Film critic Francesca Rudkin previews The Doc Edge International Film Festival, coming to Auckland and Wellington in June.
Dir: Vikram Dasgupta
If you haven't heard the name Siphesihle November (Siphe for short), then it's probably not long before you will. An up-and-coming dancer at the National Ballet of Canada, the story of how Siphe became a professional dancer is as remarkable as his irrepressible talent.
How a 10-year-old boy from a humble background in Zolani, a segregated rural township outside Cape Town, South Africa becomes a student at Canada's National Ballet School in Toronto is the subject of Indian-born and Canadian-based film-maker Vikram Dasgupta's inspiring and poetic film, Beyond Moving.
A special relationship is required between a film-maker and his subject when it comes to creating an intimate, inspiring documentary, and Beyond Moving is the result of such a collaboration.
Dasgupta met Siphe while looking to film his next project, a short film on inspirational dancers. Dasgupta says it was his cinematographer who pulled him aside to say, "Look at this guy, he's intimidating but I can't stop looking at this guy."
Dasgupta had the same reaction, "I looked at the camera monitor and I felt like he was looking directly through the lens, looking at my soul, and he's a 14-year-old kid.".
After discovering Siphe had learnt ballet at an outreach programme taught by Fiona Sutton Sargeant in Zolani and learning how he got an audition with Canada's National Ballet School thanks to a Canadian family travelling through South Africa, Dasgupta knew he had more than a short film on his hands. "The other stories just didn't stand a chance", says Dasgupta, "he was the story."
Their meeting was clearly meant to be. The director and Siphe forged a close relationship based on a shared common background - leaving their parents and moving to a new country - and an appreciation of the power of dance.
For Siphe (now 20) dancing means "freedom". Siphe finds it hard to describe, "I try to be as honest as I possibly can in my dancing and stay true to me, to the young guy - and the old guy that I am getting to be now. I just try and be 100 per cent how I feel and who I am."
Dasgupta comes from a family of artists, musicians and dancers. "There are some firm beliefs that have been ingrained into me by my grandmother about the power of art and the joy of music and dance. Seeing Siphe evolve in front of my eyes into this great, beautiful being, it was just something that changed me," says Dasgupta. "It changed the way I look at life, to say the least."
Often films about dancers focus on the rigorous routine and physical demands of dancing but Dasgupta has accomplished something hard to capture on screen; he's made a film capturing the joy and privilege of dancing.
Dasgupta doesn't take any responsibility. "That's Siphe," he says. "It's just the way he moves. He inspired us to frame it in the best way we can." He goes so far as to say, "We were just trying to make sure Siphe was in the frame!"
With his unique African-inspired style and musicality, Siphe is indeed one of those dancers you can't take your eyes off - but Dasgupta is being too humble. The attention to detail, intimate tone, framing and composition of shots makes an important contribution.
Clearly, there is strong trust between film-maker and subject but while Siphe wasn't fazed by being followed by a camera for 4-5 years, when the time came to see the film he was suddenly concerned about the end product.
"There were a lot of people speaking in the movie that are not me. I guess not having that control over something, like what people think, was one thing I was pretty nervous about, but it was accurate and honest. I'm happy."
He didn't need to worry. For a young man who wants viewers to "feel inspired by dance and movement and how the art form can truly change lives", his collaboration with a kindred soul has fully delivered.
Dancers, wherever they're from, whatever their physiques, will be inspired.
Dir: Olivia Martin-McGuire
If you think hiring a helicopter to visit a local mountain peak for your wedding photos is extravagant, then China Love, a film that explores the glamour and excesses of the Chinese wedding photo industry, will give you pause for thought. For some couples, wedding photos alone require a trip to Paris.
Australian photographer and film-maker Olivia Martin-McGuire takes us inside this fascinating and relatively new billion-dollar industry, in which middle-class Chinese couples take wedding photos six months before their wedding. While in China the wedding is more about the family, the photos are all about the couples and their extravagance may see the couple suspended from the ceiling, or in a water tank. For the most part photoshopped, these images create a fantasy of excess and romance. Martin-McGuire also reveals the pressure on young Chinese to marry, and how the Cultural Revolution is driving this wedding photo trend.
A wonderful glimpse at modern-day China.
Dir: Heddy Honigmann
You don't have to be a dog lover to enjoy this touching documentary about the power of dogs to assist and heal humans. Buddy, a real crowd-pleaser by veteran Peru-born, Dutch director Heddy Honigmann, follows six service dogs as they provide help and companionship to their owners. The dogs are remarkable - displaying an IQ and EQ that puts many humans to shame; and their owners are just as lovely. One owner is a veteran suffering PTSD who relies on his dog to give him a sense of personal security, another is an octogenarian blinded by a bomb in World War II. Honigmann's film isn't unique in style, but it doesn't need to be. Her gentle observations and conversations with the dogs' owners about their relationships with their assist dogs is insightful and moving. This is one for the whole family.
KATE NASH Underestimate the Girl
Dir: Amy Goldstein
Fans of London singer-songwriter and actress Kate Nash will relish this documentary dedicated to the punk renegade and unabashed feminist's colourful career. Even if you aren't a fan of the Foundations hit-song artist, you'll find a fascinating and cautionary tale of instant fame and what happens when you get caught up and spat out by the music industry machine. Directed by Amy Goldstein, Kate Nash Underestimate the Girl is largely narrated by Nash herself, using her story to highlight the difficulties and gender inequalities faced by women in the music industry.
Nash takes us through her early years, when she was discovered on Myspace and six months later released an album that reached number 1 on the UK charts. After another album and a later change of musical direction, Nash received a text message from her label saying she wass being dropped, leaving her to face the challenge of becoming an independent artist. Outspoken and honest, Nash is a breath of fresh air, and will no doubt inspire a new generation of girls to be fearless and do things their way.
Dir: Hassan Fazili
Afghan film-maker Hassan Fazili was forced to leave his country after the Taliban put a bounty on his head. With his wife, also a film-maker, and two delightful young daughters, he drives, treks, and pays smugglers to get to Europe. Things don't go to plan, and Fazili and his family end up spending three years in detention centres. Their exile was captured on three mobile phones and it's this footage, shot by different members of the family, that makes up this documentary. It's an extraordinary feat, both the film and their journey revealing the reality of being a refugee but also capturing the family's incredible spirit. Midnight Traveler is an urgent and tense story that puts a human face on the global refugee crisis, and is surprisingly poetic and moving. It's an important film, reminding us that every refugee has a story to tell. We'd do well to listen.