Fair Warning

I’m giving you all fair warning about this before I bombard the blogosphere with gratuitous updates: there’s a film festival in Wellington. (Actually, it’s a film festival all over New Zealand, but that’s not important.) The important thing is that I have tickets. To a lot of films. A LOT. Like, two movies a day for two weeks a lot. And because I love film, and my family loves film, and I’m going to be watching far too many films to keep track of, and because you should probably watch most (if not all) of these films too, I’m going to write about them! So I’m giving you fair warning – if you don’t want to read about really interesting, moving, beautiful films for the next 17 days, you should probably skip this blog for the next couple of weeks. If not: welcome!

The cause of my cinema-themed obsession for the next two weeks is the 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival. That means 17 days of non-stop films at nine different locations around Wellington and 11 cities nationwide. More than 170 films are being showcased, representing the best of this year’s cinema as well as classics from the past like MantrapThe Shining, Bonjour Tristesse, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Screenings are happening throughout the city from 10:30am to 10:30pm every day, and the genres represented range from documentaries to costume dramas to thrillers, and from animation shorts to comedies to children’s films. To put it simply, there’s a huge variety of choice and far too little time to see it all. I’m in Heaven.

The film that opened this year’s festival (and which I saw tonight) was Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won the Grand Jury and Cinematography Awards at Sundance and also took the Camera d’Or for Best First Film at Cannes in May. The Director of the NZFF introduced the film as “a magnificent, turbulent beginning to this year’s festival,” and it’s not hard to see why. Even with a seat on the most extreme edge of the very first row in the theater, my appreciation of the film was not even remotely dulled. It was absolutely surreal, beautiful, aggressive, anarchic, and magical in a way I’ve never experienced before.

The film is shot and narrated from the perspective of Hushpuppy, a young girl living with her alcoholic father in a squalid shanty community on the lush islands just outside the levees that failed New Orleans. It follows her as she navigates life in “the bathtub” – the name the residents have adopted for their settlement – and grapples with realities of the world around her. As Amy Taubin from Film Comment describes it, “the film is not so much magic realism as a realistic depiction of a child’s imagination grappling with the beauties and mortal dangers of the natural world and with the humans who nurture it.” The cinematography is breathtaking, and the execution of the film is flawless in its ability to transport you to an alien (yet fully believable) universe where hard-drinking social outcasts practice voodoo, live with pigs and light their ovens with blowtorches. The film’s perspective on the hurricane that decimated New Orleans is fully unique, as is the approach of its director.

But, like the recent version of Where The Wild Things Are, it’s not always an easy film to watch. It’s surreal, adult, uncensored, and deeply moving despite its young protagonist. It explores issues of  ‘normalcy’, community, authority, youth, and maturity with an unsentimental eye, and still manages to maintain a childlike appreciation of life’s beauty and dignity. The gravity of its star – only 6 years old when the movie was shot – is equally as astounding. It made a deep, memorable impression in only an hour and a half, and I fully recommend it to my fellow cinephiles. I don’t know if it’s possible, but if it’s any indication of the films I can expect to see over the next 17 days you and I, dear reader, are in for a real feast :)

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