It’s the most wonderful time of the year for cinephiles.

Not the coming blockbuster storm when moviegoers look set to drown once again in superheroes and sequels, but the 49th New Zealand International Film Festival that opens in Auckland on the 20th of July before heading around the country. 

This year’s festival has slightly shaken things up with the addition of some new Auckland venues, the removal of the Animation Now! strand to stand on its own two feet the week before, the announcement of a local Video OnDemand platform for former NZIFF titles, and a chance to binge a TV series before it airs elsewhere in a couple of months’ time.

It seems clear that age is no boundary for the festival as it nears its half-decade, and given the buoyant numbers of patrons squarely placing their bottoms of seats at venues around the country, the appetite for this cinematic smorgasbord shows no signs of abating.

With 21 Cannes films heading to projection rooms here, and a swathe of local films getting their first outings on local soil, it’s more than obvious that the festival can be an overload of choice, but as ever, the broad range on offer means there’s likely something for everyone.

Already sold out in Wellington, and likely to be the big-hitter of the festival, Gaylene Preston’s My Year With Helen chronicles Helen Clark’s campaign to become UN Secretary General last year. However, what emerges from Preston’s laconic doco is more a deafening cry for change within the UN itself as it reveals how increasingly close to irrelevance it’s coming in representing the people. 

While offering a few candid moments from the ever-diplomatic Clark via way of home life in Waihi Beach, Preston concentrates her efforts on capturing the desire for change and the campaign to install the first woman at the top in the UN’s 80 year history.  If anything, it’s to be hoped that the depressing feeling left by the lack of a desire for change can create a galvanising effect on others – it’s a fascinating, yet simultaneously sickening, look at the upper echelons of power – and a horrifying condemnation of the patriarchy.

Equally horrifying, though nonetheless plausible in the gloomy global times we currently inhabit, American doomsday prepper thriller It Comes At Night will not leave you whistling, according to festival director Bill Gosden. 

Centering on an isolated house inhabited by Joel Edgerton’s Paul and his wife and son, the film opens on an old man gasping for life, and being led out of the house by gas-mask wearing figures, one ominously carrying a red jerry can and a gun. With the world threatened by plague, segregation and trusting only your own is an inevitability – but It Comes At Night shatters all of that when a stranger, played by Girls star Christopher Abbott, breaks into the home, looking for supplies and help.

In a world already consumed by paranoia, thanks to North Korea’s missile tests and the volatile President Trump edging closer to some kind of moment, It Comes At Night may be a drama, but its prescience occasionally feels more like a documentary-in-waiting.

“Una’s portrait of abuse and PTSD is as fascinating as it is appalling.”

Expanded out from the 2005 stage two-hander Blackbird, Una is a complex and subtle portrait that may leave an uneasy taste in your mouth after viewing.

The Una of the title is played by Rooney Mara, who starts the film heading off for places unknown after a casual toilet tryst at a club. Clearly in a self-destructive mood, Una’s quest leads her to turn up unannounced at a warehouse, and demanding to see Ray (Bloodline‘s Ben Mendelsohn) whose image she has on a photograph. 

The two share a past and while Ray may have chosen to leave that past behind, it’s clearly still propelling Una on to a more uncertain psychological future. With the past flitting in and out of the narrative, director Benedict Andrews proves adept at slyly swinging the pendulum throughout with neither side seeming innocent as the clinical recollections are revisited. 

While Una could easily have settled for sensationalist film-making, a degree of nuance from both Mendelsohn and Rooney makes this nothing short of searing – its portrait of abuse and PTSD is as fascinating as it is appalling.

Abuse is also to be explored in the local film Waru, which collects together eight filmmakers and puts their insights into the complexity of child abuse up on the screen, in the hope no doubt, that our ever-sickening violence can be confronted rather than swept under the carpet. Centering around the death of Waru, a boy killed at the hands of a caregiver, there’s no doubt this will be incendiary as it explores the killing via the prism of family, extended family, community and the media.

Waru will fulfil one of the festival’s raison d’etres; to showcase our voices and our stories, good or bad. 

‘Waru’ will bring audiences into its examination of domestic violence in New Zealand. Photo: BSAG Productions

Elsewhere, cinematic orphans are given their time in the limelight. The Oscar-nominated Ma vie de Courgette (My Life as a Courgette) is one of the films audiences had been crying out to see after there was no sign of local distribution – much like the non-I-am-Groot tree psychological tale A Monster Calls and the incendiary documentary I Am Not Your Negro.

Colourfully animated and apparently soulful and uplifting, Ma vie de Courgette explores abuse, neglect and deportation with a degree of cinematic whim.

There is lighter fare on the programme though. It’s not all gloom.

One of the fluffier tales on show (literally) is Kedi, a documentary that follows the street cats of Istanbul. Likely to be cinematic kryptonite to animal lovers, this furry story tags along with seven kitties who live their daily lives in their own pursuits. Adopted by various members of the public, but with no one owner, director Ceyda Torun’s light and enjoyable film captures the symbiotic relationship we share with our pets.

Occasionally, the film veers closely into delivering grand statements about how cats are like people, but in fairness to Torun, these are the words of the vox populi, not Torun’s own. Kedi is Turkish for cat, and it’s perhaps honest to say this feline fare is unlikely to be prove to be cinematic cat-nip to Gareth Morgan. It’s more likely to appeal more to those seeking a gentle outing, who will no doubt be entranced by the warmth of this microcosm of furry life.

Festival favourite Florian Habicht (the director of Love Story and the splendid Pulp documentary) is back once again. This time, he’s taken to looking at those who haunt our lives in Spookers, as he examines the popular theme park that occupies the former Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital.

Turning his eye to the quirks and celebrations of those within, Spookers is likely to prove another homegrown hit – and with the ever eccentric Habicht on hand to chat about the film afterwards, this is likely to be one of the festival faves.

The international guests and the local filmmakers prove to be a real tonic for those audience members looking forward to deepening their connection with what they’ve just seen.

Director Jane Campion will be in attendance at the seven-hour series binge of Top Of the Lake: China Girl to discuss the Elisabeth Moss-led series; veteran news journalist and revered correspondent Kate Adie will be around after screenings of Toa Fraser’s new thriller 6 Days given she’s portrayed in it, and BAFTA-nominated Jennifer Peedom whose 2015 documentary Sherpa captured the fragility of life on Everest, will be visiting to talk about her new film Mountain after screenings.  

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