Act of Kindness: NZFF Review
The latest New Zealand film to premiere at the festival is essentially a thriller, but a documentary steeped in the light when the horrors that men do become too prominent - and whose Auckland screening coincided with 16 years to the day that events began.
Sven Pannell is a New Zealander who found himself in Burundi in 1999 as conflict broke out - five years prior there had been the Rwandan massacre. One of only 2 survivors when his bus was pulled over by soldiers and their twisted brand of justice meted out (he bought his own life and that of a driver with $200), Sven found himself trapped in a self-imploding country and nowhere to go.
As the famous line in A Streetcar named Desire goes, you can always rely on the kindness of strangers, and certainly in Sven's case, his angel was a legless and homeless man called "Johnson". Taking him in, sharing the profits of his begging and generally offering Sven a lifeline when hope was lost. Fortuitously for Sven, escape came on a bus when he had to leave with no warning, but sadly that meant "Johnson" was left behind with not even a goodbye.
Haunted by his actions, Sven vowed to return to Rwanda to seek out and thank the man for changing his life...
Act of Kindness is a collaboration between Kiwi director Costa Botes and Pannell whose original idea was the doco once he decided to return. Essentially, in some ways, it feels like Botes has therefore helped and curated the original footage from Pannell, but that is in no way to detract from what transpires on screen - or either men's intentions.
Wisely stripped of Sven's back-story, the documentary concentrates on what really matters - showing Rwanda and its people in the light they deserve as he conducts his search. It's a simple story, a film that we've all heard time and time before, but there's real heart and earnestness on Botes and Pannell's approach, which wears its emotion wisely but never overly so, on its sleeve.
The well-spoken Sven has a gentleness of touch on screen and his occasional naivete and easy-going innocence is distinctly charming; when talking to a reporter he's just met about trust, he states that he believes the man because "what else do we have to go on"; it's a statement that gets to the heart of the matter in the search for Johnson, an admission that if ever there was a place for cynicism and mistrust, it would be Rwanda given what's happened. But life finds a way and the over-riding message that humanity shines through is certainly enlightening.
While I will admit there was one emotional moment towards the denouement of the story that I felt was missing and robbed me of my investment in Sven's quest (to say more is to spoil), there's a lot to admire about Act Of Kindness, which is delicately put together and ostensibly feel-good, despite the back-story of its subject matter.
Compassion is a word bandied around lightly sometimes, however, I can't help but feel that many will feel that emotion when viewing this - and if it helps the world become a better place, that's no mean feat.