As the Auckland leg draws to its close, our reviewers hail a clutch of restored and modern classics.
Leave No Trace
I asked Brent after we saw Leave No Trace, “Did I cry so much because it’s such an excellent imagining of a tragic situation, or did I cry so much because it’s such an accurate rendering of reality?” Am I crying for the story or am I crying for the truth? Debra Granik’s first feature since Winter’s Bone is probably so good because it’s both an incredibly crafted piece of story-telling and a reflective surface.
Barry Lam’s philosophy podcast Hi-Phi Nation has a compelling couple of episodes about the ethics of war. Lam introduces the second of these by asking, ‘For some reason, when people kill others in wars, we do not judge them morally and legally in the same way as we judge them when they kill in civilian life. Is there a justification for this difference, or is it only a convenient myth?’ The convenient myth, as I see it, allows a population of our society to outsource the horror of war. In most prosperous countries, there’s a fighting class. A group of people – often poor – who fight and kill so we don’t have to in order to enjoy the benefits of peace. I’ve lived at close proximity to military training and it seems important that soldiers become people who live outside society. They need to kill and in order to be a killer there has to be a change in their psychology that makes it difficult, maybe impossible, to live comfortably in a community of non-killers. Then we send them away, they experience terrible things and when they return we ask them to fit into the communities we separated them from. Leave No Trace reflects this reality exceptionally well. Ben Foster’s Will is trying to find a way to survive after his return from war, but his solution isn’t the one society deems appropriate or finds comfortable. As well as a stinging critique Leave No Trace is a tragic love song to the desire to be left alone.
Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini’s script, based on Peter Rock’s 2010 novel My Abandonment, shapes this life and its echoes of reality into a story that makes the truth even truer somehow. This isn’t a story of a lone man’s struggle. In Will’s care is his teenage daughter Tom, played to perfection by New Zealander Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. Will is doing an amazing job of raising Tom but she brings complications he would not have if he was by himself. These complications bring into stinging focus Will, Tom and the nature of the situation. The script hits a perfect balance of drama and documentary. From church scarf-dancers to Future Farmers of America the film includes snapshots of our moment in time.
Homelessness is a real and visible problem in Portland, part of the setting of Leave No Trace. The 2015 point-in-time count conducted in Multnomah Country reported that,”On one particular night, 3,800 people slept on the streets, in shelter, and in temporary housing, and an estimated 12,000 people were doubled up, many in overcrowded and often unsafe conditions”. I get a little queasy about the juxtaposition of desperate living and lush green parks bordered by weathered bridges. I always feel like Oregon belongs to Kelly Reichardt, possibly my favourite filmmaker. It was hard for me not to make comparisons with Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy or even some of Old Joy. I feel like Reachardt’s intimacy and perhaps lack of budget captures something that Leave No Trace might be on the verge of missing. But Portland and its homeless are only part of Granik’s film. The photography of the Washington State forest is, in particular, just magnificent – it’s palpable.
Leave No Trace is a beautiful and emotionally resonant film.
Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen
Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen was born out of a challenge. At a post-screening Q+A, Heperi ‘Hepi’ Mita (Merata’s youngest son, to fellow New Zealand filmmaking legend Geoff Murphy) told how Ciff Curtis called him a few years back for a lunch meeting and there laid down a wero (challenge). Cliff wanted his freshly minted production company (Ārama Pictures) to tell the story of his famed mentor: filmmaker, activist, and wahine toa Merata Mita. But they would only do it on the condition that Hepi directed the film. Hepi took up the wero and began a process of that culminated in this wonderful cinematic taonga as well as an array of spillover benefits.
As much a process personal discovery as it is a biopic, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen’s central thread is about the importance of whanau. In interview clips, from across the decades, Merata keeps coming back to family as her driving motivation: that by her choices she might help in some small way to create a better future for her children. We partake in the story of struggle from which Merata emerged as a powerful voice for indigenous peoples – Māori women in particular. Hepi, who grew up in a more settled and privileged phase of Merata’s life and career, learns the high cost of his mother’s choices, both for her personally and for his older siblings, and poses the question: were the sacrifices worth it? The making of Merata has demonstrably drawn her children closer and enabled them to surface and work through significant emotional damage arising from struggles in their early family life. We get a window into the disturbing consequences – including violent physical and psychological harassment – resulting from Merata’s spearheading stories of sociopolitical dissent, such as the Bastion Point occupation by Ngāti Whātua of the late 70s in Bastion Point: Day 507 and anti-apartheid protests amidst the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand in her iconic New Zealand film Patu!
