Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival: Eight great Kiwi films to discover

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From heartfelt dramas to portraits of local artists, suitcase pictures and documentaries revisiting sometimes painful memories, many films originating or supported by Aotearoa make their debut as part of the Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival of This year.

Stuff to Watch reviewers Graeme Tuckett (GT) and James Croot (JC) got a chance to preview a selection of Kiwi titles coming to the big screen near you.

When the Cows Come Home, Kāinga and Gloriavale are among the Kiwi films debuting at this year's Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival.

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When the Cows Come Home, Kāinga and Gloriavale are among the Kiwi films debuting at this year’s Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival.

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A Boy Called Piano is about resilience, family and music as a river that carries our memories.

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A Boy Called Piano is about resilience, family and music as a river that carries our memories.

A Boy Called Piano (M)

This film is a surprise. If you’ve never heard the story of Fa’amoana John Luafutu before, prepare to be moved.

He may be better known in the media as ‘Scribe’s father’, but Fa’amoana testifies to all that was wrong with our state care systems and the way we treat troubled young men. Raised in boys’ homes at a young age, Fa’amoana endured everything imaginable.

Its story became a famous stage and radio play and its transition to film was beautifully done, with archival footage and dramatic recreations well intertwined.

A Boy Called Piano is about resilience, family and music as a river that carries our memories. It is a gripping and poetic film. Go see him. – GT

Geoff Dixon turns out to be a wonderful narrator of his own story.

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Geoff Dixon turns out to be a wonderful narrator of his own story.

Geoff Dixon: Portraits of Us (E)

Geoff Dixon is an iconoclastic figure who has worked in many mediums over five decades. He is a wonderful colourist and deeply deep thinker, with a brilliant sense of humor to enhance the seriousness of his themes.

Dixon’s work speaks to extinction and the damage we are causing to his beloved natural world, but he does so with a warmth, playfulness and a child’s sense of wonder and awe at the face of what it represents.

Often seated next to his old friend and collaborator Euan Macleod, Dixon talks, laughs, walks us through his life so far, and is generally a wonderful narrator of his own story, even when tragedy strikes.

With a soundtrack by Wellington icons Plan 9 and photography by Russell Milledge, Portraits of Us is a warm, moving and deeply likeable film. Highly recommended. – GT

Sharon Ready is a key figure in Noel Smyth and Fergus Grady's documentary Gloriavale.

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Sharon Ready is a key figure in Noel Smyth and Fergus Grady’s documentary Gloriavale.

Gloriavale (to be confirmed)

Lifting the lid on the “secret New Zealand cult” and its fall from utopian ideal to animal farm nightmare, this illuminating, heartbreaking and rage-inducing documentary follows former members as they fight for justice and reform from abroad.

Siblings John Ready and Virginia Courage reveal what life was like inside the West Coast ‘Christian Fellowship’ and how their respective banishment and escape impacted the family members they have left behind, as they help compile a series of legal actions against what they believe to be his human rights abuses and disrespect of labor laws.

While their mother Sharon’s testimony is telling, it’s the more recent archival footage and secret audio recordings that really resonate – and shock.

A far cry from the lighthearted entertainment of TVNZ’s hugely popular ‘specials’, Noel Smyth and Fergus Grady’s tale is an excellent and powerful introduction to the history, controversy and concerns surrounding Gloriavale. – JC

Evocative and emotionally charged, Kāinga is an intelligent, sensitive and stunning collection of female-led Kiwi-Asian stories.

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Evocative and emotionally charged, Kāinga is an intelligent, sensitive and stunning collection of female-led Kiwi-Asian stories.

Kainga (M)

Waru and Vai producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton are back with another octet of powerful news.

This time the connection is one house – 11 Rua Road in Tāmaki Makaurau, as we glimpse the experiences of eight women of varying ages and from varying Asian backgrounds, at different times from 1972 to the present day. There’s a young Iranian woman frustrated at not being able to pursue her true profession, a middle-aged Chinese girl trying to make peace with her late father’s “other” family, a Tamil sister searching for buried memories for a long time and a Filipina nurse desperately trying to maintain contact with those who stayed at home.

Evocative and emotionally charged, this is a smart, sensitive and stunning collection of Kiwi-Asian stories led by women who wisely chronicle our changing nation over the past 50 years. – JC

Welby Ings' Punch contains enough resonant moments to keep audiences engaged and moved.

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Welby Ings’ Punch contains enough resonant moments to keep audiences engaged and moved.

