Rain had been chucking down for the past five minutes and has since stopped. Was that Autumn? Absolutely it is, and if like me you feel you have waited long enough for an excuse to hunker down in a dark cinema and watch documentaries, ready or not, the DocEdge Festival opens on Thursday with Be Here Now - The Andy Whitfield Story. Whitfield had been the star of Spartacus when he was diagnosed with cancer, and this doco charts how he lives in the face of death and sickness. This theme of seizing life just as it seems to be running out is one theme of the festival – another highly recommended film is Seven Songs for a Long Life, which tracks a nurse, and patients singing in a Hospice in Scotland.
Sonita, the true story of a teenage girl rapper, an Afghan refugee based in Tehran, is part of another theme, that of musicians facing terrible odds to live the dream. Sonita’s biggest obstacle is not the law forbidding girls to sing, but the cultural custom of selling girls as brides, so their brothers in turn can buy wives of their own. The problem in Introducing Princess Shaw is not permission but poverty and the battle to get exposure – little does she know that a fan watching her YouTube clips is going to send her music viral. The Pakistani musician stars of Song of Lahore are at the other end of their careers, but are no more secure. Many Lahore musicians found themselves unemployed when the rise of religious extremism led to the closure of most of the film studios. Here they are offered a chance of returning to music when a billionaire discreetly funds a studio where they can make said music. Knowing that they can’t find local audiences, they decide to put their own twist on jazz, and end up playing with Winton Marsalis in New York: inspiring and nerve-wracking in equal measure.
Other films relating to the aftermath of 9/11 and intervention in the Middle East look at the darker realities more directly. Among the Believers is a look inside madrassas, while the realities and unintended consequences of American policy are explored in Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr. Meanwhile, Loving in Limbo is about a married couple unable to live together in the US (she is American, he is a Kiwi), which shows the fallout of American foreign policy in tightened immigration laws.
There are a number of character studies of musicians, writers, and artists. The spotlight shines on Nathan East and David Helfgott (I am David), who became world famous through the biopic Shine. Also Maya Angelou, Norman Lear and Gabo: The Creation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The story of New Zealand country music singer Donna Dean (The Sound of her Guitar) is also a draw. The film premieres at the festival and was selling out in Wellington. Food is also art these days if you look to Sergio Herman, Fucking Perfect; a more local food story – compulsory for everyone living in Grey Lynn – comes in the short Monterey.
The future of housing is a big issue in Auckland (see Tank Farm) and much can be learnt from The Infinite Happiness, which follows various inhabitants of the 8 House, designed by architect Bjarke Ingels in the suburbs of Copenhagen. Inspired by Italian villages, it has paths outside the door, rather than corridors, and one can reach the top without ever getting off your bicycle. It is a very appealing alternative to regular apartment living as people do get to know each other, kids do have places to play, there is even a lovely old man who you can call up to help you hang pictures. The documentary is slow in pace though, be warned.
For anyone wanting some clarity and context on the current financial crisis and rising inequality should look to Noam Chomsky’s compelling and thought-provoking Requiem of the American Dream. Other films grappling with social justice include Miners Shot Down, which questions why scores of unarmed miners on a public space were killed or injured as they striked in protest for better wages. Screenings of The Opposition, Holly Fifer’s debut documentary about the legal battle of a Papua New Guinea community to keep their homes on land earmarked for the development of a luxury resort, have been cancelled on the film-maker’s request, but Google further and Dame Carol Kidu, who was originally assisting the community, has now become a consultant to the developers and wants out of the film. A final ruling on whether she has the right to block the film will be made in June, so hopefully an opportunity to see the film will come in time. Meanwhile, Naomi Klein has created a documentary version of her book, This Changes Everything. She is attempting something deeply heroic – to shift thinking about climate change from a scientific argument to a social one, and save the world by trying to get people, and peoples, to work and find a solution together. This is an enormous thing to try and achieve.
The great strength of documentaries is to allow audiences to connect with extraordinary people in the most intimate of ways. Heroes become all the more heroic for being made of flesh and blood like the rest of us. A Man Can Make a Difference follows a lawyer who worked in the Nuremberg Trials and fifty years later played a hand in the creation of the International Criminal Court. But there are all sorts of heroes, from homosexuals in Israel, to campaigners for more gun control in America. For the most impressive day to day bravery though, it is hard to look past the lone woman in Body Team 12, who goes out with her colleagues each day to retrieve bodies during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. The grief, anger and terror of those left behind is horrifying, and yet on she goes. They need a mother in the team, she tells us. She is not going to be discouraged. I am in awe.