The filmmaker wisely opts to let his mother tell much of her own story, utilising hours of archival interview footage he has unearthed in his research, including rare clips from her unreleased films. (And of personal interest to me, as an audiovisual collections manager — some of Merata’s more well known classics have also been freshly captured and restored as part of the process of making Merata.) Hepi uses the onscreen conceit of a physical film frame as a nice visual touch to distinguish all archival footage displayed from present day interviews. This is particularly fitting given that the director works as a film archivist in the ex-Film Archive section of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. Indeed we see multiple clips of Hepi at his workstation looking through and scanning old canisters of 16mm film (quite the sexy addition for us film/archive nerds!) The above is one illustration of the director’s creative approach to telling his mother’s story; Merata is far from the dry fact-relating exercises that so often pass for biographical documentaries. Instead, Hepi &c. have produced an incredibly moving account of this determined Māori woman defying the constraints of her context, at great personal cost, to help forge of pathways for Māori, for women, and for indigenous storytellers worldwide. Merata lays down a wero for us all: what will we do with our own lives to make a better future for the generations who follow?
From the first shot of a small boy standing in his underwear in a dilapidated office, Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm grabs the audience and doesn’t let go. Zaid, who looks about 8 but believes he is 12, lives a hardscrabble life with his parents and seven younger sisters, working as a delivery boy and street hawker and running drugs into a local prison. When he can’t stop his parents from marrying off his 11 year old sister he leaves home on a Dickensian journey through the slums of a city vastly expanded by refugees, where women and children are continually the victims at the very bottom of the heap. Bordercrossing and getting official papers is a big theme this film festival for obvious reasons, and Capharnaüm has scenes in common with both Little Woods and And Breathe Normally but this social realist drama takes its canvas much bigger, as Zaid’s eventual decision to sue his parents for his very existence (announced on national TV) leads to the slightly odd courtroom framing device that reveals his full story. This is Labaki’s third film, each very different from the other, though they have all put a spotlight on the position of women in Lebanese society. Here she makes her street urchin imprisoned for stabbing a man the moral centre of the story; there has been very little room in Zaid’s life for things like honesty and integrity, but he is his steadfast in his loyalty and belief that children should not be sold.
Perhaps Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass is a mockumentary? Or perhaps the “War in Donbass”, as the Ukrainian director’s film depicts it, is a cruel mockery of fake news, contrived justifications for violence, and the desires of the power-hungry? Whatever the case, Loznitsa’s film is awash with typically bleak Eastern European gallows humour as he knits together a patchwork of grimly realistic vignettes from around the embattled Donetsk region of the Ukraine. Actors prepare for an all too real fake news segment to keep the fires of war stoked; foreign journalists are given the run-around by cynical soldiers who mouth off about how they will never be defeated, only to be caught in a bomb blast mid-tirade; families are split along political lines with parents living in bunkers without proper water, electricity, or heating whilst their adult children live in luxury by virtue of proximity to the powers in the Pro-Russian regime; the ‘rebel’ military coercively requisitions private property and funds to “support the war effort” against “the fascists”; the first marriage is celebrated under the law of the unrecognised State of Novorussiya (New Russia), which seems as if it might be heavily arranged; Ukrainian civilians are berated by soldiers for not being able to speak properly (i.e. in Russian); and much, much more.
Loznitsa and cinematographer Oleg Mutu stitch these vignettes together with creative join-work. For example: during an early sequence when a corrupt official is stopped and interrogated at a border checkpoint, the camera switches focus onto a bus going in the other direction, signalling a narrative change as we now follow the tale of the bus passengers. A preponderance of handheld ‘documentary style’ camerawork creates the illusion of reality. In fact, it is difficult to ascertain just how staged any given part of this actually is. Certainly, the immediacy engendered by this style of shooting is strongly felt – as buses explode or angry mobs beat a captured opposition soldier etc. – but in between the near constant array of shaky-cam follow shots the filmmakers sneak in some beautifully framed, locked-off sequences, which can be easily missed, the effect made subconscious. I feared that the film might be a touch slow for this late in my festival run (Loznitsa’s style is often ponderously oblique) but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Donbass ticked along quite nicely and was thoroughly engaging, in its own wry, depressingly twisted way.
