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Interview: Film-maker Costa Botes

A common thread runs through Costa Botes’s documentaries – literally so in his latest, The Last Dogs of Winter.

Costa Botes.

Film-maker Costa Botes is a one-man band, marching to the beat of his own drum. The course of his career – which he describes as “just hopping from boulder to boulder and trying not to fall in” – was set while he sat in the dark with his Greek immigrant parents, watching movies in the picture houses of 1960s Wellington. “I loved the Beatles films, which I saw when I was very young,” he says, “and fantasy films – incredible seeing something utterly impossible, yet there it is in front of you. “So I always related to the magic of it. Then, when I got older, I related more to ideas – particularly drama, and how it takes you through all these emotions. I had no idea how it worked but I wanted to know, and that’s become my lifetime’s work, really.”

Boyhood experiments with a spring-wound Bolex camera were followed by a fine arts diploma with a film-making focus, then stints on film crews, before settling into “making more self-generated work”. Over the past three decades, that work has included drama, documentary and the bastard offspring of those two genres, mockumentary. He’s surely best-known for his contribution to the latter category, 1995’s Forgotten Silver, which he co-wrote and co-directed with fellow Wellington-based film-maker Peter Jackson. Initially reviled by the large segment of the population who had been all too eager to believe its plucky world-beating protagonist was the real deal, the fi lm is now widely regarded as a Kiwi classic. Not so 1998’s Saving Grace, Botes’s debut as a dramatic feature film director. It was unloved on release and is unlikely to enjoy a positive reassessment – including from the film-maker himself. “Even before it was finished, it became clear to me the dramatic question at its heart was simply not amenable to a satisfying dramatic conclusion,” he says. “It felt like presiding over a stillbirth.”

In the aftermath of that disappointment, Botes worked as a director-for-hire on kidult TV show The Tribe, before moving back into the orbit of Planet Jackson when he pitched his friend the idea of a documentary about the making of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which had just been greenlit by New Line Cinema. Both Jackson and the studio agreed, and Botes soon found himself mired in Hollywood politics and copyright issues, and he lost the chance to have input into the final shape of the three Making of … films when they were eventually released in 2006. The frustration engendered by that lack of control, coupled with a growing antipathy toward “films that exploit feelings of helplessness and don’t help you make sense of life”, led Botes to take stock of his career direction. Tired of his creative decisions being second-guessed by others, “I went, ‘Well, what do I want to do? What turns me on? What can I get passionate about?’ I decided I was going to make indie docos and do it myself, my own way.”

That decision has led to Botes making a small flurry of films under his Lone Pine Productions label, generally acting as director, producer, cameraman and editor. In keeping with their modest budgets, these works – which include Struggle No More, Candyman and Daytime Tiger – all serve as celebrations of underdogs pursuing their dreams. Initially, Botes wasn’t conscious of the common theme, but began to recognise he was “picking protagonists who I can admire and who I want to be like, in that they’re not sitting on their arses doing nothing, they’re actually acting on their passions”.

His latest film, The Last Dogs of Winter, is no exception. About the 40-year mission of Brian Ladoon to preserve the near-extinct qimmiq, Canada’s indigenous Arctic dog, it will have its New Zealand premiere in Auckland on July 23 as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Botes was alerted to the story and its cinematic potential by Caleb Ross, formerly one of The Tribe’s young leads and now working as Ladoon’s assistant in the tiny, isolated Manitoba town of Churchill, the so-called “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. “The idea just stuck in my mind and wouldn’t go away,” says Botes, so – after securing funding from the New Zealand Film Commission – he undertook a gruelling five-week shoot in late 2010. “It got pretty cold while I was there, down to minus 20°C, which made things tricky. It’s difficult to operate a camera when your fingers are freezing and your eyes are weeping so hard from the icy wind that you can’t see.” And then there was the occupational hazard of the occasional polar bear. “You had to be constantly alert,” he says, “because when they break into a charge they can run as fast as a horse.”

An intelligently inspirational film that features footage of dogs and polar bears interacting, The Last Dogs of Winter was enthusiastically received when it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. Now Botes is eyeing the upcoming New Zealand response with a cheerful fatalism: the wilderness around Churchill is a harsh environment, but it’s got nothing on the movie marketplace, he reckons. “The making of a film is actually the easy part; getting people to notice it is extraordinarily difficult.” Those who do notice Botes’s films can expect a satisfying ride; he works hard to ensure they make a strong emotional connection to the audience, a process that includes the self-imposed discipline of holding test screenings. “Sure, I want to please myself,” he says, “but if I’m not pleasing the audience then I don’t get the payoff of sitting in a theatre and feeling people responding to the film the way I’d hoped. “Probably the highlight of my life would be Forgotten Silver at the Venice Film Festival – an audience of 1000 people, and we just had them every inch of the way. That felt really good. It’s been my touchstone for more than 15 years now, and I just keep thinking, ‘Can I keep doing that?’”

NEW ZEALAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, various centres, July 19-October 31.