What's up, doc?

by andrew.mcnulty / 19 February, 2011
Highlights of this year's Documentary Edge Festival.

Spike Lee on the New Orleans oil spill, Oliver Stone on South American politics and George Lucas in the wars over Star Wars - the Documentary Edge Festival has snared strong drawcards this year. But there's plenty of appeal in the rest of the programme of 60-plus titles - everything from a recreation of the capturing of Adolf Eichmann to MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! (that would be the Philippines' exploitation-movie industry).

In the New Zealand contingent, Dan Salmon's DIRTY BLOODY HIPPIES takes an affectionate look back at the 70s and our alternative lifestyle movement. Reminiscence and archival material are woven with the visits of former hippies to the sites of their communities, producing a flowing narrative of a time, place and philosophy. It's a valuable document about an experiment in idealism, and one that seems to beg a sequel exploring its legacy in the broader context of our culture and identity.

In WO AI NI MOMMY (I Love You Mommy), Sui Yong is an eight-year-old Chinese girl from Guangzhou, about to be adopted into the New York Jewish family of Donna and Jeff Sadowsky. We travel with Donna to China and back, and get a close-up view of the transaction on two levels: the issues and vicissitudes of international cross-cultural adoption, and the emotional confusion of Sui Yong as she and Donna wrestle with each other over the ensuing months. It leaves you with an understanding of the joys and the difficulties, but also feeling more than a little ambivalent.

Staying in China, RAINMAKERS is a riposte to assumptions about that country's attitude to the environment. Floris-Jan van Luyn's no-frills film profiles four environmental warriors, in different parts of China, waging lonely battles against local polluters and authorities. Those familiar with Zhang Yimou's The Story of Qiu Ju will recognise the dogged personalities of these very ordinary citizens trying to bring balance back into nature.

By contrast, the citizens in THIEVES BY LAW are far from ordinary. Three crime bosses talk frankly - up to a point - about themselves and the rise of the Russian Mafia in Stalin's gulags in the 30s, through perestroika and privatisation and on to their state-sanctioned involvement with business and government. Director Alexander Gentelev has achieved astonishing co-operation, presenting a portrait that doesn't hide the underlying ruthlessness, but shows how age and luxury have steered these men into calmer waters: religion, art collecting ... even, gawd help us, film-making.

MRS CAREY'S CONCERT (Australia) and MAKE BELIEVE (US) both deal with coming-of-age via the performing arts. The former observes a Sydney girls' school preparing for its annual concert at the Opera House, under a determined but sensitive martinet, Karen Carey. This is no conventional let's-put-on-a-show piece; the challenges thrown up by two very different teens make it an absorbing, suspenseful story about education and personal development and will engage teachers, students and parents alike. And the music will blow you away. Make Believe is more pedestrian, less layered and less structurally tidy, but it, too, touches on the psychologies of its out-of-the-ordinary adolescents: six aspiring magicians competing for Teen World Champion at the Las Vegas World Magic Seminar.

Masterchef will look tame after EL BULLI - COOKING IN PROGRESS, a coolly solemn observation of the famed Spanish restaurant's meticulous annual exercise in culinary R&D. Eschewing narration or talking heads, the film draws us in with its spare visuals like a mystery story. Then we watch, fascinated, as the chefs combine technique, speculation and error to push the (sometimes edible) envelope in their quest to find - and impress their boss Ferran Adrià with - next season's most avant-garde dishes. Wow. And yum. I think.

Possibly the most startling and thought-provoking work of the festival is INTO ETERNITY. Designed as a cinematic letter to the far-off future, it's about Finland's construction of a facility to store, and seal off for at least 100,000 years, its nuclear waste. Dane Michael Madsen's stunning filmic and aural treatment is sci-fi eerie and haunting, even as the documentarian in him pursues the questions that the philosophically provocative content keeps raising. Disturbing, essential viewing.

DOCUMENTARY EDGE FESTIVAL, Auckland, February 16-March 6; Wellington, March 10-27.

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