Outspoken films feature in 38th Festival

By Russell Baillie

It's enough to make you ponder how ecologically friendly film festivals really are.

After all, all that celluloid that goes through the projectors is made of petrochemicals derived from oil, which is fast running out, as a swag of docos in this year's Auckland International Film Festival remind us.

Although on the carbon-credit side, for two weeks the event gathers thousands of people in a dark room for a couple of hours lit by only one - admittedly high-wattage - bulb. It sounds fairly energy-efficient - providing everyone goes by bus.

Yes, if there's a hot topic at this year's festival, it's the environment, with documentaries inspired by the end of oil sitting alongside those about global warming.

But here's the funny thing about this year's festival: while films like the Al Gore-fronted An Inconvenient Truth and The White Planet show the receding polar regions, it is creatures on ice arriving at The Civic - the festival's traditional venue - which are causing difficulties this year.

The festival will still be at the picture palace for its first 10 days (July 13 to 23) but then must vacate the venue to make way for the the refrigerated ballet Swan Lake on Ice which booked ahead of the festival.

For the rest of its fortnight the fest is using two cinemas in Queen St plus the SkyCity theatre and Academy Cinema throughout. So the Civic will still be the venue for the Lillian Gish-in-a-snowstorm silent classic The Wind, complete with the original score performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra before the swans start skidding across the frozen stage.

But festival director Bill Gosden says the loss of the big theatre means they are budgeting on a loss because there will be fewer seats, although the programme is as big as last year.

And angrier too, he says.

"I think that there's a sense of agitation that runs through the whole programme and there are a lot of outspoken films."

And here - with Gosden's help, despite him being a few days to deadline on a festival programme which was launched on Tuesday - is TimeOut's opening preview.

THE BIG NAMES

It might be a celebration of serious cinema but this year's festival still comes with Hollywood starpower.

The festival can't even offer refuge from those constant women's mag stars Jennifer Aniston (Friends with Money) or Katie Holmes (who plays a reporter in Washington DC lobbyist black comedy Thank You for Smoking). Both films come Sundance-approved.

Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey jnr and Winona Ryder all appear - kind of - in A Scanner Darkly, with director Richard Linklater using the rotoscope animation technique he employed in his previous Waking Life in this latest version of a story by much-adapted sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick.

The last time Colin Farrell put on a breastplate the result was Alexander. But in The New World - director Terence Malick's tilt at the story of Captain John Smith and Native American princess Pocahontas - he's on surer ground opposite teenage newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher.

"They definitely have all the chemistry you could hope for when they are together, which is a strong part of that film's success," Gosden says.

Actor Tommy Lee Jones makes his directing debut in contemporary western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a movie set against Jones' home territory of West Texas. Gosden says: "It does for racism in westerns what Brokeback Mountain did for homophobia."

There's a couple of other actors-as-directors in the line-up - Steve Buscemi directs Liv Tyler, among others, in indie drama Lonesome Jim. And Richard E. Grant adapts Wah-Wah, his autobiography about growing up in Swaziland in the 1960s as his parents' lives fall apart around him.

THE AWARD WINNERS

The festival has secured The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a Ken Loach film about the 1920s beginnings of the IRA. It won the veteran English director the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Gosden says the festival programmers made approaches about the film ahead of the prize.

"We sort of had it in our sights. It wasn't a difficult argument to make that the film might be well-placed in the festival because we've shown so many Ken Loach films over the years and he's a popular film-maker in New Zealand, more so than he is in most territories."

Other Cannes-propelled titles in the programme include 12:08 East of Bucharest - "a sardonic take on retrospective heroism" - which won the Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu this year's Camera d'Or prize for best film by a new film-maker.

Also on its way here from this year's Cannes Directors' Fortnight is Australian psychological drama Jindabyne, directed by Ray Lawrence (Lantana) and starring Laura Linney.

It's one of those films, says Gosden, with a sense of agitation about it.

"It's quite specific, addressing the deep psychic unease of Australia and there's a definite sense that the small community in there is being used microcosmically to say something about the uneasiness of current Australia."

