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Festival Focus: DOCNZ

By Ewa Bigio

From James Frankham's 'Tanim,' which garnered honorable mention honors in the Medium Lenght category at DOCNZ 2005

New Zealandthe land of the Long White Cloud, home of Middle Earth, with its lush green Shire lands contrasting with the moody volcanic ranges of Mordorhad its first taste of an unadulterated, hard-core factual film festival in September 2005. DOCNZ: New Zealand International Documentary Film Festival ( offered a formidable collection of international stories, as well as a taste of the activities and creativity percolating on these local shores.

New Zealand has a strong documentary filmmaking tradition that has historically been supported by TVNZ, the state-owned enterprise that runs TV1 and TV2. Other free channels include the privately owned TV3, Maori Television Station and Prime Television. Sky Television, and its range of specialist channels including National Geographic, Discovery and The History and Arts Channel, caters to the pay-per-view market. TVNZ drives the bulk of documentary commissioning, followed by TV3 and, to a lesser extent, Maori Television Station, which is guided by its mandate to commission works that resonate with and have a strong relevance to its indigenous viewers.

DOCNZ's arrival was highly anticipated by the local documentary filmmaking community. Although a number of film festivals cater to documentary audiences, DOCNZ is New Zealand's only dedicated documentary film festival and is aimed specifically at encouraging a greater breadth and variety of indie films. Although documentaries have made inroads into mainstream cinema in the last decade, the number of appearances has been far and few between. DOCNZ is set to push into overdrive the advances that have been made by other generalist film festivals in terms of documentary appreciation.

Last year's festival featured over 110 documentaries from 25 countries, with two-thirds of the films submitted from outside of New Zealand. The opening night of the festival premiered a rare piece of archival footage digitally restored by Peter Jackson's Weta Digital team. Shot on the Gallipoli peninsula during the 1915 expedition by an English war correspondent, Heroes of Gallipoli (Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, dir./prod.) was recently discovered and is the only known surviving footage of that expedition.

The inaugural year featured a local competition that will be expanded this year to include awards for international films. The feature-length winner was Dark Horse, by director Jim Marbrook, about an underdog protagonist of Maori descent, his ongoing battle with bipolar disorder and an unlikely salvation in his own genius as a speed chess maestro. The subject, Genesis, introduces the game of chess to young underprivileged kids, and demystifies the game for them in the process.

Other winners included the "medium-length" Banana in a Nutshell, a humorous and touching story of the clash of cultures during the course of director Roseanne Liang's wedding engagement to her Caucasian boyfriend, Stephen. The short doc winner, Aeon (Richard Sidey, dir./prod.), is an experimental piece about the city of Wellington, New Zealand. Viewed through an Eastern perspective of life and death in the city's 24-hour cycle, Aeon is a meditation in four parts, interspersed with haikus and a soundtrack featuring traditional Japanese drums.

The two honorable mentions in the Medium Length category were Tanim and Pacific Solution, both by emerging filmmaker James Frankham, whom the jury praised for his keen eye and strong directorial flair. Tanim is an account of the conflict between tribal culture and Western-style democracy in Papua New Guinea in the context of its local elections. Pacific Solution, on the other hand, follows the fate of Afghani children who escaped the Taliban regime in 2001 and sought asylum after their rescue from a sinking boat by a Norwegian container ship. The film has attracted controversy, as the subjects are deeply critical of the actions of the (Prime Minister) John Howard-led Australian government, which denied entry to the boat, sparking an international outcry. The refugees were detained on the island of Naurutagged by many as the "Guantanamo Bay of the Pacific"while they awaited an outcome on their future resettlement.

Honorable mentions in the Feature Length category included The Promise (Leanne Pooley, dir./prod.) and Children of Migration (Lala Rolls, dir./prod.). The Promise examined the euthanasia debate through the story of nurse Lesley Martin, who in 2004 was found guilty of attempting to murder her mother through a morphine overdose. Children of Migration considers the changing cultural landscape of New Zealand through the migration of Pacific Islanders from the 1950s to the 1980s.

The arrival of DOCNZ has coincided with a time in New Zealand in which interest in the documentary genre is at an all-time high, with such US successes as Fahrenheit 9/11, Spellbound, Super Size Me and March of the Penguins having performed just as well here. Although most of these films had been released through mainstream theatrical chains, independent exhibitors are now aggressively competing to showcase a variety of documentaries. It is also through this second tier of theatrical operators that we are starting to see a larger number of foreign language documentaries. Festivals like DOCNZ have been instrumental in exposing local buyers and programmers to the smorgasbord of works that are out there.

Likewise, DVD shops and retailers have taken their lead from film festivals, and mainstream chains are even stocking a growing number of documentary titles that have not had prior local festival exposurea step more likely to be taken by the lone art-house video store.

The local broadcasting scene is also in a state of flux, as both deregulation and the introduction of new players such as pay-per-view have resulted in greater competition over the years. From a documentary filmmaker's point of view, the most interesting programmatic choices are being made by the two younger players: Maori Television Station and Prime Television. With much smaller commissioning budgets, the two stations rely heavily on acquisitions for content, and their programming reflects a less conventional, more worldly sensibility.

With a continued interest in the documentary genre, DOCNZ 2006 is looking to capitalize on its early success. This year, in line with the festival's objectives to improve funding opportunities for independent filmmakers and co-productions, it will incorporate an exclusive pitching forum. DOCNZ will also run alongside the Biennale Documentary Conference, which will interweave documentary screening by filmmakers with presentations of academic papers by educators.

DOCNZ 2006 will continue to build on the good work it started last year and provide a solid platform in Australasia for showcasing and honoring both local and international documentaries.


The schedule for DOCNZ 2006 is as follows: September 7-17 in Auckland; September 22-October 4 in Wellington; October 12-15 in Christchurch; October 19-22 in Dunedin. Check for details and updates.