Every year Aucklanders get the chance to see the world through other sets of eyes.

The New Zealand International Film Festival, this year being held for the 50th time, brings together movies and documentaries that may never have made their way to New Zealand otherwise but have been among the highlights on the international festival circuit. Through stories from other places we gain an insight into how other societies work - how people act, react, grieve, believe, love and hate. We are often transported to some unfamiliar time or place and come out feeling we have a better understanding of things. It widens our horizons. It opens our minds.

The drama surrounding the on-again-off-again visit of Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux has played out at the same time as the festival and has unfolded in a way that would make an interesting festival documentary.

Two Canadians who say they are champions of free speech plan a visit to a fellow Commonwealth country and in doing so expose deep divisions that have long been lying beneath the surface. There is bitter debate in the media, local politics, a legal challenge, student protests and a natural conclusion as the pair arrive only to cancel their talk.

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To be watching the events in person has not always been easy. To see it from the documentary maker's perspective would provide an examination from a safer distance of where Auckland is at as an integrated, multicultural society.

Southern and Molyneux came to Auckland to campaign against multiculturalism. They arrived in Auckland on Thursday and were to speak last night after a tour of Australia where Southern said the West is suffering an identity crisis and Molyneux, when asked about "practical" steps Australians could take to "change the doctrine about multiculturalism", answered: "I believe that talking about ethnic differences in intelligence is probably a good place to start." He added: "It is the one topic that drives the left nuts."

While Southern and Molyneux came to put forward their argument against multiculturalism, the film festival, which has become an important event on the city's cultural calendar since it launched in 1969, is a celebration of multiple cultures.

It has also become something of a stay-at-home winter getaway for Aucklanders. Programmes are pored over, suitable showing times highlighted and annual leave booked. On a late-night bus last week, one dedicated fan who had sat through several films that day could be heard explaining that rather than head overseas for a month each year, he clears his diary during the festival so he can take in the world through film. At this year's festival, which runs from July 18 to August 12, there are films from almost 40 countries - more ground than any traveller could comfortably cover in the same amount of time.

Festival director Bill Gosden notes in this year's programme that the festival has "occasionally ... got smaller, but not for long" and that "film-makers produce work that calls for festivity, and that Auckland audiences love to gather, evaluate and celebrate".

The festival is an opportunity to do all of those things, and also to challenge and educate ourselves.

The organisers and helpers of this year's festival deserve a big thanks for putting on another great event. An important part of multiculturalism is understanding and appreciating other cultures. The film festival is playing an important part in that process.