TimeOut film critic Peter Calder plunges into the doco programme for this year's New Zealand International Film Festival and comes up with some recommendations.

The films in this year's documentary line-up number more than 50 and the canny festivalgoer will recognise that most of them won't be seen on a big screen here again, and book accordingly.

Lee Hirsch's Bully and The Ambassador by Dane Mads Brugger, whom festival director Bill Gosden calls this year's Morgan Spurlock, look unmissable, and those Neil Young fans whose brains weren't fried by bad acid will surely be queuing for Jonathan Demme's well-regarded solo-concert film.

The most striking of the films I previewed was certainly Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present of which the less said the better, in order to protect the pristine experience that it gave me. A biopic of a noted performance artist, it also depicts her preparation for and presentation of the title's piece which she staged at MoMA in New York in early 2010. Be moved and amazed.

If you can't remember the 60s, you may have trouble appreciating the impact that Bernadette Devlin McAliskey made. A miniskirted, mouthy firebrand, she was elected to the House of Commons at the age of 21 - where she memorably whacked the Home Secretary after being denied the right to address his claim that British soldiers in the Bloody Sunday massacre had fired in self-defence. The comprehensive and engrossing Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey includes oodles of archival footage - though not the slap - and present-day interviews with the woman herself.


Family Portrait in Black and White is one of several delightful films that take us deep into small and often unseen lives - in this case the world of Nenya, a big-hearted Ukrainian foster mother, most of whose 17 charges are conspicuously non-white. What starts as a portrait of an unlikely stand against community racism and bureaucratic ignorance morphs almost imperceptibly into kind of domestic melodrama in which Nenya's greatest strength - her resoluteness - begins to looks disturbingly like short-sighted obstinacy. A watchful and thought-provoking film.

Don't miss Winter Nomads which follows two shepherds (a veteran male; a novice female) as they lead an 800-strong flock through the Swiss countryside foraging on fallow countryside. A glimpse into a way of life that is older than time but occurring in the middle of modern Europe, it's both engrossing and profoundly beautiful.

Our Newspaper, which takes us into the world of a journalist in Lenin's hometown, is as vivid a picture as might be imagined of Russian smalltown life; in particular how little has changed since the days of Pravda and the Politburo. The editor of the title's journal takes the view that if it didn't happen in Ulyanovsk, it didn't happen, but tracing the roots of the local issues typically leads to bigger people in bigger towns. In a world where newspapers are closing daily, this is a cheering though entirely unsentimental portrait of journalism as it used to be.

Step Up To The Plate is a clumsy attempt to reproduce the punning original title, Entre les Bras, of this year's only food-themed doco. The French aptly means "in the arms" as in how you might carry something fragile and precious, but the subjects are les messieurs Bras (father and son) and the film observes the passing of the baton between ("entre") them as Michel hands over to Sebastien the three-Michelin-starred restaurant he established in southern France. Some of the food looks a bit fussy for my taste - although the opening sequence, a potager painting on the plate, is a knockout - but it's a fascinating and touching portrait of dedication, family tradition and a relationship between a father and son. Eat before going.

Form and content are perfectly matched in Paora Paul Joseph's modest and affecting road trip doco Tatarakihi: The Children of Parihaka. The kids of the title are taken from their Taranaki homes to visit the sites of the humiliation of their tupuna as far south as Dunedin, where several were imprisoned and forced to work as road-building slaves.

Last but not least, Planet of Snail is precisely what it says on the box: days in the life of a deaf and blind man and his diminutive and devoted wife. Their communication occurs entirely through touch - a kind of typing on the back of the hand; hence the title. For my money, the filmmaker passes a perfect ending without noticing at about the 75-minute mark, but any film that can make changing a light bulb into an edge-of-the-seat experience gets my vote.

What: The New Zealand International Film Festival (Auckland)
Where: At The Civic and various other cinemas from July 19.
More info: Check out the New Zealand International Film Festival website.