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AucklandJuly 20, 2017

Spirit encounters: the filmmaker who became a shaman

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With the Film Festival now underway we asked we asked a whole bunch of filmmakers to tell us about a film they’re specially keen to see, and about their own film too. Here’s the first instalment: Paul Wolffram, Katie Wolfe and Robin Greenberg.

What Lies That Way director Paul Wolffram recommends Maliglutit

I’m looking forward to Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit (Searchers). He’s the director who made the classic tale Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, set among the Inuit people of the Arctic region. I’m an ethnographic filmmaker myself and I also work with isolated communities, so I can appreciate the difficulties of working among people who have such a different cultural perspective and world view from those of the film’s intended audience.

The people I work with in the remote Lak region of Papua New Guinea exist in an environment that is literally the opposite to that of Inuit peoples. New Ireland is a large island above the mainland of Papua New Guinea (PNG), just below the equator. The heat and humidity in the rainforest are difficult to work in, in a way that is very different from the terrifying harshness of the vast barren landscapes of the Arctic. The rainforest offers its own dangers, the most significant of which is the rampant drug-resistant malaria that contributes to the high infant mortality in the region and makes the islands a dangerous place for outsiders to live in.

I’ve contracted malaria six times over the 16 years I’ve been working in PNG, and on more than one occasion I’ve found myself in a difficult situation, isolated in a hut in the bush or a remote aid post. I’ve suffered partial renal failure and I’ve lost more than 12kg in 10 days. These experiences gave me an enhanced appreciation of the difficulties of the environment and an enormous respect of the people with whom I was invited to live.

Over two years I lived in the rainforest learning to sing and dance. I was initially a little astounded about how quickly the local aesthetics of the music and dance became emotionally engaging and poignant for me. Learning to sing in the local language was a profound experience, coming to understand how to move my body in a dance, learning which muscle groups should be taut and which joints and limbs allowed to flow and waft like the feathers of a bird.

My film What Lies That Way is an attempt to give outsider audiences a glimpse of the ancient artistic traditions that exist in these remote communities. I spent 14 years learning the music and dance traditions, during various trips to the islands, and then I decided I was ready to attempt to enter the shamanic practice that allows men to become composers and choreographers. The practice is well known in the island region of PNG but few men undergo the initiation.

What Lies That Way

Prospective initiates have to fast without food or water for four days in an isolated region of the rainforest. After my first 24 hours I was given substances to ingest and then left by myself to witness the approach of the spirits. The spirit beings offer the initiate a choice between the light and the dark, creativity or destruction. It’s up to the initiate to follow their heart and pursue wise choices.

The process is understood as dangerous and spiritually hazardous, and I found it both a terrible ordeal and unbelievably elating. I’m still coming to terms with it. What it means to be a shaman in PNG is one thing but how I might employ this knowledge among my own community in New Zealand is unclear.

I hope the film provides audiences with some sense of the privileged insight that I’ve been lucky enough to be given by the communities who have shared their language, culture, secrets and lives with me over all these years. If you’re seeking adventure and are eager for new experiences I hope to see you at Kunuk’s Maliglutit (Searchers), and I humbly suggest you seek tickets to the premiere screenings of What Lies That Way.

Maliglutit (Searchers): July 21, 24, 25, 30 (all dates are for Auckland screenings; other centres follow).
What Lies That Way:  August 3,4.


Waru co-director Katie Wolfe recommends The Party and Loveless

The Party by Sally Potter sounds deliciously acidic and Loveless by Andrey Zvyagintsev promises to be devastating. Both these films feature adults conducting themselves inside the framework of a marriage: the kind of stories I find very compelling. They remind me that my entertainment comfort zone is actually being made to feel uncomfortable.

I hugely admire both filmmakers: Zvyagintsev’s film Elena is an all-time fave, and Potter’s Orlando was unforgettable when I first saw it. I don’t think Waru is a comfortable film. It’s about child abuse and explores the guilt, pride and defeat of eight women dealing with the death of a child. That’s a heavy kaupapa. It was shot by eight women directors, each using a single shot, and I think the tension created by that discipline is palpable throughout the film. Waru will definitely join the canon in the cinema of unease.

The Party: July 21, 27; August 3,5.
Waru: August 2,6.
Loveless: August 3,4,5,6.

Team Tibet: Home away from Home

Team Tibet director Robin Greenberg recommends My Life as a Courgette

I really want to recommend My Life as a Courgette for its innovative and whimsical take on difficult issues, including childhood trauma and foster care, in a story told with a positive and heart-warming spin. The charming animation and delightful score make this a film that stays with you long after you’ve left the cinema.

Aspects of these same themes resonate strongly for me with my feature documentary Team Tibet – Home away from Home, which celebrates its world premiere at the festival. Over the years of filming, the life of our central character, Thuten Kesang QSM, New Zealand’s first Tibetan refugee, has never ceased to amaze me. And we’re pleased that the first screening coincides with the 50th anniversary of his arrival to Auckland.

Thuten-la faced innumerable obstacles in his early life in Tibet and India, including becoming orphaned in the wake of the Chinese military takeover of Tibet in 1959. An unexpected silver lining was his serendipitous connection with a Scottish bachelor called Mr Crow, who became a kind of surrogate father to young Thuten-la, opening many doors for him. The spirit of ‘giving back’ that Mr Crow inspired in Thuten-la has become a guiding force in his life.

While Team Tibet represents a personal exploration of migration and current Tibet issues, including the dire situation of self-immolations in Tibet and environmental issues, the film is also a universal story of the true meaning of home, and of loss and belonging. Thuten-la’s life is an empowering example of the effect of determination, patience and compassion in the face of adversity – and of belief in the potential of non-violent social change as a political force. As Thuten-la says, “Truth is the weapon.”

My Life as a Courgette: July 21,23; August 5,6.
Team Tibet: July 22,23.

For bookings and more on the festival, visit the official site. Lots of trailers are here. And don’t miss The Spinoff’s top ten festival film picks, plus tips on how to make the most of the festival.

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