19 Jul 2018

NZIFF 2018: Off the beaten track

From Widescreen, 11:18 am on 19 July 2018

Dan Slevin delves deeper into the 2018 film festival programme.

Sandra Hüller and Franz Rogowski flirt in the tea room in Thomas Stuber’s In the Aisles

Sandra Hüller and Franz Rogowski flirt in the tea room in Thomas Stuber’s In the Aisles Photo: NZIFF ( Anke Neugebauer)

Every year I ask the festival organisers to point me at some of the less-heralded titles in their programme. Out of 150-plus films, not every one is going to be a Cannes winner or from a director who is a household name. But they’ve all earned their slot in the programme and it would be a shame if the stampede for the more high profile movies means some of the smaller ones miss out.

The plan has gone somewhat awry this year as one of their selections, a documentary called Three Identical Strangers, has been selling so well that they have added extra sessions in Wellington.

Never mind. It may no longer fit the brief but it’s a marvellous story that I can’t stop thinking about. It starts off with a great premise – against the odds, three identical siblings separated at birth and adopted in to three different families find each other and take advantage of their new fame to live the high life in 80s Manhattan – but then unveils a conspiracy so heinous you will be tempted to rip the armrests off your seat and hurl them at the screen.

There are a few NZIFF documentaries that have become legendary in the way their stories bloom beautifully and surprisingly in front of unsuspecting audiences. Deep Water in 2006 about the ill-fated round-the-world yachtsman Donald Crowhurst was one. In 2007 there was Crazy Love about the frankly inexplicable Pugach marriage, was another. Three Identical Strangers belongs in that company.

David Kellman, Eddy Galland and Bobby Shafran appear in Three Identical Stangers by Tim Wardle, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Photo: NZIFF/Supplied

While we are on the subject of ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, there’s another New York story – fictional this time – that traverses similar ground. A Kid Like Jake is about an upper-middle class family looking for a kindergarten for their bright young son. It’s a competitive environment –with disappointment around every corner – and the pressure to deliver the very best for their child seems intolerable but understandable. “We went to public school and we turned out alright,” the parents say to each other every time they miss out on another place at a prestige institution.

But Jake might have an advantage in a world that is starting to see a commitment to diversity as a political and commercial advantage.

A Kid Like Jake started out as a stage play but – without ever seeing it – I’m going to say this works better opened out as a film. The anchor performances from the parents, Jim Parsons and Claire Danes, are excellent and Parsons (who I only know from The Big Bang Theory) was a revelation to me.

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Photo: NZIFF/Supplied

Some documentaries are all about the access – “I can’t believe they got these people to talk.” Some are about the story – see Deep Water above. Some are about the treatment. Rarely do you find all three but Bisbee ’17 is one of those.

In 1917, Bisbee Arizona was the world’s greatest copper mine. Fortunes were being made, especially with the Great War raging in Europe, but those fortunes were not being distributed to the largely migrant workers who were digging the stuff out of the ground. The IWW (or Wobblies), the most radical labour union of the period got amongst them and a strike was called. Breaking the strike wasn’t a question of negotiation or even political pressure. The local sheriff, Harry Wheeler from Tombstone, simply deputised the mostly white workers who wanted to continue working and, with their help, forced the strikers on to cattle cars and shipped them to the New Mexico desert with a warning never to return. This isn’t a spoiler – it’s the opening title card.

One hundred years later, Bisbee – now with nothing left of the copper mines but giant holes in the ground and a tiny tourism industry – attempts to commemorate the deportation and documentary maker Robert Greene was there with his crew. Bravely, the commemoration takes the form of a town-wide recreation of the event with citizens taking sides once more.

Never less than fascinating, Bisbee ’17 is a portrait of a small but diverse town attempting to reckon honestly with its history – the kind of thing we are led to believe doesn’t happen in Trump’s America. There’s a star-making “performance” from young Mexican migrant Fernando Serrano who, as the preparations for the recreation go on, starts to draw parallels between his own experience and that of the deported miners.

One of the executive producers of Bisbee ’17 is Laurene Powell-Jobs, widow of the Apple Computer billionaire, and I like to think he’s looking down on this film and its portrait of brutal inhuman capitalism with a WTF-look on his face.

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Photo: NZIFF/Supplied

Capitalism doesn’t appear to have made much headway in (the former) East Germany if the supermarket in In the Aisles is anything to go by. In New Zealand, the shelf-stacking night shifts are largely done by young, often migrant, workers on minimum wage. Here, it is middle-aged, white , time-servers who quarrel over forklifts or flirt over confectionery rescued from the bins out the back.

The main attraction of In the Aisles is the presence of Toni Erdmann’s break-out star Sandra Hüller but she’s under-used in a story where the main focus is Joaquin Phoenix lookalike Franz Rogowski, a former criminal attempting to rebuild his life in a quiet corner of the world. Hüller is the object of his affection and the way that relationship plays out is an example of the subtleties on offer in a film that’s all about character.

The description, “Germany’s best film since Toni Erdmann”, implies that pickings have been lean over the last few years but In the Aisles does have charm including a sequence where Rogowski unleashes his inner Buster Keaton with a power jack pallet stacker.


The New Zealand International Film Festival opens in Auckland today (50 years!), in Wellington next Friday and then travels the country until 19 September.