Hallmark (R16)

Writer-director Welby Ings has been thinking about Punch for over a decade.

On the beautiful west coast of Auckland these days, Jim is an up-and-coming boxer and a popular figure in the local high school. Jim’s new friend, Whetu, may be the only openly gay young man for miles around.

Jim’s father Stan – played by Tim Roth – distinguishes between controlling his son in a way that might have worked a generation earlier – and letting the young man chart his own course. Stan’s ever-present bottle of whiskey doesn’t help him forge any sort of adult relationship with his son.

Punch contains enough resonant moments to keep us engaged and moved. And Matt Henley’s (Coming Home In The Dark) cinematography is typically outstanding.

It might be Roth’s name that sells the tickets, but it’ll be Jordan Oosterhof as Jim and Conan Hayes as Whetu – and the Henley footage that will keep Punch in your memory. – GT

Sarah May and Millie Van Kol star in Shut Eye.

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Sarah May and Millie Van Kol star in Shut Eye.

Close your eyes (M)

Writer-director Tom Levesque’s feature debut follows a troubled young woman’s journey through the world of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR).

Struggling to make eye contact, let alone hold a conversation, Sierra (Millie Van Kol) seems ill-suited to her job of persuading inner-city Aucklanders to donate to a conservation charity. Attempts to find a connection both in person and online have also resulted in disaster – and humiliation.

As her mood deteriorates, a visit to the doctor sees her diagnosed with insomnia, an ASMR app suggested as something that could help. Of all the silent whisperers, chewers, and noisemakers, Sierra is smitten with Kookie (Sarah May). Seemingly kind, caring, and generous with her time, Sierra is overjoyed when their online relationship erupts into the real, physical world.

An absorbing and atmospheric drama, which draws on elements of 90s girly thrillers and more modern mumblecore to create something very contemporary. – JC

Unlike most compendium films, We Are Still Here doesn't always delineate where one film ends and another begins.

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Unlike most compendium films, We Are Still Here doesn’t always delineate where one film ends and another begins.

We are still here (M)

This Australian-New Zealand production is a collection of eight short films by 10 directors.

Although the films are outwardly very different, taking place across centuries, between two countries – and many nations – and embracing genres ranging from animation to war film to futuristic sci-fi with winks Eye to Blade Runner, there’s always a brilliant cohesion here.

We Are Still Here opens with a bold animated sequence, almost revisiting the story of Māui fishing the Te Ika-a-Māui – before a reveal of what’s on that hook.

The longest film in the collection – at 17 minutes – chronicles an incident in the 1860s that turns into a concrete embodiment of the supernatural.

Unlike most compendium films, We Are Still Here doesn’t always delineate where one film ends and another begins. These films testify to what their companions achieve. It’s a stroke of editing and imagination that made me happy that the rules of storytelling can still be turned around, by filmmakers with something to say that needs to be heard. We Are Still Here is my favorite festival film I’ve seen so far. – GT

When the Cows Come Home: New Zealand agriculture hasn't been so beautiful or magical since Harry Sinclair's The Price of Milk.

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When the Cows Come Home: New Zealand agriculture hasn’t been so beautiful or magical since Harry Sinclair’s The Price of Milk.

When the cows come home (E)

Veteran documentarian Costa Botes’ first feature in four years is a charming portrait of a sweet and soulful Kiwi and his bovine friends.

At first, Andrew Johnstone’s only trick seems to be his ability to herd his cattle without the need for working dogs or motorized vehicles and understanding their need to “paint their faces” and “dance”. But after meeting his secret weapons, the love matriarchs of Krispie Tilly and Millie, Johnstone opens up about a very eclectic life. It was one that included a family tragedy, battles with authority at his Catholic boarding school, a marriage breakdown, a successful foray into the New Zealand music scene, a drug addiction and a career as a rock journalist from high profile who came crashing to a controversial end in 2015.

Botes generously leaves about him the space and time to wisely share his story, and New Zealand agriculture hasn’t been so beautiful or magical since Harry Sinclair’s The Price of Milk. – JC

Kicking off in Auckland on Thursday (July 28-August 7), this year’s edition of Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival will also visit Wellington (August 4-14), Christchurch (August 5-14) , Dunedin (August 11-21), New Plymouth (August 11-21), Masterton (August 17-31), Matakana (August 18-28), Hamilton (August 18-31), Tauranga (August 18-28), Hawke’s Bay (August 18-28), Palmerston North (August 18-28), Nelson (August 18-28), Timaru (August 18-28) and Gore (August 18-25).

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