Lives torn apart
This post was first published in Watt to Watch at http://www.stuff.co.nz on 2nd August 2013
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, as I have just two more viewing days of festival left. I’ve kept the last day completely unbooked, since I usually have an eleventh-hour bout of FOMO and rush to something, anything, before the crushing comedown of the post-festival blues.
No time to mope just yet, however, as I’ve been gorging on mind-expanding documentaries, pausing only for some eye candy of the handbag and shoes kind.
Screening this Sunday on the Auckland leg’s final day is the theatrical edit of documentary-maker Annie Goldson’s latest foray into telling it like it is. He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan makes for an excellent history lesson on why we joined the allied forces in a conflict not of our making, before enlightening viewers on what we’ve really been doing there.
Initially it’s rather embarrassing – I couldn’t help feeling we are the kid who is only invited to play in the Big Boys’ game to make up numbers. However, it soon transpires that New Zealand’s involvement in “reconstructing” the war-torn country is distinctly murky behind the positively-spun newsreel.
Taking up the cause for Kiwi journalist Jon Stephenson, discredited by John Key for earlier reported assertions, He Toki Huna travels to Kabul and into Bamiyan province, where locals are interviewed about New Zealand’s presence over the past decade. The Kiwis are regarded well enough, though recipients of our reconstruction efforts are scathing about the quality of work.
But the real revelations fly when Stephenson talks to those affected by a night raid that left two Afghans dead. Whether you’ll be shocked that New Zealand isn’t as 100 per cent pure as we’re led to believe, or whether you’re inured to tales of alleged military misconduct, this is an engaging, enlightening view of a story in which, for once, the Americans aren’t the leads.
While we’re talking documentaries, a special shout-out to the innovative rendering of Cambodia’s tragic past in The Missing Picture. Most people know that two million Cambodians were killed under Pol Pot’s 1970s regime, and while there have been several documentaries taking various angles (last year’s superb Brother Number One is notable for its New Zealand connection), here the filmmaker has painstakingly sculpted clay figurines to play out the story of his losing his entire family to starvation and murder. Interspersed with contemporary footage, much of it from Khmer Rouge propaganda videos, the gentle French voiceover describes horrors that are represented on screen in a surprisingly affecting manner.
Not wanting to break the sombre mood, I then watched The Captain and his Pirate, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a real-life ship hijacking that left the captain undergoing trauma therapy in a clinic in Germany, while the Somali pirate describes his affection and respect for the captain from the safety of his desert village. There is an astonishing moment when the interview is played back for the captain to hear hurtfully candid remarks. But given this is a view into the real world of ordinary people whose lives are brought painfully together, it’s the whole tale that’s remarkable.
And what a perfect introduction to piratical life before I embarked on the superb Danish thriller, A Hijacking. Dramatising the same situation, writer/director Tobias Lindholm (who wrote The Hunt, and shows even greater skill here) tells the desperate story from both sides. In the corporate offices of the shipping company, CEO Peter (The Killing‘s Soren Malling) is trained by a real-life hostage negotiator in how to deal with the pirates who have taken his ship in the Indian Ocean. On board, the beleaguered cook Mikkel tries to survive mentally and physically as the crew languishes for [I won’t tell you how long!] as negotiations are drawn out. The acting is superb, and every line of dialogue seemingly spot-on for such an unimaginable situation. Full marks go to Lindholm and his own crew for producing one of the highlights of my festival.
By comparison, Sofia Coppola’s heralded The Bling Ring is made of fluffier, ickier stuff. Starring Emma “Hermione Potter” Watson in a breaking-the-mould role, she’s actually terrific as one of a bunch of real-life spoilt Hollywood kids who broke into celebrities’ homes and stole beautiful things. As we see inside the boudoir and Nightclub Room of Paris Hilton (better than any episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and almost worth the ticket price on its own), you soon feel as though you’ve eaten too much candy. The overall experience left me a bit soiled, like when I’ve read a WHO Weekly magazine. Definitely enjoyable but hardly “improving”.
However, capping off an excellent two days was another stunner, What Maisie Knew – an excoriating tale of parents splitting up and doing everything you shouldn’t for the sake of the child stuck in the middle. The film takes Maisie’s point of view, gently following the eccentrically dressed wee child from home to home, step-parent to step-parent. Remarkably, every performance is brilliant here, too – Steve Coogan is the best I’ve ever seen him, perfectly personifying a bad father against Julianne Moore’s Oscar-deserving turn as the narcissistic rock star mother. Support from an unfathomably gorgeous Alexander Skarsgard softens a few of the emotional blows that render this film incisive and insightful, devastating but delicious.