New Zealand International Film Festival 2004

A Festival Diary

by Sandor Lau Volume 8, Issue 10 / October 2004 13 minutes (3022 words)

A few hundred years ago, White people decided to colonize the Southern Hemisphere and try to destroy the cultures of all the people who were there first. In doing so, they would have done well to consider not only the moral implications, but the fact they were setting themselves up for a very long winter with no fun holidays to break it up. Fortunately in Aotearoa, we have the New Zealand International Film Festival not only to break up the slate of gray scheduled every year from June through August, but also to give us some food for thought about what kind of future we’re setting ourselves up for in the next few hundred years.

It’s opening night in Auckland at the Civic, and having been somewhat neglectful in planning for the future myself, I have to hustle strangers for a spare ticket as the screening is sold out. Inside, I realize I’m going to be sharing this experience with 2000 other viewers, making it the biggest group activity I’ve taken part in for a long while, and the closest thing I’ll get to Christmas all winter.

The Motorcycle Diaries

USA/Argentina/Chile/Peru

Two rich young men from Buenos Aires jump on a dilapidated motorcycle on a mission to travel the length of South America. Based on the journals of twenty-three-year-old Ernesto Guevara and his friend Alberto Ganado, it’s a story of personal and political awakening in the man later known as El Ché.

Normally, I hate based-on-a-true-story movies because they stick so slavishly to what really happened, regardless of whether it really fits in the story. But with this film, director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera have done an excellent job at deciding what to take OUT, and what’s left is a kind of fairy tale that’s both intimate and epic.

The story follows the road a lot closer than any plot structure, and there’s something very refreshing about the way so many scenes are left unresolved. The boys meet a man growing a terrible cancer, can’t do a thing to help him, and move on. Ernesto gets a letter from his girlfriend, cries and never says anything else about her again.

Probably the strongest theme is the plight of the dispossessed: indigenous farmers kicked off their lands, itinerant labourers at the mercy of greedy bosses, and lepers quarantined on an island away from those supposed to care for them. The film is deeply political but never preaches—just presents an experience and is far more convincing in its position than if it had jumped on a soapbox.

But I can’t help thinking that if he came back from the grave, Ché would liked the film only a little more than he would those pictures of his face printed on shirts made in Chinese sweatshops. It’s certainly not revolutionary, and if anything, it’s a bit candy-coated and bleeding-heart, romanticizing poverty and disenfranchisement.

But after sharing the experience of the film with 2000 other people, I can’t help myself but join their applause, wondering how many of them, like me, are thinking of finding a motorcycle and taking a trip.

The Yes Men

USA

‘Hank Hardy Unruh’ frontman for the Yes Men, poses as a member of the WTO at a ‘textilian’ conference in Tampere Finland. He declares that ending slavery was unnecessary because it would have eventually been replaced with current practices of globalization anyway. Today, corporations need not bear the cost of feeding and clothing their ‘remotely located workers,’ yet still get to work them like slaves. The Yes Man then removes his clothes to reveal a gold lamé jumpsuit with a three-foot phallus, which he announces will be used in the future to remotely detect the activities of workers via microchips implanted in their bodies.

Hank, a.k.a. Granwyth Halutberi, aka Andy Bichlbaum, receives glowing applause, and The Yes Men gets it all on tape. Rarely in human history have social responsibility and mischief been brought together so seamlessly.

This documentary, by the team who made American Movie, chronicles the pranks of the Yes-Men’s Andy and Mike as they go about their mission of exposing more clearly the ideology and effects of the World Trade Organization to people who mistake the Yes Men’s website for the WTO’s.

In the course of things they unveil McDonalds’ plans to recycle ‘post-consumer waste’ into fresh burgers for the third world, and eventually announce the dissolution of the WTO itself. Even the Canadian parliament debates the effects of the shutdown.

The world has no shortage of leftist political documentaries, but rarely is there one so fun to watch that even Republicans will get a laugh out of it—Jackass for the middle class. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s not much to look at, just point and shoot, no lighting, no composition, but as a piece of storytelling, it’s a gem. And I’m getting a Motorcycle Diaries déjà vu feeling here and thinking about where I can get a gold lamé body suit.

(I met Andy Bichlbaum when he came to New Zealand last year. You can read my article, “The Man Who Shut Down the WTO”).

A Nation Without Women (Matrubhoomi)

India/France

This dark farce from twenty-five-year-old first time writer/director Manish Jha takes Indian female infanticide to its logical conclusion. In the Bihar countryside the situation is exactly as the title describes when a father and his five sons discover a girl secretly raised as a boy and purchase her for an exorbitant price.

Following a lead from the Indian epic, the Mahabharat, they all share her as a wife, but we know how well men share, and by the end of the film we are approaching a civil war in the district.

