’s apt. There’s nothing transgressive, though even among the dad-dancing on the disco floor there is still a bit of joy, and it’s largely within the relationship between its two leads played by Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, the latter of whom has some of the films best lines, shady comments delivered almost as asides to Sevigny. It’s a curious balance this movie achieves between fun, snarky and eminently quotable bitchiness and the hollow empty nostalgia of 20-something aimlessness.
- Four deleted scenes are shown, in unfinished rough cuts, for those that want more of these characters hanging out in their slightly depressing railroad apartment.
- A behind-the-scenes featurette is very much in the mould of five-minute bonus features made by studios that have a sort of blandness to them (the blandness of advertising, which is apt given the broadsides at one such character in the film itself) but you do get to hear a few little soundbites from the actors at the time.
- The stills gallery includes plenty of contextualisation of what we see, making it something of a production diary or a reflection on the film by its director.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Robert Sean Leonard; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at a cinema, London, Saturday 28 November 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 2 December 2021).