Watching brief

Peter Calder at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland

Watching Brief: Florian owns the Civic

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Florian Habicht gets into character on the opening night of the NZ International Film Festival. Photo / Dallas Pickering
Florian Habicht gets into character on the opening night of the NZ International Film Festival. Photo / Dallas Pickering

What a way to start a film festival: stuck in an office while movie after movie unspools in cinemas all over town.

By the most unforgivably bad management I find myself working at entirely unrelated tasks for the day so I'll be keeping my powder dry until the weekend.

Opening night last night was a genuinely wonderful experience - all thanks to Florian Habicht, who enchanted both as filmmaker and as goofy, gangly on-stage entertainer before and - particularly - after the screening.

Festival director Bill Gosden, perhaps knowing something we didn't, warned that we "wouldn't get much sense" out of the filmmaker but Habicht made a lot of sense: it was just his own kind of sense, the one that had been on show for the previous 90 minutes.

Love Story is one of a kind really, a kooky home movie, meditation on the filmmaking process and (maybe most of all) an ethnography of that very strange breed of people known as New Yorkers (my favourites were the young women who said they could help him with his movie because "we're both acting majors").

It had the audience in stitches and also gasping with amazement at the risky, strange, surprising and wildly romantic ideas sprinkled through it like the stars on the ceiling of the mighty Civic.

Any New Zealander who can make a film in New York that channels both the Conchords and Taika Waititi and still manage to occur as something entirely original has to be counted as a treasure.

Then he topped it all by phoning, live on stage, Masha - his muse, collaborator and (maybe) the love of his life - as she slept in the small hours in Manhattan. It was ... well, you had to be there, really. You can't say I didn't warn you.

The only quibble I have is that, after delivering a special award, funded by Friends of the Civic, to Tammy Davis for his short film Ebony Society, they didn't show the 12-minute short. It seemed faintly dismissive and insulting to say we could see it (with The Kid With A Bike, see below) and then shunt him off stage.

At that point, it had not become, as it would, entirely Habicht's night and it seems to me that if a man is worth a special award for his short film, his short film is worth showing. Kia ora, Tammy.

The pick for today has to be the Dardenne brothers' The Kid With a Bike. I'm seeing it next week but I'm picking it will be a cracker. The Dardennes' Rosetta, which won the Palme d'Or in 1999, was a heartbreaking watch and they completely knocked my socks off with The Son, which also won Cannes and was in our 2002 festival.

That film was about a carpenter whose reasons for stalking a would-be apprentice only gradually become clear (seek it out on video and be amazed).

Their films all seem to adopt a child's-eye view of the world - even the two ostensibly grown-up protagonists of The Child were barely out of childhood themselves - and this one, whose title character seems to be among their most troubled yet, doesn't promise to be an easy watch, but I feel confident it will reward the effort.

In terms of the documentaries, many of which I've had the chance to preview, Hot Coffee is today's hot property. I liked it for the way it upended what I "knew" with absolute certainty about Americans - that they are all lawsuit-happy nutcases represented by money-hungry lawyers.

Suspend judgement about their system of liability insurance and lawsuit - perhaps by reflecting on the shortcomings of our gradually eroding no-fault ACC - and see the matter in terms of some of the fundamental freedoms that America was founded on, and you may change your mind.

If nothing else, seeing the extent of the injuries sustained by the woman who spilt hot McDonald's coffee over her is food for thought.

Special pleasure: One of two screenings of a restored print of Taxi Driver. It wasn't the first film that Martin Scorsese made, Paul Schrader wrote or Robert De Niro played in but it was the one that brought them, especially De Niro, to filmgoers' attention.

Seeing it again might help erase memories of all the dreadful stuff he has been doing over the last decade.

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