It’s a daring move that this film was even made and congratulations to them for taking it. But I fear the effect is the opposite of what was intended. Walking out of the theater I talk to some Indians who say how ashamed they are of their country after seeing this film, and I think, ‘Ah, this is what we need, another film made mostly for Western audiences, depicting brown people like thugs and savages’.

And of course the practice of infanticide is savage, but no one who has ever done it is going to see this movie. While A Nation Without Women depicts the brutality the situation, it doesn’t suggest anything in the way of change. The men are all animals and treat the only woman as an animal as well. She gets almost no characterization, no dialogue, and her depiction in the film feels like just another brutalization. If you really wanted to change the situation, you would tell the story from the point of view of a strong woman fighting back.

Silent Waters (Khamosh Pani)

Pakistan/France/Germany

Pakistan, 1979. In the Punjabi village of Charkhi, just across the border from India, the ghosts of partition come back to haunt Ayesha, a widow raising her teenage son Saleem alone.

The boy wanders without direction until two Islamic militants from Lahore come to give it to him and to all the other directionless young men of the village. And what’s amazing about this film is that it’s the first one I’ve ever seen from Pakistan, but I know these characters and so does everyone else.

Saleem is everywhere, as are the militants from Lahore. Military recruiters, Christian missionaries, mujahedeen, skinheads and gangs are all looking for the dispossessed whom they offer a little bit of power in exchange for obedience. And the results have a shocking universality whether enacted by members of the Taliban or US soldiers at Abu Ghraib Prison.

The film climaxes when Indian Sikhs are allowed to return to their sacred sites in Pakistani Punjab for the first time since partition. The final message, completely unspoken yet profoundly convincing in both physical and metaphysical ways, is basically the same conclusion that every great religion and philosophy comes to. All human beings are our own brothers and sisters, especially our enemies. And if there’s a film to persuade people of this rather than putting them off by preaching righteousness or despair, this is it.

Screaming Men (Huutajat)

Finland/Denmark

Screaming Men opens with an enormous icebreaker plowing through the frozen Arctic. Dozens of men all dressed uniformly in suits disembark and line up in neat rows. The choirmaster gives them the signal, and holler. In unison and three part harmony. Like a choir. Except without the singing.

This documentary follows the choir as they tour the world screaming national anthems, textbooks and historical documents. They are particularly well received in Japan but not in France where they are politely asked to refrain from screaming La Marseillaise.

Choir director Petri Sirviö sarcastically suggests that in place of La Marseillaise, they sing Deutschland Über Alles, then directs the men to sing La Marseillaise anyway. There are of course a million ways this film could have been made, but director Mika Ronkainen has decided to keep it mostly observational (the footage of choir auditions are absolute gold), and make it more of a portrait of choirmaster Sirviö.

Sirviö is the one character who does not scream in the choir, though he more than makes up for it in addressing his men and the journalists constantly pestering him about the nature of the primal male scream and what it means. Which is not really what the film is about.

For all the Iron John wildman pop psychology projected onto the choir, this art and this film are about strictness and order. The men scream, but only in unison and only on Sirviö’s command and the film is really one about order and how it legitimizes an activity that’s usually out of bounds.

My only disappointment is that the Screaming Men did not come to New Zealand to learn a haka and have a faceoff with kapahaka champions or the All Blacks.

Kaikohe Demolition

Aotearoa/New Zealand

Kaikohe Demolition focuses on the stories of three middle-aged demolition derby drivers in an impoverished Northland community with a large Mäori population, best known for its 1991 Christmas parade where the children attacked Santa. The charm of the film is all in its leads: Uncle Bimm, Ben Haretuku and John Zielinski, who are some of the best talent in any of this year’s films. The best screenwriter couldn’t script the dialogue they improvise.

Example: Ben Haretuku’s wife is terrified he will be hurt in the demolition derby and refuses to even come watch. But he reckons, ‘If I could get her to come in the car with me just once—well it would do wonders for our sex life’.

Kaikohe is a rough town where people live rough lives. They get into a muddy paddock trying to smash each other’s cars FOR FUN (the only rule is no smashing the driver’s side door). A wicked sense of humour is an essential coping mechanism.

The third world reality of Kaikohe is somewhat less of a laugh in a country that once prided itself on its equality. Not far beneath the laughs rides the harsh subtext that smashing up cars on the weekend is the only thing many people have to look forward to, but social issues are not something the film really engages.

Kaikohe is well-shot if not especially complex or well-crafted, but it’s the most entertaining comedy of everything I’ve seen at the festival this year.

In My Father’s Den

New Zealand/UK

A prodigal son returns to his Otago hometown after the death of his father. Paul’s been a London-based war photographer for years and this is his first visit home since his mother committed suicide when he was sixteen.

There’s unfinished business with his brother, as with his ex girlfriend, who now has a teenaged daughter Celia born roughly nine months after Paul left town for good. Paul sees himself in Celia, a creative, intelligent misfit imprisoned in a town with no future for her. When Celia turns up missing, tongues, fingers and firearms start to wag.

