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A blog about television and radio with Paul Casserly

Paul Casserly: Miniature Masterpieces

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A random bunch of New Zealand short films has been keeping Paul Casserly entertained.
Ygnacio Cervio attended the World Beard and Moustache Growing Championships in Germany. Photo/Greg Bowker
Ygnacio Cervio attended the World Beard and Moustache Growing Championships in Germany. Photo/Greg Bowker

There's a local treat playing every Sunday night this month on BBC Knowledge. I've just binge-watched the lot of them and what a delightful hour and bit that was.

Like a mini film festival that's both inspirational and entertaining, the New Zealand Young Producer Shorts (BBC Knowledge) are not to be missed.

Each of the young filmmakers was given $5000 to make "a short film focused on a unique New Zealand character". The characters they've found are obsessive, oddball, and ordinary.

And don't be mislead by the small budget - in real terms these films must have taken hundreds of hours. The results are impressive and there is not a dud in the pack.

In the beautifully realised The Characteristics of C Minor, the subject Nick Knox begins by asking, "What was Nick like before he changed?"

Nick makes music at night in an old run down building in Dunedin. He's a talented piano and keyboard player who sings with a haunted baritone that brings to mind the Swans. He's known pain, you think as you watch, and sure enough as the story unfolds the pain is revealed.

"Most of my early adulthood has gone. I dropped out of University, pushed my parents away and lived like a hermit." Then came the moment that provided the rock bottom from which this story rises.

"The next memory I had was waking up in hospital, broken back, broken pelvis and the doctor asking me If I knew what had happened. I hate using the S word."

The suicide attempt was Nick's turning point. Heartened by by friends who rallied around, he was soon back making music. The filmmakers, J Ollie Lucks and Max Bellamy have captured the story with finesse, all the moody scenes and soaring performance pieces adding up to a concise masterpiece in miniature.

In Rachel Patching's The Dirt Doctor, things are more grass roots, in both senses.

"There's a lot going on at the bottom of the garden", says the subject, Jim O'Gorman aka "The Dirt Doctor". He's set out to prove any piece of dirt can be put to good use no matter how ruined or toxic it is.

Royalty apparently requests his produce, and the plump veges he holds in his hands look rather royal at that.

Jim's all about compost, his trick is basically leaving behind weeds and waste and turning it back into the soil. He can grow tomatoes directly after growing potatoes with no loss nutrients.

"We've been hoodwinked for all of these years" reckons Jim, explaining his methods complete with a theory as to why the farming industry has got it all wrong (more details here).

"If you want to be happy for a life, become a gardener" says the jovial gardener, who looks very much to be on to something.

Like Jim, the subject of Joey Bania and Amy Anderson's film Love at First Sound is also a charmer. Mark Wilson is a well-known Queenstown pianist.

"Playing the piano is an act of communion, it's my ministry" says Mark, but it's not till half way through a story about his childhood dream of becoming an astronomer that we realise that Mark is blind. "I was the laughing stock at school after that."

His journey - which takes us from the school for the blind to his current life, living and playing in Queenstown - is deftly told by the filmmakers and the charming man at the keyboard.

Ashely Pittman's Beard Chronicles follows the hirsute Ygnacio Cervio - an Argentinian born Aucklander - on his journey into the world of competitive beard growing.

"My family has a long history of growing hair", says Ygnacio as he looks at the family portraits on the wall. Impressive beards and moustaches look back, egging him on.

Eight months out from the big day and the beard is looking a bit ratty, and has stalled growing at only 76 cm. He heads off to a hair specialist who prescribes a tonic to rub into the wild looking bush. The magic potion works and three months out from the competition the beard is 104cm.

As the enigmatic Ygnacio rightly points out, "It's a full commitment to carry this sort of beard. It's a fine line between looking like a professional beard grower and a hobo."

After much grooming and beard related philosophy he heads off to the completion in Germany. At home his beard is a monster but in that room with the rest of the world's top beards it's clear that he's a long way off the medals.

"Even with all my effort this was not enough" he concedes, but Ygnacio is not one to give up, telling us as a parting shot that he's raising a posse of beardy mates to go to the next world champs. "Look out world, here comes Team New Zealand."

As Ygnacio illustrates, everyone has their dreams - but few have a crack at them. Hilary Crombie's understated observation, Resting in Peace, is about death and self-employment, and another dreamer putting a plan into action. Janet Mikkelsen is a former oncology nurse and single mum in the process of setting up her first business venture, a funeral company called State of Grace.

Her work in the cancer wards means she's been to a lot of funerals and knows the good ones from the bad. With the help of her twin sister, an accountant, and her dad, Janet starts to build the business that she hopes will be her job for the rest of her life.

It's simple everyday stuff, but like the rest of the series it's completely compelling and quietly inspirational.

* New Zealand Young Producer Shorts, Sundays 8.30 pm, Tuesdays, 9.55am, BBC Knowledge.

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