THE HOT FILM

United 93 which dramatises, documentary style, what might have happened on the hijacked September 11 plane which never made its target has, inevitably, made headlines since its stateside release in late April.

The film by Paul Greengrass, whose credits include the similarly provocative Sunday Bloody Sunday, has been widely acclaimed for its powerful non-exploitative and dread-fuelled depiction of events.

For "hot" as in "hip", then that'll be Brick, an indie American film which combines a Southern Californian high-school setting and the hard-boiled dialogue of pulp detective novels and film noir to ever-so-stylish effect.

THE HOT COUNTRY

Gosden names Romania as this year's territory of choice for its three features in the programme, including 12:08 East of Bucharest.

One of them is his personal pick of the festival, The Death of Mr Lazarescu, by Cristi Puiu, which won the Cannes Un Certain Regard Award last year.

"It's probably the most moving film I saw in the past year. It's an incredibly strong movie."

Runners-up in this division might be a tie between Iran and Iraq. There are three Iranian features with It's Winter, Men at Work, and the soccer-mad Offside.

There are two documentaries about life in Iraq under American occupation.

The Blood of My Brother follows the radicalisation of a Shiite family after the death of one of its sons.

The other doco is Iraq in Fragments, which takes a wider view of the life of civilians during wartime.

THE HOT ISSUE

Gosden says that climate change is this year's big festival subject.

"It's huge and there are many different ways of approaching it too.

"The most direct didactic approach is taken in the surprisingly entertaining Al Gore movie [An Inconvenient Truth] and then the more indirect approach of a film of White Planet which actually shows you polar bears looking for somewhere to set their feet as the ice melts all around them."

The subject hits close to home, too, in the documentary Time and Tide, in which some New Zealand Tuvaluans go back to the islands to find that the places where they grew up are now under water.

"It's quite funny, in the Al Gore film he talks about Pacific Islanders having their land flooded and being forced to go to New Zealand. We all raised our eyebrows about that one slightly.

"A couple of days later we saw a film that shows
that is exactly what has happened.

"He was right."

The end of oil is examined in the Swiss-made doco OilCrash - A Crude Awakening, while the related American doco Who Killed the Electric Car? plays out like a tongue-in-cheek murder mystery.

The various eco-films also show some amusing cultural differences.

"One thing that is noticeable about these films is that the American films all end on an obligatory upbeat note about what we can do about it, whereas the European films are more fatalistic in their approach."

MOVIES OF NOTES

The biggest music flick of the programme is the exuberant Dave Chapelle's Block Party, in which the comedian invited most of American hip-hop's first division (Kanye West, The Fugees, Andre 3000 and more) to put on a free concert in a Brooklyn neighbourhood and had French director Michel Gondry film the results.

Also featuring loudly is Asian punk rock (in the Japanese Linda Linda Linda and the Chinese doco Beijing Bubbles: Punk and Rock in China's Capital), American punk rock of the early 80s (American Hardcore), The Pixies (the in-concert loudQUIETloud), and joys of being part of the heavy mob in Metal: A Headbanger's Journey.

And in Struggle No More, Wellington music institution Bill Lake and the Living Daylights - who have been around in some form since 1968 - are profiled by capital city documentarian Costa Botes.

GOOD SPORTS

No More Heroes is inevitably going to be described as New Zealand's answer to Dogtown and Z Boys, so let's get that line out of the way early. But for anyone who grew up in the late 70s skateboarding era Andrew Moore's doco about the early years of the urethane wheel-propelled boom will be a nostalgic must-see. Along with footage of the first generation of skate heroes such as Peter Boronski and Elroy Ainsley, it has a period local-punk soundtrack and narration by that well known king of vert, Graham Brazier.

Also notable among the sports docos - especially for those jazzed by the World Cup - is Once in a Lifetime which comes subtitled The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos and is about the efforts in the 1970s to establish a New York superteam which featured among its line-up Brazilian legend Pele and the German kaiser of the game, Franz Beckenbauer.

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