Films with a strong environmental theme — including three set in Africa and one that focuses on the heavens — stand out in the documentary line-up in the film festival, writes Peter Calder

The thematic pre-occupations of the documentary film-makers whose work features in each year's midwinter film festival gives an interesting angle of view on the state of the world.

For much of the century-so-far, the shadow of 9/11 has stretched across the cinematic landscape as documentary-makers from the ingratiating Michael Moore to the prolific Alex Gibney turned a searching eye on the "war on terror".

Gibney's attention has turned to the world's most infamous cyclist in The Armstrong Lie which features in the programme.

But it's the imperilled planet itself is a point of focus and several films take a broader and deeper interest than simply addressing the question of climate change. Refreshingly, all avoid glib and simplistic binaries, instead anatomising complicated political and economic forces at work in places where the Earth is the loser.


Nowhere is this done with more cool assurance than in Rachel Boynton's Big Men, one of a quartet of films in a special "Out of Africa" sub-section of the documentary programme. A work of journalism as incisive as it is patient (it was filmed over five years), it begins when a small Dallas-based oil firm, Kosmos Energy, discovers potential reserves off the coast of the grindingly poor West African nation of Ghana.

It covers the negotiations with the country's government (and local clan chiefs), introducing a dizzying cast of characters all of whom see themselves (or want to be) the "big men" of the cleverly conceived title, and explores the way rapacity corrupts civil society and the rule of law.

Along the way, Boynton visits nearby Nigeria and seeks an explanation for that country's basket-case economy almost 60 years after oil was discovered there.

Refreshingly, she delivers a much more nuanced portrait than one involving greedy capitalists and corrupt politicians (although there are plenty of both). Better still, she has edited her mountain of footage into an absorbing story that yields its secrets with the rhythm of a thriller.

In the same section of the programme, and a companion piece of sorts, Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends is by some margin a more intense cinematic experience than Big Men, which will come as no surprise to those who saw the director's jawdropping Darwin's Nightmare in the 2005 programme.

In an aircraft that looks as if it might have been made in Burt Munro's garage, Sauper flies around the world's newest country, South Sudan, which was one year old on Wednesday. Littered with mines, the legacy of religiously driven civil conflict, the country has become, as one character puts it, the economic battlefield between America and China and the site of a new colonialism in the continent with the most arable land and unexploited mineral resources on earth.

In strong contrast to Boynton, Sauper does not attempt a constructed narrative; these are postcards from the edge that he delivers, as visually sublime as they are disturbing.

There's a strong environmental thread too, to Virunga, which takes its name from a national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country that has one of the continent's most troubled histories of corporate exploitation and genocidal conflict. The park is the last refuge of rare mountain gorillas, but those who seek oil there reason that, if there were no gorillas, there would be no need to protect them.

The film is rich in hauntingly beautiful images of the forest but this is not visual wallpaper. Its real business is to uncover how supposed liberationist movements are infiltrated and used as Trojan horses by oil interests.

Local film-makers have turned their lenses on environmental matters too. Jim Marbrook, whose 2005 documentary Dark Horse was the source material for this year's opening night feature, turns in Cap Bocage, an intelligent and layered examination of an attempt by Kanak villagers in New Caledonia to get toxic mine tailings cleaned up in their fishing grounds.

And the tireless Wellington warrior of public interest film-making Alister Barry (The Hollow Men; In a Land of Plenty) delivers a timely survey of this country's inaction over climate change. Look out here for an interview with Barry in the last week of the festival.

Also seen and of interest:

Art and Craft is a fascinating portrait of a serial art forger who is not motivated by greed - he donates his works to art museums - but by ... well, we never really find out exactly. And that's kind of the point. Mark Landis is schizophrenic ("I like to copy things," he says, "It's reassuring.") and not incidentally extremely engaging and often funny.

The real subjects of the film, though they appear not to know it, are the curators he deceived, and he owes no one any explanation for their credulity.

Set as it is on the islands where Darwin developed his theory of evolution, The Galapagos Affair invites the expectation of an environmental theme, but it is the kind of fascinating and improbable true story that you only ever get in the film festival. The programme note that describes it as "almost improperly entertaining" nails it.

Drawing on rich archival material of a story well covered at the time but long-forgotten, they unearth a fascinating yarn about pioneering voluntary castaways Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch whose dreams of isolation are rudely shattered.

The provenance of some of the footage, particularly when Ritter and Strauch are meant to be alone on the island of Floreana, is disconcertingly unexplained, but this is definitely one of those stories that, if not true, would scream out to be invented.

Particle Fever is a terrific survey of what actually has been going on at the Large Hadron Collider that makes the farthest reaches of physics fascinating even to dummies like me.

The sight of the experimenters and theoreticians working in perfect harmony and, in the words of one, "jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm" is nothing short of thrilling.

But probably my favourite among the dozen previewed is Tender, a ... well, tender film set in the industrial port town of Port Kembla near Wollongong.

What starts as small community centre's attempt to set up a not-for-profit funeral service morphs into something else when one of their number is diagnosed with cancer.

It's a beautiful piece of fly-on-the-wall work that should have you reaching for the tissues and - better still - contemplating life through the lens of mortality.

One I can't wait for is Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars, a Danish film about an Iranian teenager with "unladylike" aspirations to be an astronomer. It's a bit of a toss-up whether to see it at the Civic - will the false night sky distract or enhance? - or SkyCity. But seeing it is a must.

View the Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars trailer here:

What: The New Zealand International Film Festival 2014
Where and when: The Civic and various venues, Auckland from Thursday; Wellington from July 25

- TimeOut