Sunday 15 June 2014

NZ Documentary Edge Festival Review

NZ Documentary Edge Festival Review

Zombies and their effect on popular culture are explored in the fun and frivolous Doc of the Dead from Alexandre O Phillippe.

With politicians raising fears of a zombie apocalypse and the continuing success as the likes of the Walking Dead, it's clear they're everywhere - and this doco attempts to get to the heart of why they're so damn popular.

But with its tongue thrust in its cheek - the film uses the likes of Bruce Campbell and Simon Pegg as newsreaders, reporting on the onslaught, before delving into their cinematic past and their earlier appearance in the likes of White Zombie from the 1930s. It's an interesting watch as you see how the creatures evolved from a reflection of slavery and black people menacing white to when George Romero set them on a cultural ascent.

Bouncily put together and fun, this doco does fuel the fun of the zombie, though towards the end, it runs a little light on narrative material as it looks at survival. There's a lot covered here, so newbies will not feel left out, but there's certainly a sense that a more narrow perspective could have given this a greater insight instead of an entertaining all aspects covered once over lightly feel. Certainly, Phillippe needs to be praised for the amount of talent he dragged in from the genre - it's simply incredible.

Erebus Operation Overdue is following in the footsteps of the Emmy nominated The Golden Hour. Wisely following the docu-drama feel, this piece which swept the Documentary Festival awards is a powerful and hauntingly evocative piece that looks at the team tasked with going to Erebus to recover the bodies of the 257 people killed when an Air New Zealand flight crashed into the mountain in 1979.

Concentrating on the team rather than discussion of the crash (and its subsequent controversy) this mix of drama and interviews with the team today is incredibly hard to shake. While the recreations are impressive and certainly a shot of red flags (which symbolised bodies) on the white mountain is horrific, it's the interviews with the team shot recently that are the more powerful pieces. With the psychological effects still wearing heavy on some of them and showing, you can't help but be captivated by the true horror and admire the resolute determination they had to bring them all home. This doco has rightly swept the board - it's a powerful reminder of what excellent drama and careful research and interviewing can do to an audience. If you hear a pin drop in any screening of this, I'd be terribly surprised.

Life, Itself is a tribute to the US Film critic Roger Ebert.

It's an adaptation of Ebert's 2011 memoir and is put together by Hoop Dreams director Steve James, who had unprecedented access to Ebert during his treatment and ongoing cancer illness. Covering Ebert's time as a young journalist and examining his extraordinary drive and passion for language, that eventually saw him coming to film criticism and a long term partnership with Gene Siskel, a fellow Chicago newspaper critic.

What's extraordinary about this piece is the access that James got to Ebert - from seeing Ebert undergo painfully uncomfortable suction to his physio, this piece sensitively handles the illness but gives a warts and all approach that's rarely seen on the big screen.

Also surprising to some, will be the tussles that Ebert had with Siskel, with elements of a bully coming out. In one reel of a promo being shot, the numerous re-takes are forced because of the appearance of a monstrous side of Ebert that shows initially how little he respected him. With both feeling they were the definitive voice of film criticism, it was perhaps inevitable there would be clashes, but it may surprise some how deep it went.

But this isn't an assassination attempt by James - it's an insight that shows all sides of Ebert and in places it's devastating. Particularly as Ebert's emails to James during his rehab begin to drop off, the closer to his death he gets. One last email is troubling and haunting but completely understandable. And the fact James has shown that is a testament to the power of the piece. A final shot shows fans of Ebert stood united in an auditorium with his trademark thumbs up and left me crying. Admirable and a well rounded portrait of a man who's been so influential to so many on the other side of the camera, Life Itself is an essential watch to both film fans and non-film fans.

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