August 15, 2014

The Film Festival in Christchurch, 2014

Right now, we’re in the middle of the International Film Festival here in Christchurch. A summary will follow once it’s all done, as collections of lines off Twitter. The following was written as a preview for Dunedin magazine Point (#64, August 6-19). Thanks to Campbell Walker for commissioning.

Here in Christchurch, we complain about things happening and we complain about nothing happening. When things happen, roads are blocked, traffic is re-routed and noise is constant – all of which has been happening for months just outside my place of work as the quake-damaged, historical Isaac Theatre Royal is slowly turned back into a working theatre. And that is good news in a city still drastically short of venues. That the theatre’s re-opening in December will be ‘‘celebrated’’ – and I use the word advisedly – with two shows by resurrected prog-folk flute botherers Jethro Tull is less exciting. I had a better idea. One day last year, walking through the empty Cathedral Square, it dawned on me that the theatre needed to re-open with the world premiere of the third Hobbit film. I made what I thought was a brilliant pitch with a view to my employer getting behind a public campaign to Bring The Hobbit to Christchurch, imagining that a duplication of the premieres that Courtney Place had staged for other Peter Jackson mega-productions would be a good way of telling the world that Christchurch is ‘‘open for business’’ or whatever, but it went nowhere. 

No, I’m not a Hobbit fan at all – I haven’t seen the first two parts and I don’t intend to see the third – but it seemed like a good fit. Jackson could pay back the South Island for all the scenery he borrowed in the Lord of the Rings films. The idea was a no-brainer once someone told me that the last time the Film Festival felt like a big deal in Christchurch was in 1994 when the big Heavenly Creatures screening was at the Regent. That had a real sense of occasion. When I moved to Christchurch in 2007 I was surprised by how marginal the Festival seemed as an event. You almost never had to book as almost nothing sold out. The venue, the Regent, was divided into a warren of small cinemas and the small foyer meant that the venue didn’t act as the social centre of the Festival, like the Civic does in Auckland. Some of the bigger titles didn’t cross the Cook Strait. You heard whispers that the event was barely sustainable in Christchurch, that the city risked being wiped off the Festival map due to lack of interest. You would talk to people at the Canterbury Film Society and they would say the same sort of thing, that it had been hard to maintain any real cinema culture in this town since the old theatres were cleared from the Square in the 80s. The Academy in the Arts Centre and the Rialto were still running then on a steady diet of middlebrow art-house with the odd eccentric, local touch (Gloomy Sunday every week for years? What was that about?)

Maybe it was more of a stay at home cinema culture. Christchurch had, and still has, what could be the best video store in the country – Alice in Videoland. If this sounds parochial, maybe that was part of the issue. Christchurch wanted to maintain things that were its own. Alice was its own. The Festival? Not so much. There seemed to be a wider, national downturn in the Festival at the end of that decade, too – the big sponsor (Telecom) went and the audience for foreign language films contracted. 

In Christchurch at least, some of that changed after the earthquakes. People were grateful that the Festival came back in 2011 (the Rugby World Cup stayed away). That Festival’s opening and closing night films, The Tree of Life and Melancholia, were ideal book-ends: creation, grief, sorrow, destruction. Von Trier destroyed the world and then we all got in our cars and drove home through the ruined city. That was catharsis. The Festival had decamped to the suburban wastelands of a Hoyts multiplex in the Northlands Mall but apart from the constant smell of popcorn in the lobby, who cares? There was plenty of parking and no one ever screwed up the projection. It snowed and I still got to Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D. For those reasons I remember that as one of the better Festivals I’ve ever been at, even if ticket sales were actually down that year. Since then, the total replacement of film by digital projection means that the south misses out on fewer big new films than it used to, as 35mm prints no longer need to get to Melbourne straight after Auckland and Wellington. This year, that means Maps to the Stars, Winter Sleep and Leviathan, all fresh from Cannes.

From next year, the Festival will have a dedicated venue here again. It was a relief that within the Government-led rebuild’s ‘‘arts precinct’’, the most democratic art form of all, cinema, was finally recognised. The restored Isaac Theatre Royal was intended to be the Film Festival venue from this year, which will be good news for those of us who work directly opposite – ‘‘Just popping out for …er, an interview, back in 110 minutes’’ – but the usual delays have meant that we’re getting Jethro Tull rather than Pulp, Nick Cave, Kathleen Hanna or Into the Void. Margaret Gordon’s documentary on the latter celebrates a ridiculously local phenomenon. A cult-rock hobby band made up of local artists, Into the Void play shows that act as reunions for their audience. At the sole Festival screening of the documentary, the same audience will get together to observe the persistence of this phenomenon since the 1980s, through gentrification and the ups and downs of the Christchurch art world, through earthquakes and the destruction of a High St practice room, and it may – I’m speculating because I haven’t seen it yet – have more to say about resilience or stubbornness than the already forgotten Hope and Wire. It is the eminently, inwardly local in action.