This year’s International Documentary Festival will showcase an impressive 74 films from New Zealand and around the world. Francesca Rudkin picks some of the highlights.

ANOTE'S ARK

Director: Matthieu Rytz, 77 min

Anote's Ark

tells the story of Kiribati, the Pacific nation on the brink of disappearing. Canadian photographer Matthieu Rytz's visually stunning debut feature premiered at Sundance in January, and is the opening night film at the festival.

For five years, Rytz followed Kiribati's former president, Anote Tong, as he travelled the world bringing light to the impact of climate change on his disappearing country. It is thought Kiribati's 33 coral isles and atolls will be underwater within a century.

Advertisement

No longer interested in trying to convince the world to reduce the use of fossil fuels - "Frankly, it's too late," says Tong - he's determined to ensure the international community acts when Kiribati needs help. He is articulate and relentless in his drive to save his people's 4000-year-old culture.

His story is accompanied by that of gorgeous Sermary, a mother of six deciding whether she should migrate to New Zealand.

Ryts is attending the opening night screening, as is the formidable His Excellency, President Anote Tong. It's sure to be a Q&A worth staying for.

BELIEVER

Director: Don Argott, 101 min

Celebrities and causes. Sometimes it's hard to work out who benefits from celebrities attaching themselves to a good cause. However, Believer, a documentary following Dan Reynolds (lead singer of Imagine Dragons) as he challenges the Mormon church's opposition to same-sex relationships, feels like it comes from a genuine place - even if Reynolds features rather more than the people he's trying to help.

As the rate of teen suicide in Utah rises and members of the Mormon church are spurned because of their sexual orientation, Reynolds comes to a crossroads. Does he follow the church or his more liberal beliefs about same-sex relationships?

Along with an openly gay former Mormon Tyler Glenn (lead singer of Neon Trees), he creates LoveLoud, a Utah-based music festival designed to start a conversation between the church and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Documenting the birth of this festival is a great idea - it allows Reynolds' message of tolerance and acceptance to reach a broader audience - but it looks like a lack of preparation time has made for a technically and visually simple documentary. Not that it really matters, the moments are powerful enough when those affected by teen suicide or sexual discrimination tell their stories.

MERMAIDS

Director: Ali Weinstein, 76 min

Mermaids

is a documentary you're initially drawn to out of quirky fascination, but you'll be pleasantly surprised by its affecting personal stories.

"Mermaiding" is a thing. A growing subculture of women find slipping on a tail and heading into the water an excellent way to escape the stresses of everyday life.

Director Ali Weinstein, a former synchronised swimmer, introduces five women who find mermaiding therapeutic. Most notably, gregarious Harlem resident Cookie, who with the help of her mer-wrangler husband, has conquered agoraphobia through mermaiding, and transgender woman Julz, who uses mermaiding to deal with her abusive Bible Belt upbringing, and transition to her new life.

We see mermaid weddings, gatherings, and visit Weeki Wachee Park in Florida, where live mermaids have been performing underwater since 1947. In between all the colour and wacky characters, Weinstein reflects on our fascination with mermaids and their role in culture and literature over the years; all delivered with a sympathetic tone, which means while you may not understand her subjects' fetish, you'll respect those who do.

GEORGE MICHAEL: FREEDOM: THE DIRECTORS' CUT

Directed by George Michael and David Austin, 113 min

Much like Amy or Whitney, this star-studded documentary pays tribute to the incredible voice and career of George Michael.

Michael was putting the final touches on this documentary when he died, and in Freedom shares his now posthumous thoughts on fame and success, the infamous court case with his music company, and why he turned his back on celebrity life. He also discusses the impact of the death of his first love, Anselmo Feleppa, on him.

Produced and directed by Michael and manager David Austin, there's an array of musicians who share their thoughts on Michael's genius (many of whom he dueted with), such as Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder, Elton John - even Liam Gallagher turns up to say "good lad" a few times.

There's some never-before-seen home video and plenty of archival and performance footage, but the film's restrained, glossy tone reveals a high level of artistic control. For a man who fought for artistic integrity throughout his life it's not unexpected. It seems fitting he controls how we remember him, focusing on the music rather than the man.

And, I tell you what, after watching Freedom you'll be reaching for your old George Michael album.

BIG IN JAPAN

Director: Louis Dai and Lachlan McLeod, 95 min

Dave is an ordinary, untalented 26-year-old Aussie who enters into a social experiment to become famous. With two of his best mates, who are also the directors, Dave heads to Japan, where there's apparently demand for foreign talent, with a saying that if you "can't make it in Japan you'll never make it in your own country".

Within three months, Dave is surprised to find himself working regularly as an extra on Japanese television shows, and goes in search of other foreigners who've moved to Japan to find fame in wacky ways, like Rick "Ladybeard" Magarey, an Adelaide-born cross-dressing, heavy-metal singing sensation. With fame still elusive, Dave begins to humiliate himself in ridiculous ways in search of celebrity.

Big in Japan asks familiar fame-related questions: what, why, and at what price? What's new is the way these three mates put social media to the test. Are 15 minutes of fame harder to find than we think? Dave's journey is a cautionary and rather amusing tale for the modern day attention-seeker.

SPIELBERG

Director: Susan Lacy, 147min

If you're a fan, or even reluctant admirer, of Steven Spielberg's movies you'll lap up this smart, informed portrait of the film-maker and his work. It's reassuring listening to Spielberg, one of the most critically and commercially successful directors of our time, reveal how he still thrives on the anxiety and the panic he feels when he steps on to the set. This is also a film for those who love behind-the-scenes stories of how a shot or scene came to be, or how it almost didn't. It's common knowledge Jaws was a nightmare to shoot, but it's still fun hearing stories of malfunctioning sharks and needing to write the script day-by-day.

Director Susan Lacy chats with a raft of Hollywood A-listers, including George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. Not surprisingly their comments are generally glowing; more revealing is Spielberg's own voice, taken from 30 hours of exclusive interviews. While Spielberg mostly talks about film-making, his own films and others, he also covers childhood insecurities, his parents' divorce and the estrangement from his father, and how his loneliness and reconciliation have come to inform his films. After seeing Spielberg, you may find yourself planning a mini Spielberg Film Festival for the family.