Wednesday, 9 July 2014

NZIFF Review - E-Team, Point and Shoot, We Come As Friends

NZIFF Review - E-Team, Point and Shoot, We Come As Friends

A trio of documentaries from the New Zealand International Film Festival head into worlds some of us can only dream of being a part of - and will have others glad that some are willing to go where we dare not.

We Come As Friends has the distinction of being the one film that festival director Bill Gosden wants you to try above all else in this year's programme.

Billed in the prog as being a doco "that captures the forces at work in the world's newest country" aka South Sudan, it's a warts and all portrait of a nation that's under exploitation and exploration by neocolonisation. It starts with ants scurrying around and a terrifying blast of synthesiser and immediately sets the tone of those swarming around looking at ways to plunder the resources within. (Sauper constructed his own plane to fly over South Sudan to capture the contrasts from above)
We Come As Friends
A smiling naked child scurries with a water bottle and a picture of innocence but it shows that the nation is being born and growing into what lies within. The freeform narrative serves more to show what's going on and proffer a view into the world, rather than choosing to lecture us on what's happened, is happening and could potentially happen.

The end result is that We Come As Friends brings us terrifying shots of children screaming they want to be shown their guns on Skype at a time when innocence should prevail. Director Hubert Sauper's crafted together something that's different and original; presenting many contrasting images such as the film's closing montage which encompasses camera phone footage from soldiers in a oil field to shots of people lounging and laughing by a pool before a man walks carefully and emotionally through a village.

The horrific images are so beautifully captured that this portrait will stay with you for days to come - and the horror inflicted by men on earth in the name of selfish greed and self-serving will enrage you when the celebration of a nation born should be first and foremost.

E-Team's opening titles play like something from a sleek crime show as names of our investigators and images fly past - almost as if this were the latest installment from the CSI or Dick Wolf school of TV drama.

But the story of the Human Rights Watch Emergencies Team is a more urgent tale than one told in any TV procedural. Focussing on the work of four members of the team who investigate crimes in Syria and Libya, E-Team reveals a side to conflict many of us would have ignored but which is vital to humanity's very soul. That may sound grand and pompous, but the portrait just shows how far this team is willing to go and what they're willing to risk to ensure the downtrodden masses aren't cast aside.

From the likes of Ole Sovang, who's first glimpsed playing keyboards in Paris, discussing weddings and then turns to viewing footage of the Syrian situation, the gamut and extremities of their lives is put under the microscope. Taking in interviews while planes fly over invoking real fear in their interview subjects after cluster bombs have been dropped in Syria just last year, the team's humanity and heart is never anything less than magnetic - but the immediacy of the doco is apparent from the beginning.

You'd expect a team like this to have tics or character traits that inure them from the world around them - or at the very least, a cynicism which is inherent in situations such as this. But they don't and that's what gives them a kind of geniality and levity in among the horrors that have transpired around them.

Offbeat humour occasionally permeates the piece - with one arms expert (Peter Bouckaert) from the team marvelling at how one weapon is labelled the "less lethal launcher", a fact that causes bemusement and seems at odds but is totally understandable when you see what they're confronted with.

Moments of the victims telling their stories to the team inadvertently make us their audience and the true victims of conflict are revealed in a style that's simple and non-showy; and because of that, all the more effective. The sobering footage speaks for itself and for the dead but the directors' desire to show the humans behind it all helps E-Team rise into a fascinating portrait of the normality of four individuals placed into the abnormally horrific aftermath of some of war's worst.

Point And Shoot is the story of Matt VanDyke, a timid 28-year-old with OCD who set off on a motorcycle trip and ended up as part of the rebels fighting Gadaffi in Libya. (It's an ironic choice of title, given its ambiguity - does it refer to a camera or a gun?)

But things went a little awry for VanDyke when he ended up in international headlines after becoming a prisoner.

Point and Shoot
VanDyke's laissez-faire attitude at some of the questions over his involvement at the start of this doco belie the reality of what's going on - when asked how he got involved, VanDyke just dismissively says "I don't know" and "It's a crash course in manhood" and that's that. But closer examination of his subject and replaying of travel videos show a man who's in need of a direction in his life; from the joy etched on his face at being in Gibraltar to the naivete of travelling alone, VanDyke's an intriguing subject whose choices aren't often obvious. Halfway through the journey, he's hit by horrendous OCD and it's shown in his interviews, leading to questions about how he got involved in the fighting in the first place.

About 30 mins into the doco, the tack switches quickly and it becomes a revolution film as the personal affect of the Libyan fight takes its toll on VanDyke; director Marshall Curry manages to choose moments from VanDyke's travelogue where the beleaguered silences say more than any trite voiceover could manage. From moments when he simply stares blank and expressionless as he's told to go home to occasional pauses in an interview back in America, there's a resolute sign that VanDyke wishes to fight on and can't appreciate or comprehend people's concerns for his safety - including his poor girlfriend Lauren.

Occasionally frustrating but eminently watchable, Point and Shoot doesn't always give you the answers you want or need after the journey; a lack of on screen titles at the end don't allow you to find out what happened next for VanDyke - is Lauren still with him? How is he continuing his crusade and friendship / bromance with Libyan fighter Nori? But overall, Point and Shoot is an astonishingly self-aware piece that has an intriguing subject at its centre.

The New Zealand International Film Festival kicks off in Auckland on July 17th with the world premiere of The Dark Horse - full details of these films and others can be found at

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