One of my favorite things to liven up a dreary, rainy Auckland winter is the New Zealand International Film Festival, which brightens every July with a slate of dozens of local and international movies. This year I was heavily in a documentary frame of mind, and saw several great docs that are well worth seeking out. Another highlight was a most excellent screening of Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti western "Once Upon A Time In The West" in the glorious Civic Theatre -- you haven't lived until you've seen Charles Bronson's eagle eyes staring you down from a sweeping wide screen the size of a house.
Here's the movies I checked out at the fest this year:
There Once Was An Island: Te Henua e Noho
Takuu, 250 km off the mainland of New Guinea, is slowly washing away. Climate change and rising seas are wreaking havoc on this tiny atoll community of just 500 people who have lived there for hundreds of years. This documentary, directed by New Zealander Briar March, looks at the uncertain future the islanders face as seas overtake their land -- just a few feet above sea level. It's a beautifully shot documentary that has a clear focus on the dilemma the people of Takuu face, one likely to plague other communities in coming years. These aren't unspoiled island people who've never seen an airplane; they are part of the modern world, but still faithfully keeping to their old traditions. The tiny size of Takuu and its isolated place make it a kind of oasis, but not without problems. March picks a few islanders and their stories to focus on -- particularly sad is the woman who left the island years ago who left behind her family, but returns once a year or so from the mainland. It's very hard for me to imagine what it would be like to live on a tiny island not much bigger than some strip malls, with only a ferry a couple of times a year. There's a hopefulness to "Island," but you still feel that you're likely watching the end of something. It's kind of heartbreaking, even though it's a beautiful little movie.
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
I love the Magnetic Fields, which are basically Stephin Merritt and a cast of collaborators brewing up askew, witty and dark chamber-pop music such as the classic triple album "69 Love Songs." Merritt's doom-deep voice and songs like "No One Will Ever Love You," "Love Is Like Jazz" and "I Don't Believe In The Sun" have often left me wondering what the man himself is actually like. Enter this documentary, a real treat for Fields fans. Merritt himself is an amusing contradiction -- with his deep bass rumble you might expect him to be an ascot-wearing bear of a man, but the diminuitive figure resembles nothing so much as Elmer Fudd. The film makes a big deal of Merrit's reputation as a grouchy fellow, but the portrait that emerges here is less scathing. In fact, it's often kind of sweet, especially when it delves into the symbiotic relationship Merritt has with Claudia Gonson, instrumentalist and manager who basically handles all the "little details" of his life. "Powers" is best at how it takes you into the day-to-day life of a semi-famous musician -- the rehearsals, the hours spent writing, the time wasted on publicity interviews. The Magnetic Fields have never been big stars, but they've been adored in their own fashion. This movie is a fine valentine to Merritt's work and surly charm.
"American : The Bill Hicks Story"
Bill Hicks never quite made it to the big time, but in his brief life, he was one of the US's most incendiary, hilarious stand-up comedians, unafraid to break barriers. This highly entertaining doc interviews family and friends to recreate Bill's life before his shocking death from cancer at the age of 32. It's a kind of rise and fall and rise and fall and rise again movie. At first I thought the movie made Hicks seem rather shallow, not as revelatory as the comedy bits I've seen of him. But the cleverness of "American" is that it gradually shows the evolution of a comic's style, from his mugging gags beginning to the end, where Hicks had begun to resemble some kind of wild-eyed prophet, the son of Lenny Bruce, fiercely cutting with his wit. Hicks developed a voice in his short lifetime, and "American" is the story of how he got there. The directors make a curious stylistic choice to "re-enact" scenes from Hicks' life using animated still photos; while it looks kind of funky in a faux-3D way, I felt the technique distracted me more often than not. The best parts of "American" are the copious footage of Hicks' voice raging away at the dying of the light, a sound that's still potent 15 years after his death.
Directed by and starring Adrian Grenier, best known as Vincent Chase on TV's Entourage, this is a meta hall of mirrors that looks at celebrity and society's obsession with it. Grenier was "shot" one day by a 13-year-old kid named Austin Visschedyk who said he was a paparazzi. Striking up a friendship with Austin, Grenier dives into a fascinating big-brother sort of relationship with the kid, following him as he hangs out in Los Angeles til 2am chasing down Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan (yes, the parenting here is rather questionable). Grenier learns what drives the paparazzi, and even tries his hand at "papping" himself. He also sees Austin become famous himself, ending up on a reality TV show. By the end we've been spun around all sides of the celebrity cycle -- Grenier avoids judging celebs or paparazzi, and the film's general even-handed tone is welcome. I was pleasantly surprised by how much depth "Paparazzo" has to it, although it slides a bit too heavily into academic theorizing towards the end. But it really leaves you thinking about the stars we love and why we're so obsessed by them (heck, I even had a bit more respect for Paris Hilton by the end, no mean feat). This screening was highlighted by Grenier's attendance down here in NZ, and a half-hour Q&A afterwards with him. He's nothing at all like "Vinnie" in real life of course, and I was quite impressed by his talk and musings on the celebrity culture. Definitely check this one out if you get a chance.
(Can't seem to find a trailer for this one but plenty of footage on the website!)