The New Zealand International Film Festival kicks off the cinema section of its programme in Auckland from Thursday, and the sense of anticipation is palpable.
With 21 Cannes films heading this way before going around the country, the programme this year is as wide and varied as ever.
From New Zealand premieres to the first showing on these shores of Coppola's The Beguiled, there's plenty to view - and plenty of walks of life to to catch glimpses of. From the thrill of the unknown in Ant Timpson's Secret Screening to the the dark of the matinee, there's more than enough to view and enough to be inspired by.
|Step, from Amanda Lipitz|
Talking of inspiration, the documentary Step, set in Baltimore in the wake of a city racked by the riots from the death of Freddie Gray, clearly aims to put a spring in any cinemagoers', erm, step. Following the kind of character arc you'd expect in any film of the underdog (ie facing adversity, rising up to the challenge, faltering) this doco about a group of girls in Baltimore in a dance group has an infectious joie de vivre and vibrancy that's hard to shake. Packed with moments of uplift without too much encouragement or interview from those involved, Amanda Lipitz's piece simply catches life as it happens - and emerges as a clarion call to young women to self-belief and empowerment. From embarrassing Dance Moms to desperation over college dreams and the potential for a lifetime of debt as you pursue your chance to get out, Step has all the drama you'd need. Young black women get their time in spotlight here, and without milking any of the situation, Lipitz's piece easily transgresses the cliche of the underdog tale to bring something uplifting and resonant to its conclusion.
|The Inland Road from Jackie Van Beek|
A little more low-key and thoughtful, but lacking no depth of message, Jackie van Beek's quietly introspective The Inland Road is an unassuming story about consequence in Central Otago. Following teenage Tia (an understated and subtle Gloria Popata who resonates both fierce petulance and teen vulnerability with ease) after she's involved in a car accident while on the run from domestic issues, the film shifts into gear when she ends up trying to make amends for her guilt in the crash. Ingratiating her way into the lives of those affected (most definitely not a la The Hand That Rocks The Cradle) van Beek's almost lyrical touches and story of regret, rebirth and healing is deftly executed, subtly powerful and is a signal that van Beek is more than just a comic talent.
|A Date For Mad Mary|
Equally blessed with an earnest lead is Irish dramedy A Date For Mad Mary, which deals with the fresh-out-of-jail Mary (Seana Kerslake) and her no plus one invite to her long-term best friend's wedding. With her Fish Tank style clothing and combative survivor and antagonist approach to anyone around her, Mary's volatility signals her as a loose cannon in an old and long friendship. Set in Ireland's Drogheda, the film's underplayed humour (one wedding dress shop is named "Bride, Sally Bride" in nod to The Commitments) soon gives way to a story of coming-to-terms with yourself, your place in life and the consequence of your actions. With droll observations peppering the early parts of the film, you could be forgiven for being caught off guard by the back half of the film and its nicely handled twist - this is a film which talks to friendships past and of moving on while meshing and mirroring a certain recent French Cannes Grand Prix winner's style journey for its lead.
Elsewhere, meshing both moments of Lovecraftian body horror and telenovela domestic issues, Spanish language film The Untamed is something of a bizarre experiment that doesn't quite gel in the ways you'd expect. With its opening very heavy on sexual imagery, mystery and hanging mist, the film's quick shift to a wife Ale, unhappy in her marriage and suspecting her husband is cheating is so far, so familiar. But the audience is ahead of Ale as she treads unaware of what's happening, and even though this is the case, the film's meandering pace is fraught with moments of shock to render you out of a potential coma. Mexican director Amat Escalante scooped a Cannes award back in 2013 with Heli, but this latest with its unusual slow pacing and hints of swipes at Mexican perception of gay life feels a little uncertain of what it actually wants to be - and while the mystery is tantalising, the resolution is sadly frustrating.
|I Am Not Your Negro|
Nominated for Oscar and one of the more galvanising pieces of the festival, documentary I Am Not Your Negro concentrates on the works of James Baldwin. Telling the story of race within America, and based on 30 pages of his incomplete book Remember This House (about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr), the doco's a stirring reminder of how pathetically far we've come as a human race. Narrated by Samuel L Jackson, and showing the terrifying race riots of Ferguson, director Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro does much to shed light on Baldwin's underappreciated status but also does much more to show how shameful we are as a species. It's enlightening in the extreme, but much like Step demonstrates, it shows that there's always more that can be done and that change can start the moment the cinema's lights go up.
The New Zealand International Film Festival begins in Auckland on July 20th before opening around the country.
For more on the films mentioned here, and the full programme, please visit www.nziff.co.nz.
And stay tuned to this blog, as during the Auckland leg of the festival, regular reviews of the films will be posted.