Based on the 1972 Maurice Gee novel, In My Father’s Den updates the story to the present, one I expect will be relevant to the future for some time to come now. The mercilessly economical dialogue leaves out just the right amount to keep you begging for more. Biblical undertones and the fantastic sexual tension that the subtext of incest brings keep the story as tight as the script, all without feeling like they’re trying.

The Corporation

Canada

Of the world’s 100 largest economies, fifty-one are now corporations and forty-nine are countries. As corporations now have so much power, they often have the same legal rights and privileges as living people, this documentary examines what kind of a person the corporation is. This thoroughly researched and painstakingly examined answer is that the corporation is a raving psychopath without any sense of responsibility, ethics, or consideration for others.

Example: Fox News investigative journalists Jane Akre and Steve Wilson produce a television report that shows how Monsanto hormones are damaging the cows they’re used on and (surprise) coming out in people’s milk. Monsanto has a lot of lawyers and their products buy a lot of advertising time. Fox censors the story, fires the journalists, and sues THEM!

It’s not really news to me, or I think most people who go to film festivals, that large corporations are absolutely pathological in their pursuit of profit, but rarely has a film put the case in such an articulate and accessible manner.

There’s something I can’t figure out about the film, its tone and way of going about things, and it’s not until the end that I realize THIS IS AN EDUCATIONAL FILM. In the classic sense. Like the ones I watched in school. And it strikes me that it’s been that long since I saw something like this—a film whose purpose is to tell a story by conveying thoroughly-researched facts and information—elements that have been all but absent from television in the past few decades.

Just as much as it clearly demonstrates the anti-democratic, anti-human rights, anti-human behaviour of corporations, The Corporation defies the idea so ingrained in my head at school that educational films without star-power presenters or slapstick hijinks must be deadly boring. This one’s among the most startling and entertaining wake-up calls of recent decades and everyone should see it.

Persons of Interest

USA

Following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, 5000 Muslim and Arab-Americans were rounded up and (like NZ’s own Ahmed Zaoui), imprisoned without any indication of why or when they would be released. Some are still residing in Guantanamo Bay, but in Persons of Interest, twelve of their stories are finally made public for the world to see.

Well, for the part of the world who sees this documentary co-directed by Kiwi Alison Maclean and Tobias Pearse. But I fear the audience will be painfully small.

The entire film hardly leaves one empty room where the subjects stand in front of the camera and testify. The institutional setting is probably a decent replication of their incarceration and after watching for an hour I feel like I’ve been locked up myself.

I leave with a terrible sense of frustration at what a wasted opportunity this is. The atrocities of Homeland Insecurity are powerful stories that must be told, but the film presents them in such a bland manner that I cannot remember a single anecdote from it. And John Ashcroft couldn’t have done a better job himself at maintaining the illusion of freedom of the press and information by making a film like this, yet effectively censoring it by ensuring it was so boring that no one would watch it.

Checkpoint (Machssomim)

Israel

The state of Israel holds Palestinians captive in their own land, forcing them to pass through checkpoints to travel from place to place—when they are allowed to pass at all. This fly-on-the-wall documentary presents their stories of humiliation and frustration as well as those of the nineteen-year-old Israeli soldiers whose whims determine their fate.

It’s not a well-shot film, basically point and shoot handheld auto-focus, but the access it has to the situation makes it remarkable. It seems to me inconceivable that any other Western military institution would open itself up to this kind of public scrutiny, out of a well founded fear that it might be accurately portrayed (You guys want to come film what we’re doing in Guantanamo Bay? Sure! Come on in!)

What is perhaps even more remarkable about this film is that its Israeli director Yoav Shamir is able to bring out the humanity in this most degrading institution. Long, straight takes make you internalize the experiences of children, parents and grandparents whose access to the hospital, their schools and families can be granted or denied based on the mood swings of teenagers with machine guns.

The best scene of the film, though, is a snowball fight between the guards and the Palestinians where all involved are obviously having a riot of a time, yet the Palestinians are screaming, ‘This is the Intifada!’ Thousands of years of tensions can come out in a way they just can’t when you’re looking down the barrel of a gun.

On the Israeli side, the film also portrays the humanity of the young guards, who are also forced to stand out in the wind and rain and snow, and at times seem as much victims of the system as their victims are.

It’s not just spin doctors and marketing departments who keep films like this from being made, but also film funding bodies and broadcasters whose rules and regulations both implicitly and explicitly censor out documentary like this, and spend taxpayer money on ‘factual programming’ like New Zealand Idol.

Sándor Lau is a writer, filmmaker, journalist and Aotearoa’s only Chinese/Hungarian-American. Watch his shorts on www.nzshortfilm.com or contact him through email.

Volume 8, Issue 10 / October 2004 Festival Reports documentarynew zealandreviews_several_fi