Greg and Zanna spend an evening with Florian Habicht and friends.
Raising of questions: 5
Answering of questions: 1
James & Isey isn't hard hitting or eye-opening or any of the words we'd use to describe most good documentaries. It isn't even much of a story in the traditional sense. It's simply several days in the presence of a truly delightful pair of Kawakawa residents, one of whom - Isey - is about to celebrate her 100th birthday.
Film-maker Florian Habicht has made something quite special with James & Isey. It feels like the story that Isey and her son and caregiver, James, want to share, not one Habicht has coerced out of them. When James tells a harrowing story about the passing of one of his brothers from a brain tumour, Isey ends the story by saying that she doesn't want to talk about all that stuff in the past: "What's gone is gone and we've just got to look to the future".
That statement is felt throughout the film. This isn't Isey's life story. Details of her upbringing, marriage and James' childhood are sparse, replaced with a gentle portrait of a sweet and loving relationship between an elderly mother and her son. Long, slow sequences of James helping his mother into the car or the pair having a cup of tea sound boring but they're not; they're tender and heartwarming.
James was pursuing a singing and acting career in Auckland when he packed it in and returned home 20 years ago to care first for his ailing father and then his mother. He has big stories, a big heart and that actorly calling to the big screen - you can feel him as a driving force behind the film right from the beginning. Before James & Isey, Habicht had given up documentary-making in pursuit of financial security but something kept calling him to make this film. My guess is it was James.
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A rubicon moment for our relationship came in 2011 at the premiere of Florian Habicht's film Love Story, when our disagreement over the film's qualities caused our own burgeoning love story to come under severe and ironic threat. Basically, I hated it and was indignant that Zanna liked it although I can't now remember my justification in either case. When I think back on the film, I remember it as sweet and formally innovative and I can't think of a single reason to criticise it, except that I thought it might make me look smarter than I am, which it didn't. It made me look like an arsehole, which I suspect I was.
It's possible my retrospective fondness for that film has been driven by a growing familiarity with, and fondness for, Habicht's oeuvre. The personality of his films has so embedded itself in our culture that he has come to feel like the country's affable and excitable nephew. His films are inevitably sweet, kind and compassionate examinations of their subjects, and so it is with James & Isey, a love story about a 100-year-old woman and her 60-something-year-old son, cohabiting just outside Kawakawa.
The film raises a lot of questions about the lives at its centre and answers almost none of them, choosing to exist almost entirely in the few days over which it's filmed.
When it finished, and I told Zanna I was glad I didn't hate it, she said: "Did you not?"
I said "How could you hate that film? It was so sweet."
That didn't sound like the type of thing I would say, but the way we feel about a film is, in part, a product of how we feel about ourselves. I've been quite positive about all sorts of things lately. Zanna is finding it strange and honestly, so am I.