For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.
The first (and maybe only?) NZ film in my schedule for NZIFF2013, Antarctica: A Year on Ice is without question going to be one of my personal highlights of the entire fortnight.
First of all, let me say I’m an absolute nature documentary fiend, and ever since I can remember I have gorged myself on BBC documentaries and the like about the natural world. Yet what I have seen in other documentaries about Antarctica has been almost entirely focused on the magical beauty and fury of nature on the continent.
What Antarctica: A Year on Ice offers is an intimate look at the people who choose to spend significant portions of their life there. Not so much the scientists whose work is probably the reason anyone is there at all, but the regular tradespeople and support staff who keep the operations going year round.
The film features a typically dry and unpretentious kiwi tone, with filmmaker Anthony Powell narrating in a natural, no-nonsense manner, and largely letting the handful of die hard citizens of the place speak about their unconventional lives. There is plenty of majestic footage of the landscape as well, with a wealth of time lapse photography that is always pretty stunning.
Antarctica: A Year on Ice is primarily about the people though, and a sense of community between nationalities that may exist nowhere else on the planet. There’s a sense of adventure in each of the locals, even as they go about their days in much the same way as people do anywhere else. Some will be intimidated by the awesome challenge the icy world offers, but I for one was ready to sign up for a winter at the bottom of the world as soon as I exited the theatre.
The following is a review I wrote for Thread, a new publication on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. Pick up a copy if you’re in the area, or you can visit their blog version here. Hopefully this will be a somewhat regular thing, so support a really cool new thing!
I was fortunate enough over the weekend to attend a screening of NZ feature White Lies followed by a revealing Q+A session with writer/director Dana Rotberg, star Antonia Prebble, composer John Psathas and novelist Witi Ihimaera. It might seem odd for a film about NZ colonial identity to be made by a Mexican filmmaker, but surprisingly the story benefits greatly by coming from an outside perspective.
Adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s novella Medicine Woman, White Lies doesn’t have a particularly well told story at its core, but is nonetheless an important film for NZ to have produced. Set during the early days of settlement, the film depicts a sinuous power struggle between colonial housewife Rebecca (Prebble), her housemaid Maraea (Rachel House), and Paraiti (Whirimako Black), the Maori medicine woman whose particular skills and discretion are sought.
The shifting dominance of each of these women, representing different aspects of female identity at the time, weaves a compelling and bleak narrative, but some of the story beats that should have had greater impact unfortunately fall a little flat. Elements that needed more room to breathe play out much too quickly, not allowing audiences time to digest, although the film’s closing scenes are powerful. White Lies deals with uncomfortable subject matter, and Rotberg doesn’t shy away from the story’s most tragic aspects.
Thankfully, White Lies looks better than any NZ film for some time. The cinematography by NZ legend Alun Bollinger gives the rugged setting of the film a beautifully oppressive quality reminiscent of his work on Vincent Ward’s Vigil, and has moments of rare, haunting beauty.
It’s a shame that most viewers will be unable to hear Rotberg speak about her approach to the film. The director’s keen understanding of the tragedy of colonialism in her homeland brings significance to White Lies that a Kiwi director may have been guarded about addressing, and hearing her thoughts on NZ colonialism and our nervous attitude about exposing our own violent past was incredibly refreshing. Her desire to treat the subject with integrity while never sugarcoating it comes across with wonderful passion, and while she remained respectful of the source material, she makes no excuses for altering Ihimaera’s work to suit her own vision. Despite the film’s faults, White Lies takes more risks and offers deeper perspective than most NZ films of late.