21 Jul 2017

Digging deeper into the NZIFF

From Widescreen, 11:46 am on 21 July 2017

Dan Slevin previews some of the less-heralded features in this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.

Richard Turner and the tools of his trade.

Richard Turner and the tools of his trade. Photo: NZIFF

A couple of weeks ago, on Jesse Mulligan 1-4, I opined that the best way to enjoy the New Zealand International Film Festival is often to just choose films at random on a day you feel like going to a film. Let serendipity play your cards for you. Be surprised.

In that spirit, when it came to a writing a formal preview for the just opened festival, I asked them to offer me some of their less-heralded titles, the ones that didn’t necessarily make it into the press releases. With over 150 features to choose from that wasn’t going to be hard.


Baltimore girls go ’round the outside...

Baltimore girls go ’round the outside... Photo: NZIFF

Three documentaries out the four selections and two of them end with the, now traditional, victory over adversity that sends audiences out into the street feeling good. Step is about a group of Baltimore teenage girls at a charter school dedicated to getting them into college – a step forward that, because of their various disadvantages, would be unlikely otherwise. Step itself is competitive dancing – more sport than dance in some ways but an opportunity for expression that is grabbed with vigour by these driven young women.

Amanda Lipitz, the director, has a keen eye for character moments – for some interesting parents as well as the girls – and it intelligently underlines how there are no second chances. The pressure is often unbearable. There’s a haunting scene at a monument to Freddie Gray, a black student who died in Police custody in 2015, the Step coach reminds these women that, as black women, they are at the bottom of the heap in society and the girls all nod knowingly…


Richard Turner’s story is one of those that at first you find impossible to believe – a ‘card mechanic’ and professional stage magician who turns out to be completely blind – but as the portrait unfolds becomes perfectly understandable. Luke Korem, the director, allows Turner’s unique combination of character traits – stubbornness, perfectionism, hatred of sympathy, possibly even masochism when it comes to his love of martial arts – to emerge slowly until we get one of the most rounded character studies of recent years.

We also get quite a satisfying arc as he realises that his philosophy of denial might not be helping all that much as he gets older. There are also some generous close-ups of his card skills – in which you still won’t be able to see how he does it – and the film confirms something I’ve long suspected and that is that stage magicians are the worst-dressed people in the world.

That’s Not Me

Alice Foulcher as Polly. Wait, Amy. No, I was right the first time, Polly.

Alice Foulcher as Polly. Wait, Amy. No, I was right the first time, Polly. Photo: NZIFF

It’s not often that I disagree with a festival blurb – these are often the best Kiwi film writing you’ll find in print – but the comparisons between this Melbourne indie and raucous comedy Bridesmaids seem to be drawing a long bow and may set expectant audiences up for disappointment. Alice Foulcher (executive producer, producer, co-writer and star) has created a memorable character – Polly is a not very successful actor looking on while her identical twin sister (Foulcher again) turns a scene-stealing turn in a soap opera into Hollywood fame and fortune.

There are lots of interesting ideas here but some clichés too, and to my mind the film spends too long setting up a confrontation that is then over too quickly. Foulcher is a great screen presence with a nice – and very a la mode – comic sense, and she generously allows Isabel Lucas to steal all her scenes as another Aussie actress trying to make it in Los Angeles.


They managed to find something still alive down there, despite humanity’s best efforts

They managed to find something still alive down there, despite humanity’s best efforts Photo: NZIFF

Finally, another documentary – in the perilous genre of environmental documentary. At least this one isn’t fronted by Leonardo DiCaprio. Blue’s attention is on the oceans around Australia and the mostly unseen damage being done by over fishing and neglect. It looks very much like we are replacing fish with plastic rubbish in most parts of the Pacific and the discovery that even plankton are mostly plastic now has implications for every stage of the food chain.

Films like this need to provide some sense of hope or audiences will walk straight out of the theatre and in front of the first passing bus and there are several campaigns listed that we can join or support financially, but the greatest strength of the film is its photography. Spectacular, even when documenting some utterly depressing truths.


The full programme can be found at the NZIFF site.