Whether you're the sort of person who lives and breathes film, or simply someone known to enjoy the occasional headliner, this year's New Zealand International Film Festival has something for everybody. There will be the obscure, sometimes arcane, pieces that you won't see elsewhere, but beyond this, the festival continues to speak to a remarkable variety of filmic inclinations, and tends to forecast the movies that will return to local cinematic hotspots for extended seasons.
We've already weighed in on the homegrown fare to be sampled, and encouraged you to get along and meet some talented filmmakers. Now, with the entire program at our disposal, we're here to offer you our ten picks for this year's festival. With a total of 155 feature-length films, from no fewer than 40 countries, getting down to this decuplet was no easy task. In the end, however, each of the films chosen distinguishes itself by integrating at least one of the following components — a cult director, a contribution to the political vernacular, or just plain ol' good drama. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, NZIFF is also taking a glance in the proverbial rear-view mirror, with a selection of favourites from past iterations screening near you soon.
Chilean auteur Sebastián Lelio, director of last year's acclaimed A Fantastic Woman, returns to NZIFF with his first English-language offering, Disobedience. Though it's been headlining for regrettably prurient reasons —Rachel Weisz says the sex scene with Rachel McAdams was the best of her career — don't let the gossip cloud your vision. And if the philosophic musings of the protagonists in Naomi Alderman's novel are forfeited in bringing Disobedience to the big screen, such a forfeit is perhaps better thought of as a lossless currency conversion. Weisz and McAdams, as leads Ronit and Esti, transpose the book's moments of loquacity into elegant silences, looks of aching equivocation, and a simmering eroticism that fluctuates and lingers on, well beyond the film's duration. Signalling a new era in queer film, at least in the portrayal of LGBT+ women, Disobedience steps outside of the good vs bad, conservative vs liberal narrative. When sexuality, gender, and religion intersect, as they do here, a number of sinuous, possibly irresolvable tensions, ensue. That Lelio and his leads portray these fraught moments with sensitivity and passion makes Disobedience a surefire candidate for the coming awards season.
I am often struck by the misguided moralism of people who consider petty, non-violent crime to be on par with assault and big-business tax fraud. This year's winner of the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes, Shoplifters, gets us outside of such pedantic, simplistic patterns of thought, in its tender portrayal of a Tokyo family struggling to make ends meet. The Shibatas, the film's eponymous shoplifters, scrimp, save, and steal in order to survive. Catalyst to the film's narrative is the arrival of an abused and abandoned child wandering in the Shibatas neighbourhood. Rather than notify the authorities, and thereby risk exposing their own precarious living situation, the family take the child in. Yet the child's background, one of comparative privilege and wealth, will quickly complicate matters. Kore-eda Hirokazu, who brought us such gems as Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm, makes even the long-time sceptic of naturalism pause for thought. For though filmmakers seem ever-more willing to discuss class and economic equality, few do it so well, so compassionately, and so critically as Hirokazu does through his naturalist lens. His movies are as good as any academic treatises on inequality, but unlike the latter, remain exoteric. This rare knowledge of the gulf between equality and equity courses through his oeuvre, and Shoplifters looks likely to further this impression.
Kore-ada Hirokazu's other, darker entry into this year's NZIFF, The Third Murder, might be thought of as asking a question that many people continue to consider 'open and shut': is someone who commits heinous crimes to be solely defined by these acts? Our protagonist Misumi (Koji Yakusho), who, at the film's opening, has already spent 30 years in prison for a murder committed in the 1980s, is standing trial again for another murder to which he has subsequently confessed. But, just as quickly as we and the court jump to a conclusion that he who murders once will do so again, things get hazy.
Apart from the odd frown, it's fair to say that, in Auckland, I can walk hand-in-hand and kiss my girlfriend in public. Though this is no watertight index of societal diversity, and latent homophobia remains rampant here as everywhere, my situation is nevertheless worlds apart from that of Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), the two young Kenyan protagonists who fall in love in Wanuri Kahui's second feature film, Rafiki. In Kenya, same-sex relationships remain punishable by prison sentences of some 14 years duration.
But let's be clear, homophobia such as this, upheld at the level of the state — the film itself is banned in Kenya, an inimical instance of life mirroring art — does not operate equally on all bodies. Kena and Ziki, both as queer women and people lacking in economic resources, face a complex matrix of discrimination. Luckily, Kena is badass, bold, and beguiling. She drives the film, dares us to desire something more than this along with her, and even convinces us that, in spite of the odds stacked against her, she's never going to back down.
In the film's trailer, we bear witness to a touching moment between Lara (newcomer Victor Polster) and her psychiatrist. Rather than making sex and gender a matter of what lies between one's legs, the psychiatrist astutely argues that any hormones or surgery Lara may choose to undergo will only "confirm and support" what already is manifest; namely, that she, Lara, is a girl. In this way I find myself concurring with Peter Debruge, of Variety Magazine, who writes: "In simple, unambiguous terms, [director Lukas] Dhont delivers [in Girl] an intuitively accessible look at a gender nonconforming teenager trying to find the courage to be herself."
With its supremely enigmatic trailer, Burning leaves us hankering for more. As one reviewer puts it, "The embers are banked up so gradually and relentlessly that it's not until a few hours after the ending of this elusive, riveting masterpiece that you are far enough away to appreciate the scale of the conflagration." Based on a Murakami Haruki short story, Korean great Lee Chang-dong's (Secret Sunshine, Poetry) latest is, by critical consensus, a masterpiece. Though it left Cannes without a prize, the mark it etched on viewers there was indelible. Indeed, Burning achieved the highest ever rating by Screen International's jury, probably more of an endorsement than any trophy could bestow upon a film. The love triangle at the centre of this film ripples, like a beautiful ocean that happens to be frequented by sharks, with jealousy and mystery. To say more here would be to ruin the fun.
From Paul Schrader, the writer behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, comes a similarly nuanced tale of male self-destruction. A country priest, played by the ever-enchanting Ethan Hawke, questions his faith after an unnerving encounter with a radical environmentalist.
Timely in a bittersweet manner, Desiree Akhavan's The Miseducation of Cameron Post zooms in on the hypocrisy, deceit, and material violence located at the heart of so-called 'gay conversion therapy' (a practice which remains legal in New Zealand). When we meet Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz), it's the year 1993, and she's negotiating adolescence in small town America; specifically, she's preparing herself for prom. If all that wasn't hard enough, Cameron likes girls. And, thanks to a jealous boyfriend, who catches her making out with her girlfriend Coley, Cameron is swiftly carted off to a conversion camp named God's Promise, somewhere on the outskirts of Montana. In this ominous locale, LGBT+ teens are called 'disciples,' and assisted by a 'well-meaning' team, in identifying the cause of their sinful ways (the goal, of course, being that they use such self-knowledge to rid themselves of their unholy passions).
The brilliance of this film lies in its willingness to approach its subject seriously, but never so much so as to let this seriousness overwhelm its tone — there are plentiful moments of touching humour and comradery, and perhaps more notably still, no voyeuristic moments of physical violence; meaning that we avoid the persistent, pernicious narrative of queers as always already deprived of agency. Finally, this touching drama comes with a supreme recommendation; if you haven't heard, it scooped the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
"A single mother turned border guard and a refugee from Guinea-Bissau form an unlikely bond in this intimate Icelandic drama about two people literally and figuratively trapped on the edge of the world."
The 2018 NZIFF begins in Auckland on Thursday, 19 July and in Wellington on Friday, 27 July.