I have never thought of the film festival as sports-friendly. Indeed, the first Saturday night screenings always seem to clash with an All Black test. It's not as if the programme has ignored sport - the fabulous Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings was a standout of the 1997 programme - but this year the festival is notable for being the most sports-mad yet; sports films even have their own section.
Needless to say - and mercifully - the films concerned are documentaries, not dramatic features, which have always struggled to achieve verisimilitude (remember Forest Whitaker's bowling action in The Crying Game?). There are movies on English Channel swimmers; Tour de France cyclists; wheelchair rugby players; and a New Zealand motorcycle racer: all of which look to be unmissable. Festival director Bill Gosden singles out the wheelchair rugby film, Murderball, for special praise.
Of the documentaries previewed, two boxing films stand out. Ring of Fire recalls the fatal final meeting of Emile Griffith and Benny Paret, welterweight stars of Caribbean origin. In an explosive final assault, Griffith had won with the third, maybe fourth, punch. But he landed close to two dozen before his opponent sagged far enough for the referee to call the fight off. Paret died a few days later without regaining consciousness and, in uncovering what led up to the tragedy, the film has plenty of explanations but - like the best documentaries - no easy answers.
If that sounds like a film for boxing fans (it isn't; I'm not and I loved it), the other is for anyone interested in the history of race relations and civil rights in America. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is a riveting three-hour PBS doco that charts in detail the story of the black champion of the first decade of last century who was as outrageously impressive as Ali. Fight fans and the press, in awe of him, were in equal parts fascinated and repelled by his "unforgivable" hue.
It is chilling to read papers like the Los Angeles Times which wrote of Johnson as a zoologist might write of an exotic specimen. But it's also bleakly hilarious to watch as white America justifies denying the fighter a shot at the heavyweight title: there is only a token attempt to disguise the real reason - the intolerable implications of his victory. This exhilarating film is one of the best of the lineup in this or any other year and impossible to recommend too highly.
The programme has other intelligent pairings which allow one film to reflect off another: Sisters In Law and The Tenth District Court survey the daily court grind in, respectively, a town in Cameroon and an arrondissement of Paris. The former is unquestionably the more stirring: the lawyers and judges in the provincial town of Kumba are legal and judicial activists in the real sense of that word and thanks to their wise and pragmatic, though scrupulously fair management, two harrowing cases achieve improbably happy endings. Michele Bernard-Requin, the judge in the Paris court, is more conventional but equally charming, a gracious version of Judge Judy who proves a femme fatale to anyone who underestimates her (her dressing down of a defendant who tries to give her a lesson in law is a treat).
There are twin perspectives, too, of the wall Israel has built through the West Bank: Wall, by an Arab-Jewish film-maker, takes a sober wide view but The Zoo, the much smaller one-man effort by New Zealander Hayden Campbell is even more impressive. The best of it, shot almost entirely over one day, distils the frustrations of life in Israeli-occupied territory into the surreal journey of a vet-turned-zookeeper who is trying to transport two baboons he has rescued through the checkpoints.
Canny festival-goers recognise that the documentary lineup, which has steadily grown over the past decade, contains the programme's most precious gems. Independent exhibitors, in particular Auckland's Academy Cinema, have brought some back for longer seasons, but most of these films won't be seen here again.
From anti-globalisation polemics, musical biography, wildlife documentaries, history and current events, the lineup is a credit to the renaissance of non-fiction film.
My pick would have to be Shake Hands With The Devil, an unflinching 10-years-on view of the Rwanda genocide that puts the faintly sentimental Hotel Rwanda in context. But tick anything between pages 78 and 112 of the programme and you won't go wrong.
* The Auckland International Film Festival opens on Friday and runs until July 24 at the Civic, Academy, and Village SkyCity cinemas.