Some Aro Valley Digital Films of the 2000s

I grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, and during university I lived in a flat perched just above the Aro Valley, which at that time in the early-2000s was an area of economic desuetude, as the threat of a motorway bypass that might cut through the area depressed property prices and generally caused a certain level of stagnation — ideal for a thriving community of students and bohemians. In fact, since this is just a personal blog and I’m hardly a professional film writer or noted expert, I might as well say that for those first few years after I finished university I was sharing a flat with the filmmaker in the title of the 2010 documentary reviewed below, which would probably disqualify me from ‘reviewing’ any of these films, but let’s look at this as sort of a personal journey shall we? More of a nostalgic trip down memory lane perhaps.

Campbell Walker, a filmmaker who also at that time worked in the Aro Street Video Shop, was somewhat the epicentre of a filmmaking scene that grew up in the Aro Valley in the late-1990s, though he was by no means the only practitioner. After all, the two feature films I’ve reviewed below are co-directed by Alexander Greenhough and Elric Kane, both expatriate Americans who grew up and studied in Wellington, and who had made one previous film, I Think I’m Going (2003), which was at least partially filmed in that very flat. One of Walker’s actors in his debut feature Uncomfortable Comfortable (1999), Colin Hodson, went on to make a few of his own films (Shifter and OFF. are the two I remember seeing, both mining some of the same emotional terrain, though in a different style), and I’d tangentially include Gregory King’s Christmas (2003) as at least adjacent filmically, if not geographically. What all of them shared was a commitment to the aesthetics of digital filmmaking, being the available source of affordable technology, and a complete lack of any kind of budget whatsoever. This means these were made with friends and favours, and while Walker’s style tended towards the improvisational — as if channelling the Jacques Rivette of Out 1 via the leafy suburbs of Wellington — other filmmakers within the scene (like Greenhough and Kane below) preferred a tightly-controlled and well-scripted approach to their drama.

Anyway, I moved away in 2003 and lost track of some of these guys, as well as the films they were making. In time, that bypass got built and Aro Valley has gentrified, meaning that most of them relocated, anyway, and now live in Australia or the United States, and while I know all of them still work in various tangents of the film world, none are actively directing films, which is a shame. Still, this little moment stands in time, supported by the New Zealand International Film Festival (which screened a few of the films), the Victoria University film department, and a certain spirit of resistance. You can track down a few of these films (and others by related directors) on various Vimeo accounts, and I think there was a link to Uncomfortable Comfortable at the NZ Film Archives, so some may require dedication to find (the two features below had a tiny release on a NZ DVD label, hence how I saw them), but all are worth seeking out I think, if you like slow, observational films about students and twenty-somethings falling apart.

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Peur de rien (Parisienne, 2016)

I love films about immigrant experiences, as they render tangible how a person encounters another society and negotiates their place within it (a feeling that I can relate to, in however limited a way) — and the outside perspective can provide real insights into the society under discussion, in this film no less. Parisienne (or “fear of nothing” in its original French title) is about Lina (played by radiant newcomer Manal Issa), who has moved from Beirut to Paris in 1993 — this, it turns out, is a period film, with requisite careful detail of fashion and music (and it seems the director was really into Frank Black back then). Lina is dealing with a volatile family situation and responds by throwing herself into her studies, not to mention a succession of somewhat interchangeable French boyfriends. In this respect, I really like the way the director Danielle Arbid sets up unequal relationships of power for her teenage protagonist, in some ways the core of the film’s characterisation — from early scenes as she fights off the untoward attentions of her uncle, to these entitled, slightly older, white guys (including Vincent Lacoste), most of them well meaning, but just unrelenting in their insistence; there’s a sublimated violence to their advances that’s nicely brought out (I don’t know whether on purpose but it seemed to be there).

At a narrative level, the film is somewhat meandering, and the camera echoes this at a formal level, being given to wandering off, or cutting in close-ups of gesture and set decoration. If at times it feels like there’s no real message exactly, then that is surely of a piece with the storytelling: Lina is a young woman still forming her ideas and trying these on via various social connections (she even falls in with some skinheaded neo-Nazis at one point, leading to a bit of discussion of Le Pen père, which suddenly feels not so distant in time). It’s a film about finding strength and seeking identity, and in that it’s very successful.

Parisienne film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Danielle Arbid دانيال عربيد; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Manal Issa منال عيسى, Vincent Lacoste; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Thursday 17 November 2016.