Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Film festival: Kiwi feature a bicultural affair

In Demos Murphy (above), Daniel Borgman found an actor 'emotionally intelligent beyond his years'.
In Demos Murphy (above), Daniel Borgman found an actor 'emotionally intelligent beyond his years'.

The Weight of Elephants is the debut feature of 31-year-old Kiwi film-maker Daniel Borgman, and it's a truly bicultural product.

Borgman was born and raised in Invercargill but spent his first few years as a writer/director in Copenhagen.

It is set in Invercargill, and employs a strong cast of New Zealanders, but was edited and produced in Denmark by Zentropa, Lars Von Trier's production company.

It was inspired by an Australian novel but deftly captures the unique experience of a rural New Zealand childhood through a Scandinavian lens.

In many ways it neatly sums up the desires of our annual New Zealand International Film Festival - bringing international viewpoints to New Zealand, and launching New Zealand stories - albeit one inspired by an Australian novel - to the rest of the world.

"I started directing short films in Denmark while I was travelling overseas, but I always wanted to tell stories in New Zealand," Borgman explains.

"It's where I come from and what I understand, and the culture that I'm most concerned about. But I think New Zealand, especially in the south, can be quite a hard place to find your feet if you're trying to do something that's different. And I know growing up, the thought of making films as a job just seemed like a crazy space dream. Copenhagen is a really great place to be a young film-maker. It's a thriving environment of young people helping each other out."

Borgman is very grateful for being able to learn from both countries.

"The Scandinavian culture of storytelling is quite sophisticated and unique, and they tell great stories from a character point of view. And I think New Zealand has this great history of telling stories in a more visual way, possibly because we're very connected to images with our landscape being so beautiful. And I think those two ways of film-making sit together in a really nice way, and I get to take advantage of all that expertise in both places."

Of course, being supported by Zentropa, and having access to Von Trier himself is also a bonus.

"Lars is awesome. He's often doing his own thing of course, but you know, my editor is his editor, my sound designer is his sound designer, and there's a lot of advantages being in the same company. He wasn't directly involved in the feature, but with my short films he would always watch them and give me notes, or he'd read a script with me and we could talk about it. And he's certainly an inspiring person to be around. I've never been able to talk to Peter Jackson, but I can talk to Lars, and that's amazing."

The Weight of Elephants revolves around sweet, quiet, Adrian, an 11-year-old boy who's been left with his grandmother and his manic depressive uncle. He's a smart, sensitive child who's an outcast at school and finds solace in a tentative friendship with the young girls next door.

"I'm really obsessed with how people respond to things differently," says Borgman, "So for some people, getting the piss taken out of you at school is just funny, or not a big deal. But for other people it means everything, and it affects their whole future. I think the title is about how you can't really measure the extent of the effect of things on other people. Especially with children."

Borgman was already developing a script about a teenage boy dealing with isolation, when he came across a novel called Of A Boy, by Melbourne author Sonya Hartnett.

"I was driving round New Zealand with my mum, actually, looking for locations. And then I found this book at Christchurch airport. It seemed to speak to a lot of what I was trying to write in my own script, the way it got inside the head of this kid who was just dealing with really everyday stuff, but feeling really strong feelings about it."

The book is set in 1970s Melbourne but the film shifts the story to contemporary Invercargill. It's a film of contemplative cinematography and minimal dialogue and Borgman sees its sense of space and stillness as both a reflection of the beautiful light and setting of a southern summer, as well as its Danish editing.

"In the Scandinavian editing process, they treat the story as new again. So there's no fear of removing dialogue or removing things or changing things ... I think the sparseness, it was in the script in the beginning, but it became more pronounced as we moved through the editing phase.

"I guess it's kind of natural though, when you're trying to make a sort of poem about loneliness, that it would have a lot of quiet space, or space for reflection."

The film has terrific performances from its child actors, particularly Demos Murphy as Adrian.

"It's quite hard in New Zealand, to find boys aged 9 to 12 who are confident and outgoing, but are also really connected to emotional things. Because I think at that age, they're kind of socialised to be into sport and to be rowdy, more masculine. So you can quite often find boys who are either good at being angry, or good at being sad and emotionally connected, but it's hard to find a boy who's good at everything - the angry ones are too tough to be sad, and the sad ones are too shy to be angry. The thing about Demos is that his family were really supportive and really open, so he was emotionally intelligent beyond his years."

Who: Daniel Borgman, director
What: Debut feature film The Weight of Elephants
Where and when: Sky City Theatre, Sunday July 21 at 6pm, and Wed July 24 at 1.30pm. Borgman will be at both screenings.

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