Raise the Red Lantern
Just as the Wellington festival is in full swing, we say goodbye in Auckland to another year of NZIFF, farewell to the giant flamingos on the Civic curtain, Auf Wiedersehen to the dozens of films we wanted to see but could never fit in. There seems something particularly final to this ending, the 50th anniversary of the film festival in Auckland — less an end of a book and more an end of a chapter, but still. Or maybe I see things this way because it’s possible I’ve seen the last 35mm print to be projected as part of the film festival.
This is wild irresponsible conjecture on my part, and yet it’s totally possible. There have been celluloid-free NZIFFs already, skilled projectionists aren’t getting any younger or more readily available, prints are expensive, and the number of people who care about seeing film are declining. This is why I made it a priority to see both prints on offer this year, the previously reviewed The Atlantic and Zhang Yimou’s 1991 international smash.
This was my first time seeing Raise the Red Lantern. One great thing about retrospective programming is that it allows you to catch up with classics that have passed you by. Another thing is that the imprimatur of “classic” can transcend the biases you’ve evolved in your filmgoing habits. This is to say that I can’t be much bothered with classical drama these days, and will always deprioritise films that put drama first in favour of films that put innovative visual and aural storytelling first, that try to short-circuit the familiar and wake us to a different mode of seeing.
Raise The Red Lantern is a classical drama, and if it were made in 2018, I’d probably dimly know that it involved a woman becoming the fourth concubine to a master and would have skipped it entirely. Instead, I went in largely blind to anything other than knowledge of the film’s high esteem, and was reminded just how great classical drama can be. At its best, plot revelations should feel both unexpected and inevitable. Forty-five minutes in, I was convinced I knew exactly where the film was going, thanks to the introduction of two key elements; by the end, it was clear I was 100% wrong about how those elements would reveal themselves, and the film’s resolution was much more satisfying (and shattering) than what I had contrived.
Undoubtedly Su Tong’s source novel deserves much of the praise for the story, but what’s been added in the film adaptation is equally crucial. Zhang uses the full range of visual distance to stage his scenes – some unfolding entirely in a close-up on Gong Li’s face, some happening in extreme wide shots – thus preventing his claustrophobic chamber drama from becoming too claustrophobic. The cinematography and production design live up to the hype, without being as over-the-top stylized as Zhang’s later efforts Hero and The Great Wall. And his staging cleverly frames the kept concubines in boxes of various forms, while the performances are bow-to-stern superlative.
Having seen the ultra-crisp images of Burning on the same screen (and the same front-row circle seat) last week, I was surprised at just how soft Raise the Red Lantern was. Whether it was a projection issue that left the extreme wide shots of the film feeling more like an Impressionist painting, an issue with generational loss in creating the prints (as happened with Wings of Desire, which appeared in a stunning crisp digital restoration that virtually re-invents the film), or just the way Zhang’s film was shot, I’m not sure. (The subs were slightly soft but highly readable, and close-up shots were beautiful.) Some issues with the aspect ratio meant some tricky reframing was required on the fly to keep subtitles in frame, thus chopping off the very top of shots. These used to be standard frustrations of filmwatching practice, which have largely disappeared in the digital era.
In the long run, being a cinephile requires either confronting or denying the aging process.Raise The Red Lantern came out in 1991, which doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but I work with people younger than it. I went with a friend’s family, including a 12- and 15-year old, neither of whom were sure if they’d ever seen a movie on film before. In a festival whose best films have confronted the past in different ways – the genre repurposings of Mandy and Let The Corpses Tan, the repressed traumas of Minding The Gap and Leave No Trace, the crippling traditions of Brimstone and Glory and Zama, the century-wide historical revisitations of Bisbee ’17, Island of the Hungry Ghosts and The Image Book – confronting the limitations of the film medium seems a fitting end. And after a twenty year battle between film and digital projection, I’ve made my peace. I’ll happily attend future screenings on film, but if they don’t happen, that’s fine too. It’s the movies that matter, more than the medium. Thanks for a great 50 years in Auckland, NZIFF. Here’s to the next chapter.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.