This year's NZ International Film Festival comes out swinging with a doco about Kiwi pop hit Poi E

It might be billed as the New Zealand International Film Festival and it might offer a fortnight of serious foreign cinema. But the opening night film is local-as, bro.

Poi E: The Story of Our Song, a documentary on the 1984 hit which became a landmark in Kiwi pop culture history, will open the Auckland event at The Civic on July 14.

The film, says festival director Bill Gosden, is "as irresistible as the song it celebrates".

The song, co-written and produced by the late Dalvanius Prime and performed by the Patea Maori Club, married a traditional poi waiata with electronic rhythms and a video that mixed kapa haka and breakdancing. Locally, it was huge.


At number one for a month - some 18 months after its release - it became the year's biggest song in New Zealand, and it took the club to Britain to perform.

Given his Poi E tribute at the end of Boy - which propelled the song back to number 3 - and his visual gag referencing to the single's cover artwork in a beer ad he made, it might be assumed that Taika Waititi has something to do with it.

Well, yes, he does appear in it explaining to singer Stan Walker what life was like before the hit.

But the documentary is written and directed by Tearepa Kahi, whose previous music-powered feature Mt Zion starred Walker.

The doco not only traces the success of the song but the effect on the South Taranaki town of Patea which, at the time, was headed to the economic scrapheap.

Read More: The history of Poi E

The late Dalvanius Prime (at rear) with members of the Patea Maori Club in 1985 (Herald archive)
The late Dalvanius Prime (at rear) with members of the Patea Maori Club in 1985 (Herald archive)

The festival had its best-ever Auckland attendances last year and 2016's 100-page programme hits the streets on Tuesday.

Some of its contents have already been announced including the world premiere of another local film The Rehearsal, director Alison Maclean's adaptation of Eleanor Catton's first novel starring James Rolleston and Kerry Fox, among others.

Read more: Rolleston in Rehearsal for a different role

The other local features in the programme are mostly docos.

They range from The 5th Eye, about the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, by Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones (whose Operation 8 was the definitive screen account of the terror raids in the Ruatoki Valley and elsewhere) to Le Ride by expatriate television presenter Phil Keoghan.

The Amazing Race host's project looks at how an amateur Australasian quartet competed in the Tour de France 1928, a feat which Keoghan and cohorts attempt to repeat, all 5600km of it, using vintage bikes with no gears.

Yes, there are other more comfy ways to see France at the festival. If you've been to the Louvre but all those tourists got in the way, then Francofonia, about the great art museum, just might rectify that. The list of Gallic films is second only to the USA's dominant contribution to the 2016 line-up.

So far as the international stuff goes among the 160 or so features at the festival, here's what leaps out from a quick flick through the programme ...

Cannes Contenders

The NZIFF had landed this year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake by veteran Brit social realist director Ken Loach, his latest political drama about a single mother and an unemployed carpenter battling the bureaucracy of the UK's shrinking social welfare system.

Yes, not exactly escapist fare but festival regular Loach has always had a way of putting a touchingly human face on his issue-powered stories

Of the 21 films that vied for Cannes' top prize, the NZIFF has 11 of them, including Paul Verhoeven's thriller Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert, which will be the closing night film in Auckland.

Also among the 11 is Pedro Almodovar's latest Julieta, which was in competition at Cannes, is also a return to the flamboyant Spanish director's roots with a colourful female-centric emotional drama exploring the loves and regrets of his anxious heroine.

The joint winner of the main Cannes director's prize was French director Olivier Assayas for Personal Shopper, which, like his previous Clouds of Sils Maria stars Twilight's Kristen Stewart, this time as an American woman who works as a clothes buyer in the Paris fashion scene, haunted by the death of her twin brother.

Captain Fantastic won its American director Matt Ross the best director in the Cannes Un Certain Regard division.

His tale of a survivalist father and his brood living off the grid, who have to return to the real world for a family funeral has also won acclaim for Viggo Mortensen's lead performance.

Double Features

American arthouse stylist Jim Jarmusch's Cannes contender Paterson - starring Star Wars' Kylo Ren himself, Adam Driver - was in competition at Cannes and is at the NZIFF too. So is Gimme Danger, his rockumentary about Iggy Pop's original proto-punk band, The Stooges.

Veteran English director Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Closes) not only has two new features in the festival, he's coming to Auckland to talk about them.

A Quiet Passion is his biopic of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson (played by Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame) and Sunset Song is his adaptation of the Lewis Grassic Gibbon novel about a young woman coming of age in northern Scotland, complete with some landscapes shot in Canterbury, New Zealand.

Big Bytes

Among the daunting array of non-fiction films in the "Framing Reality" section are two prominent documentarians taking on the worldwide web. In Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog attempts to explain the digital future in the same esoteric way he's employed in his many previous docos.

And in Zero Days, America's leading investigative film-maker Alex Gibney goes in search of the computer virus and US-Israel cyber-weapon named Stuxnet.

Drawn That Way

As always there's plenty on offer for animation fans of all ages - including a couple of kids programmes of shorts - including the cutting edge work of local artists. But the big cartoon event of the festival is The Red Turtle, a castaway story that's a French-Belgian co-production with Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli which won the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard selection at Cannes this year.

Incredibly Strange

And, as always, at the back of the book is the mix of outlandish and unsettling films selected by cult cinema maestro Ant Timpson.

The nine titles include one of his own - he's one of five producers on The Greasy Strangler, a US-NZ bad taste horror that confounded the Sundance Film Festival on debut.

Read more: Elijah lends star power to weird Kiwi horror

Also among the weirdness is that Daniel-Radcliffe-as-magical-farting-corpse one you might have heard about, Swiss Army Man.

Elsewhere, Patrick Stewart puts his noggin to good use as a Nazi skinhead in Green Room and Polish film The Lure is a film Timpson recommends as "hands-down the greatest vampire mermaid musical fairy tale ever made".



The NZ International FIlm Festival

When: In Auckland from July 14 to 31

Info: and programme on streets from Tuesday