The documentary strand in this year's film festival may lack a big-name headliner, but TimeOut critic Peter Calder finds plenty of opportunities to take a glimpse into strange worlds
If the crop of documentary films in this year's festival is any indication, the planet is in less distress than it has been for a while.
It's a meaningless measure, of course, since the movies on screen in the 41st Auckland International Film Festival, which begins next Thursday, are the fruits of ideas that germinated a couple of years ago at least.
But the line-up seems less doom-laden than it has in recent years: in a world dominated by the Bush doctrine, Iraq was always looming large and environmental degradation and climate change featured prominently.
This year's non-fiction programme - almost 40 titles counting the music films and an excellent section devoted to movies about artists - does not turn its back on the world's troubles: the Middle East conflict is the setting for Rachel, a touchingly personal but powerful and angry anatomy of the killing of a young American peace activist in the Gaza Strip; and The Cove is a knuckle-whitening real-life thriller about attempts to stop the capture and slaughter of dolphins in a remote Japanese bay.
But if the schedule lacks blockbusters in the Fahrenheit 9/11 mould, it is notable for films that take us gently and unassumingly into the lives of others, of people whose reality is astonishingly different from our own.
Among the titles previewed, the most remarkable single individual has to be the title character of Big River Man, a quixotic Slovenian whose appetite for swimming the length of the world's great rivers is exceeded only by his prodigious thirst. To call Martin Strel an endurance athlete probably stretches the meaning of that term, since his training regime includes a minimum of two bottles a day of rough red, but there's no denying his record: he had swum the Danube, Mississippi and Yangtze before, followed by this film's cameras, he took on the Amazon. As things start to go dramatically, even surrealistically wrong in ways no one imagined, it feels like we have stumbled on to the set of Apocalypse Now directed by Werner Herzog.
Less dramatic, certainly less weird, but by no means less riveting, is the sublime Modern Life, a tender and generous portrait of farming life in the part of France where the filmmaker Raymond Depardon grew up. Depardon is an acclaimed photographer, a member of the Magnum co-operative, and the moving images he captures have a contemplative stillness about them, too.
His title is tellingly ambiguous since what he shows us is actually a traditional way of life being shouldered aside by the march of time. But it's a handsome and often haunting elegy for its subject, remarkable for its lack of artifice and pretension.
One of the more conventional documentaries, Theatre of War, follows rehearsals for a 2006 New York production of Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children. Meryl Streep, who takes the play's title role, expresses her misgivings about the film's premise early on, remarking that "process is like bad acting", which pretty much nails the shortcomings of a well-worn formula: there are too many talking heads saying not-very-interesting things. But the historical footage of Brecht, and of Helene Weigel, who created the role, is fascinating and the film is a jawdropping reminder of Streep's awesome command of her craft.
I had similar misgivings about The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, which doesn't really play fair with its subject. It's easy to make him look seriously loopy, not least because he is, by filming him in close-up, but the film had the opposite effect on this viewer of the one it plainly intended: for a start, I emerged convinced he didn't shoot Lana Clarkson. But I also couldn't help feeling sorry for the way the film treated him. It's also stylistically contrived, tendentiously mixing footage of the hits with the court case and, oddly, manages to obscure as much as it reveals about the man behind the musical genius. But it is an impressive history of the hit-making machine and Spector gives such great quotes - "I was so brazen in those days, I could strut sitting down" - that it is well worth seeing.
At the other end of the pop music spectrum is the fascinating Afghan Star, which follows several contestants in that country's equivalent of Britain's Got Talent. But the film's Susan Boyle equivalent has worse things than tabloid derision to deal with.
When she appears extravagantly made up and allows her headscarf to slip while dancing with all the abandon of the vicar's wife at a 1950s church social, all hell breaks loose: even in a country where the Taleban is an insurgent group rather than the feared Government, she starts getting death threats.
Political and military aspects of life in Afghanistan are often depicted on our TV screens here, but as a street-level view of everyday existence, refracted through the lens of popular culture, this is a unique take on a beautiful and troubled country.
The festival has brought us plenty of glimpses into Tibetan Buddhism over the years, with features (The Cup; Travellers and Magicians) and a clutch of documentaries, many of which have been driven by well-heeled Westerners' anger about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. This year's Unmistaken Child, which completely avoids politics and goes to the heart of Buddhist practice, is one of the best.
In following the devoted and joyous search by a Tibetan monk for the small boy who is the reincarnation of his dead teacher, a high lama, the film - a four-year project by an Israeli filmmaker who gained amazing access to rituals - ushers us into some of the central procedures of Buddhist orthodoxy.
It's easy as a Westerner to pick holes in theological plausibility but much more rewarding to accept the film's assumptions. It then becomes a deeply impressive and moving portrait of devotion and of another turn of life's wheel. It's one of the programme's choice cuts.
What: The New Zealand International Film Festival
When: Auckland July 9-26; Wellington July 17 to August 2, other regions to follow
Bookings: via Ticketek