24 Jun 2023

How to live your best life at the New Zealand International Film Festival

1:05 pm on 24 June 2023
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Photo: RNZ/Nik Dirga

It’s cold outside and probably raining again, but it’s about to be the most wonderful time of year if you’re a movie lover.

Whānau Mārama New Zealand International Film Festival kicks off next month starting with Auckland and continuing throughout the country into September.

For 2023 the beloved festival is finally back at full strength, after the last several years were rocked by pandemic cancellations and downsizing.

Auckland's Civic Theatre.

Photo: RNZ / Nik Dirga

The festival programme will officially debut on Monday 26 June, although some movies have already been announced. There will be plenty of guides at RNZ and elsewhere about what to watch at this year’s Whānau Mārama, but equally critical is how to watch. With over 100 films on tap, it’s important to have a game plan. There’s something for pretty much every taste at NZIFF, whether you want a gripping thriller or a thoughtful art flick. 

NZIFF is not just an Auckland and Wellington thing. The festival begins in Auckland 19 July but also comes to Hamilton, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Nelson, Napier, Havelock North, Christchurch, Palmerston North, Masterton, Timaru, Dunedin and Gore, and this year both Whāngarei and Gisborne are also added to the list.

Unless you’re way out in the bush like Sam Neill in Hunt For The Wilderpeople, you’ve literally got no excuse. 

I’ve been going to the festival regularly for more than 15 years now, and picked up a few life lessons along the way. Here’s how to live your best life at Whānau Mārama New Zealand International Film Festival:

Why you should see a really old movie on the big screen

One of the festival’s greatest pleasures is watching a revival of a cinema classic on the biggest screen you can find. In the age of streaming, some of the medium’s greatest movies are almost impossible to find on Netflix and the like.

Film festivals remain one of the great ways to catch up on a classic. There’s nothing quite like seeing a masterpiece like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West or Russian genius Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker on an absolutely massive screen, both of which have featured at previous festivals. 

Even better, in Auckland you can see silent movies performed with live orchestra accompaniment just like they did it in the old days. This year, Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film The Circus will be performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra on the festival’s closing night 6 August. A live cinema screening is not to be missed - turn off your notifications and pretend it’s 1928 again!

Why you should celebrate NZ film as well as the big overseas releases

The global films are great, but a big part of NZIFF is celebrating our deep roster of local cinematic talent. For a tiny country at the bottom of the world we’ve got an insanely active cinema industry. Nine New Zealand films will premiere this year, and you’ve got a delightful roster of short films including Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Shorts finalists.
Be sure to seek out a few Aotearoa bangers to celebrate this truly local festival. 

Why you should see those big buzz Cannes films months before anyone else

NZIFF falls just a few months after the big Cannes film festival and we’re one of the first places to see the movies that will dominate the cinema geek conversation in coming months.

Last year, I took a punt on a Swedish director’s class satire with the intriguing title Triangle of Sadness. It had just won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and went on to multiple Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. The heaving crowd at the Civic devoured this pitch-black comic gem, which dances from sly jibes at the rich to over-the-top gross-out comedy.

There’s a wee bit of cult coolness to be had in knowing that you and your fellow New Zealand film buffs got there first. 

This year’s lineup of Cannes films already looks like a winner.

Why you should get outside your comfort zone

One of my all-time favourite NZIFF experiences was the extraordinary gentle and wise 2019 documentary about a Tongan family in South Auckland, For My Father’s Kingdom. Its premiere at the Civic had the theatre heaving with Tongan pride, music, and even members of the royal family in attendance.

I’m a middle-aged American who moved to Aotearoa years ago and might have felt like the odd man out for such a deeply Tongan experience, but the ‘ofa that filled the cinema that night was a beautiful thing to be part of no matter where you call home. At a film festival, you’re all part of the same community. 

Why you should see something incredibly strange

The festival is more than just fancy art films, and one of the best sections has always been the Incredibly Strange section curated by Ant Timpson, which features a way-out mix of gore, eccentricity and invention and some of the NZIFF’s most challenging, but rewarding selections.

You’ll find some of the rowdiest crowds for things like 2015’s heavy metal zombie NZ comedy Deathgasm, or Timpson’s own directorial debut, 2019’s disturbingly amusing Come To Daddy starring Elijah Wood. Take a punt on one of the strange selections that seems up your alley and you might just see something unforgettable.

Pick something just because it’s at a good time for you and be pleasantly surprised

Some people will binge on 20, 30 movies at the festival, but not all of us have that kind of free time. As you start to go through the schedule, one of my favourite tricks is to find a movie I absolutely must see, and then see what others are playing just before or after it to maximise my movie-watching time.

I’ve discovered fantastic Korean detective thrillers, obscure ‘90s pop culture documentaries and even an entire movie all about the art of making tea as a result of these timeline synergies, and it’s a great way to have a lucky dip to get the most you can out of the best time to be a film fan in New Zealand. 

The full NZIFF schedule for Auckland will be announced Monday 26 June with more detail to follow on the NZIFF website.

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