25 May 2023

2023 DocEdge Festival preview

From Widescreen, 11:47 am on 25 May 2023

Dan Slevin previews three titles from this year’s DocEdge festival, on the understanding that the full programme is so diverse this small selection can’t possibly be representative of the whole.

Once again, the DocEdge festival arrives in cinemas (and online) with a programme that challenges all our assumptions about … everything, really. Some of the selections come from established directors or studios but most are the result of years of painstaking work by independent filmmakers scraping by and these screenings might be their best chance of a decent crowd.

As usual, I asked the organisers to send me three options to preview, trusting that they are unlikely to be films I would normally choose for myself.

Movie still from the documentary Who I Am Not, featuring in the 2023 DocEdge Film Festival.

Photo: DocEdge

A world that is – on the surface – familiar but with a little closer attention utterly unfamiliar, Who Am I Not is about two extraordinary people, Sharon Rose Khumalo and Dimakatso Sebidi, both living lives of quiet desperation in present day South Africa.

They are intersex – a state of being that is shared by an estimated 150m million other people on this planet but one that is ignored, misunderstood, disdained and discriminated against. Collateral damage, you might say, in the culture wars over trans identities, these beautiful people wrestle to exhaustion with societal concepts of normality, family expectation, childhood trauma, medical ignorance and their own human needs for love and affection.

Sharon was a beauty queen – runner-up in Miss South Africa – before coming out as intersex. She feels profoundly female but doesn’t have the ‘required’ bits (or chromosomes).

Dimakatso presents (uncomfortably) as male but is confronted every day by a surgical history that damaged them irreversibly while still a chilled, but also left no medical record – no steps to be retraced and no way for the puzzle to be unravelled.

Both of these people – it should be said – love who they are but they are uncomfortable in their own bodies. As the film makes clear, that discomfort is not their fault.

Humanity – nature – contains multitudes and the quicker we learn to accept those multitudes the quicker we can simply get on with loving everyone around us and be loved in return.

Movie still from the documentary film Sailau, featuring in the 2023 DocEdge Film Festival.

Photo: DocEdge

Nature raises her fierce and resolute head regularly in Sailau, Thor F. Jensen’s film about his own quixotic adventure to circumnavigate the second largest island in the world in a traditional Papuan outrigger sailing canoe. Driven to press on against the advice of his Papuan sailors, Jensen is told repeatedly that his vessel – and the humans in his crew – are not machines. Not to simply be steered with a foot down on the throttle. Their energy drives the boat and if they don’t preserve and protect that energy, nature will devour them.

Jensen is a Danish adventurer, a handsome and well-funded ego with a dream to go where no one else has gone before. To sail around the island of Papua New Guinea in a traditional vessel – an outrigger maybe eight or nine metres long and no more than three metres wide.

Despite the fact that he has never sailed such a thing himself and requires expert indigenous sailors, that the seas they will be traversing are among the most treacherous on the planet, and they will have to deal with the complex geopolitical tensions of the Indonesian occupation of West Papua, Jensen remains indefatigable.

A journey that was expected to take six months eventuates as nearly 15. 90 percent of that time Jensen spends bailing out the boat – which apart from filming and narrating is the extent of his skillset – but the life-threatening encounters with, you know, big waves suggest at any moment that the journey could be much shorter.

There’s always the suspicion that Jensen’s crew – affable and capable though they are – continue to risk their lives because he is paying them to, and this is how they can support their young families. But all the sailors (only three of them) change a little bit before your eyes and one of the most moving stories is the Papuans buying their first smartphones in a flash mall in Jayapura and then using those phones to record their own diaries of the voyage, often complaining about the ‘white man’ and his disrespect for ‘nature’.

The film is absorbing and often thrilling and, like me, you will spend a lot of the time wondering how they will survive.

Archival photo of the singer Donna Summer used in the documentary film Love to love You Baby Donna Summer, featuring in the 2023 DocEdge Film Festival

Photo: DocEdge

Donna Summer was one of the greatest stars that ever lived, dominating the late 70s and early 80s disco scene with hits like 'Love to love You Baby', 'I Feel Love' and 'Bad Girls'.

The Queen of Disco persona, though, did not sit easily with her. A gospel singer as a child, and then a musical theatre nut in the early 70s, she felt constrained by the breathy “sexy” singing voice from her hits when she knew she was capable of so much more.

The documentary Love to love You, Donna Summer, directed by Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano (one of Summer’s three daughters), draws on extensive family archives and interviews recorded with Summer late in her life and reveals a complex and multi-talented woman who never quite received her full due.

This film is an HBO production and, as you would expect, is beautifully produced. There’s no voiceover or talking heads so I had to concentrate quite hard on who it was we were hearing at any one time but I really appreciated the insights and the music still sounds very fine.

The DocEdge Film Festival opened last night in Auckland and then plays until Monday 5 June (encore screenings) and then plays Wellington from 7 to 18 June. Let’s hope they can expand to other centres in future years but for now there is the virtual cinema option for online viewing of many titles.