Story is king: Metro's guide to Doc Edge Festival 2017

by David Larsen / 16 May, 2017

Never mind gloss, the annual Doc Edge Festival seeks out films capable of making an impact, with pressing social issues often in the frame. Metro previews the 2017 line-up.

“That’s what ambrosia tastes like,” says the man eating bees straight out of the hive. Meanwhile, a monk has been walking all day every day for a thousand days. Christchurch is collapsing in absolute silence, and in the major cities of Japan, teenage girls are rebranding themselves as “idols” and attracting vast crowds of middle-aged male followers. “This isn’t a fad,” insists one idol devotee. “This is a religion.”

Those fragments are all from films screening in this year’s Doc Edge Festival. It isn’t a fad either. New Zealand’s only specialist documentary film festival — now a qualifying festival for Oscar nominations in the documentary-short category — launched in 2005, under the name DOCNZ. It rebranded as Documentary Edge in 2010, partly to reflect its commitment to cutting-edge film making and partly as a promise that it would keep giving a voice to the marginalised communities who so often get pushed to the edge of mainstream media attention. Also, Doc Edge sounds so much cooler. This is a festival that sees the value of style as well as substance.

“From the beginning,” founders and directors Dan Shanan and Alex Lee told me by email, “our mission has been to develop the demand and audience appreciation for documentary and its value to our community... We believe that a country without documentaries is like a family without photo albums.”

Here’s a photo for you. Black screen. Slow fade-up of sound: wind, perhaps waves. Over that and against it, the creaking and knocking of something mechanical. Then, in extreme close-up, a face, peering intently out at us. Cut to a circular window, smeared with spray or rain, and a view of the sky through it. These are the opening images of the landmark New Zealand documentary On an Unknown Beach (below), a cryptic, involving masterpiece from directors Adam Luxton and Summer Agnew, and you’ll notice that they show you someone looking out through a round, distorting aperture: the very first move Luxton and Agnew make is to warn you not to put too much faith in what you see through a camera lens.

The window is actually a porthole on the research vessel Tangaroa, whose survey of the impacts of deep-sea trawl fishing forms one of the film’s three strands. The others focus on the work of a noise artist in the ruins of post-quake Christchurch — Luxton and Agnew introduce this thread with an eerily effective, dead-silent sequence of spliced-together security-cam footage from the quakes — and a hypnotherapy session investigating the experience of addiction. And if you can’t easily imagine how these three things knit together to make a coherent film, that’s the point: On an Unknown Beach is an experimental puzzle film and a thoroughgoing challenge, the kind that nearly always falls pancake flat. I saw it at the New Zealand International Film Festival last year, where it screened only twice and was seen by a bare handful of people; I ended up listing it as one of my top five films for 2016. 

“Doc Edge and NZIFF both prefer to have premieres as we are catering for similar audiences,” Shanan and Lee tell me, when I ask them about rescreening a 2016 NZIFF release. “Doc Edge has room to curate a film which has previously screened in NZ where there are compelling reasons for it to be seen … such films have to be really good.”

On an Unknown Beach is at the far end of the Doc Edge spectrum in terms of its complexity and stylistic self-awareness. Most films are more traditional narratives, usually working within the observational tradition where you’re shown a story rather than told it. (Shanan and Lee: “We prefer observational rather than ‘Voice of God’ narration. The latter works better for television.”)

Case in point: The Opposition (below), a film that would have headlined last year’s programme if one of its subjects had not delayed its release by suing the film-makers, demanding that all footage she appeared in be excised. (The case went to court; she lost).

The Opposition tells a classic David and Goliath social justice story, following the efforts of Papua New Guinea community organiser Joe Moses to save 3000 people from summary eviction by an Australian corporate developer. Director Hollie Fifer — who will be visiting New Zealand to attend screenings of the film — stumbled across the story by chance while interviewing a PNG politician. Invited to film a confrontation with the developers, she found herself present as bulldozers tore through still-occupied homes and police opened fire on protesters. The chaotic scenes she captured give the film an arresting opening and launch her, and us, into a five-year sequence of events that is simultaneously very simple — it’s the story of people trying to save their homes — and entirely unpredictable, with one startling twist at the two-thirds mark turning the film on its head.

Shanan and Lee: “Story is king. The story must be compelling and provide an angle not previously heard. For Doc Edge, it’s all about the films that are capable of moving you, creating an impact, providing knowledge and information that were not available through other media. Therefore, current and urgent social issues are often important for our selection. For us, no amount of gloss can match a great socially impactful story.”

The balancing consideration in putting the programme together is... balance. The family photo album can’t just be the baby pics or snaps from that one holiday where it rained every day: it’s going to give you the whole life of the family. So you have the out-there envelope-pushing films as well as the straightforward observational ones, and you have a wide range of subjects, and you have the lighter films as well as the urgent ones. “In the end, you are as good as the last film watched. If the film sucks, this will be your memory of the festival. We would prefer to skip a lesser film if it is not good enough rather than just include the film to try to even out the selection; but with well over 700 submissions each year, there is no lack of excellent films that will provide that wider range...”

Take, for instance, Bugs (above), the film that predicts eating bugs is exactly what many more of us will be doing before too long. Combining the fascination of a globe-trotting extreme-gastronomy reality-TV show with a serious discussion of our on-going failure to feed ourselves sustainably, the film is a smart, funny window on a future in which we may all be eating insects. (Ridiculous? Twenty years ago, many people felt that way about eating raw fish. How many sushi bars are there in Auckland now?)

Or take Sacred (above), in which Oscar-winning director Thomas Lennon enlists more than 40 film-makers to shoot scenes of prayer and devotion from different cultures. Expertly edited together and often sublimely beautiful, the film does not ask hard questions or probe deep into its subjects’ lives. Instead, it does something deceptively simple: it shows Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, all negotiating major life passages. Children are born, people marry, people die. It’s an elegant reminder of the commonalities underlying much of religious experience.

Inevitably, the festival offers perspectives on major problems of our times. Born In Syria examines the Syrian crisis through the eyes of child refugees. The Age of Consequences looks at the ways in which climate change is going to make problems of global stability and resource scarcity harder to deal with. (Shanan and Lee: “The selection is about diversity in terms of the subjects and countries covered. When presented with several films on the same subject or theme … we compare and decide which is the best in terms of the storytelling and production value.”)

Often the most moving and interesting documentaries are the ones that simply ask questions we usually don’t hear asked. Fallen Flowers, Thick Leaves (above) is a feature-length study of Chinese women’s experiences of sexuality and marriage since the Cultural Revolution. It interviews older and younger women and manages to provide a safe space for some startlingly frank discussions; the result is an intimate yet wide-angle picture of an aspect of Chinese society which most non-fiction films about the country simply ignore.

Possibly the hardest sell on the 2017 programme is also one of my favourites: Thank You for Playing (above), a creative, sensitive, heart-breakingly moving study of two parents  dealing with their one-year-old child’s terminal cancer diagnosis... and the father’s decision to make a computer game about the experience. “You could write a serious novel or make a serious movie about something like this and no one would blink. Why can’t you make a game?”

The film interleaves game sequences and footage shot in the family home and the local hospital, achieving a diamond-hard, self-examining brilliance while at the same time going to some very difficult and wrenching places: because, of course, the question of how you make a work of art about a child’s death applies equally to the film itself.

Shanan and Lee: “Audiences ask us often, ‘Please recommend your favourites.’ The problem is that they are all our ‘favourites’ and we chose them for a reason.”

Doc Edge Festival, Q Theatre, May 24 to June 5.


This was published in the May 2017 issue of North & South.

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