Saturday, 9 December 2017

NZIFF Documentaries

Here is the last of my retrospectives on the New Zealand International Film Festival. I generally catch a lot of the documentaries when I am ushering, and it always results in some interesting surprises.

Unrest (dir. Jennifer Brea)
Directed by Jennifer Brea, Unrest chronicles her journey with chronic fatigue syndrome, from initial misdiagnosis through her activism to get the condition properly recognised.

Starting as a deeply personal narrative (complete with home movies and unvarnished footage of Brea's everyday life, Unrest quickly situates the viewer in Brea's mindset - perpetually exhausted and  sleep-deprived, she relays her feelings in some brutal to-camera reflections and equally uncomfortable conversations with her husband.

Once Brea reaches the point in her story where she began to learn more about her illness, the movie branches out to cover other people from all over the world with the same affliction but with very different experiences. This multiplicity of POVs gives the documentary a more rounded and frankly terrifying picture - not of CFS, but how various medical authorities around the world view and deal with it. 

There is no ego with Brea's approach - there are many sequences in which she shows herself at her worst: collapsing while dancing with her husband; her demand that he change clothes repeatedly; and the various testimonial scenes, in which she allows herself to break down. It is extremely unflinching and brave.

It is pretty strong stuff, but considering how misunderstood CFS is, it is worth tracking down.

House of Z (dir. Sandy Chronopoulos)

And now for a completely different kind of ego. 

House of Z chronicles the rise, fall and rise of the fashion designer Zack Posen. At the turn of the century, he was the talk of the town as the next big thing. Not only in terms of his designs, but the fact that he was only 21 when he 'made it.' 

A variation on the traditional heel redemption story, House of Z is built around Posen's final gamble to save his company, with flashbacks to his narcissistic early days. One of the most interesting aspects to his background is that his business was initially a family affair with his parents and siblings involved in various aspects of bringing his designs to life. As his success grew, he became more demanding and disconnected from his family, who eventually departed the company. 

While the documentary is interesting as a look at his process, for me it undermined the family aspect of the business. We see his family slip away but this story is only briefly touched on as the film resolves. I would have preferred a focus on how Posen was able to repair his relationships with his family, considering their importance to his career.

By focusing solely on his comeback, it almost feels like the film is contradicting the idea that his fall was due to his own ego. There needed to be a little more connective tissue in this aspect of the story so that his redemption connected. 

The third act, chronicling his latest show, is interesting for how it goes into the details of putting together a collection but the suspense that this sequence is aiming for never builds - the film has not  built Posen's character arc. Ultimately the movie just lacked emotional investment. 

If you are interested in fashion or not, House of Z is an interesting watch -  but it never rises above the level of 'interesting'. And the main reason it never rises beyond that is that I found it really hard to root for Posen. It is not necessary too like your subject, but since this documentary is structured as a comeback story, but I found it almost impossible to get invested in Posen's struggles. 

Politics, an Instruction Manual (dir. Fernando León de Aranoa)

A ground-level look at the rise of Spanish political party Podemos, from the anti-austerity protests of 15 May, 2011 to the general election in December 2015, in which they won over 20% of the vote and 69 seats in the 350 seat parliament.

As a document of thew working parts of making a political party from scratch, this film is fascinating. You really get a sense of the often arduous process of democracy in action. From deciding what leadership model to follow, to deciding their position on Catalan independence, Politics... gives the viewer a sense of how pedantic, repetitive and exhausting every tiny aspect of politicking is. It helps that Podemos's leader Pablo Iglesias Turrión and his team are articulate and extremely well-versed about the machinations necessary to make a political party viable. 

Beginning with stock footage of the 2011 protests, the film ends with Podemos' triumphant entry to parliament four years later. It works structurally, even though it would have been interesting to see how Podemos' central figures (and the film's key talking heads) react to later events (the failed government formation and subsequent early election). 

This is not a fault of the film, more a case of wanting more. Because of the film's access to Turrión and his brain trust, I was really looking forward to hearing their perspectives on more recent events. Ah well, hopefully there is a sequel - it's not like Spanish politics have become boring in the interim between 2015 and now.

The documentary's perspective is not that critical or include any external perspectives, but as a look at  the business of politicking it is worth checking out.

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