Magallanes [2015] – Confronting the Historical Trauma

There’s something fascinating about indigenous Peruvian actress Magaly Solier. She has this vacant look, yet if we look closer her character’s inner pain gradually escape through the forced passivity. She made her feature-film debut Claudia Llosa’s “Madeinusa” and received international acclaim for playing the young woman, burdened with a tragic past, in Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow. In the neo-noir/thriller Magallanes (2015), she is once again given the role of a victimized woman. But, Solier conveys this set of profound emotions through her eyes and through little fleeting movements, which makes us to totally invest our emotions. Even when the narrative in Magallanes threatens to lose its complexity, the performances keeps us hooked on.

Peruvian actor Salvador del Solar has made his directorial debut with Magallanes. It is based on 2006 novel by Alonso Cueto (titled ‘Black Butterfly’). The central theme of the story is sins of the father or sins of the past. In the nation’s prolonged period of internal conflict, from the early 1980s to late 1990s (the conflicts didn’t fully recede till date), it is estimated that at least 70,000 people were killed. The armed forces (trained specially by US ‘counter-terrorist’ operations) created many emergency zones in its fight with te guerilla forces, raiding villages of indigenous peasants and killing scores of them. The place named ‘Ayacucho’ plays a vital role in the film. The gruesome events once happened in this place occupy the center of protagonist’s moral crisis. The Peruvian military committed many atrocities and human rights violations in & around Ayacucho. Magallanes (Damian Alcazar) is part of the regiment which participated in such barbarous acts. He  now works as a taxi-cab driver and as a care-taker for his once-powerful colonel (Frederico Lupi), who is afflicted with Alzheimer. Magallanes and his former colonel now live in the capital city Lima. One afternoon, a woman named Celina (Magaly Solier) gets into Magallanes’ taxi and after looking at her in the rear-view mirror, he is visibly tense. She isn’t looking at him, but it is clear that the face he saw in the mirror haunts his conscience. He averts his eyes when the woman gets off at her destination.

Celina is being scammed by one of those vicious companies that gives false hope to people to make them sell useless anti-aging, beauty products. She runs a salon business and it is clear that she has lost hope in everything. Moreover, Celina is burdened with a large sum of debt. In his den, Magallenes scatters around the old photographs and documents, he had gathered in those days when he was part of colonel's regime . In Ayacucho, when Celina was around 14 years of age, she was kidnapped and kept as a sex slave at the colonel’s barracks for nearly a year. One photograph shows her sadly sitting on the lap of colonel.  Magallanes decides to use this incriminating picture to extract some money from the colonel’s rich lawyer son (Christian Meier). He enlists his sister to blackmail the lawyer on phone. The place for receiving the money is all set. But his simple scheme to get the money brings chaos. Amidst the chaos, the old feelings of guilt takes him to the doorstep of Celina. Magallanes' quest to right the past injustice gets him and her mired in complexities. 

The movie works well as a thriller about an amateur blackmailer, trying to get back at the victimizing class. But, director Salvador del Solar merely uses this genre framework to bring us closer to his central intention: to indict the worst treatment unleashed on indigenous people in the past. He uses the personal story of Celina to explore the country’s past and the way subsequent generations’ have failed to come to terms with their patriarchs’ despicable activities. Although Magallanes’ reason for blackmailing seems so simple, Solar turns his motivations ambiguous as the narrative progresses. When his sister asks, “Why this idea now?”, Magallanes replies, “I’m tired of being penniless”. In the later half, this simple desire to attain money is transformed and he looks forward to right a wrong. We would expect the two individuals who were wronged by the colonel to join together in a moral crusade. However, the darkness of the past events is more complex than viewers could expect. Magallanes tells he just followed orders. We could assume the horrors he must have witnessed (or even committed) when he was with the colonel. And, as the man’s eyes expresses a kind of unrequited love for Celina, the abyss of the past deepens. Magallanes’ journey to redemption becomes more complex and it exhibits how much his soul is fractured by the savagery of the past.

Del Solar’s frames keep a sense of unease (DoP Diego Jimenez) as if the brutality of the past will jump out from every street corner. The visuals could have used more subtlety, but the imagery never gets fussy too. The performances are the soul of the narrative. Damian Alcazar brilliantly portrays a character whom we can’t single-mindedly hate or just forgive. He impressively wears an indelible expression of regret. Margary Solier, as I mentioned earlier, is the primary reason to watch this film. At times, Solier’s Celina seems to be catatonic, her expression remaining very hard. It could even be ripped apart as bad acting. But, in a couple of dramatic situation, the way she brings out Celina’s anger and sadness suggests us that the earlier rigid expressions were the result of her, suppressing all those damaging emotions. The greatness of her acting culminates in the film’s most affecting scene, when Celina talks about her anguish in the native Quechua language. Director Del Solar cleverly decides to not insert the subtitles. We don’t know what she says, whilst we can understand what she may have said. The ugly side of history may be kept in the darkness, but the indecipherable words and perceivable emotions will haunt the nation’s conscience forever.


Magallanes (110 minutes) is a gripping study of a man and his country’s moral crisis which is elegantly presented within a thriller framework. 


The Dark Horse [2014] – A Soulful Tale of Redemption

New Zealand film-maker James Napier Robertson’s “The Dark Horse” (2014) tells the story of real-life chess champion Genesis Potini. This Maori chess genius, who suffered from bipolar disorder, taught the game to underprivileged kids, raised among alcoholics, drug abusers and hoodlums. So, apparently it is an underdog/redemption-seeking-mentor story. But, Mr. Robertson’s fine-tuned direction and Cliff Curtis’ majestic method acting stops “The Dark Horse” from being just another inspirational story. The film opens with tall, hulking frame of Genesis Potini, wrapped in bright, multi-colored blanket, walking in the middle of the road through heavy rain. It is a perfect frame which conveys our protagonists’ journey towards salvation. His pate is partially shaved and a smile reveals rake of broken teeth. The man’s face seems to exude painful and beatific look in equal measures. He moves through a chess shop and rattles the pieces placed on a wooden chess board. The people in the shop are alarmed at first, but looking at the way he rapidly moves the pieces (playing both sides and reciting different strategies) with surging excitement eases the little crowd. Before long, a woman softly brings him out of the shop and a couple of bulky guards push him into a hospital van. In this opening scene, the eccentricity and genius of Mr. Genesis is placed alongside the hard reality that afflicts him. This balanced, refined approach continues throughout this brilliant story of mentor-ship.

New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis has played many supporting roles in Hollywood, portraying characters of different ethnicity – Arab, African-American, etc. He has played the despicable Uncle Bully character in “Once Were Warriors”. Cliff is a slim guy and he had gained over 60 pounds to play bulky guy Genesis. He has also stayed in character, both on and off the frame, until the end of shooting. The commitment is incredible. From the moment he enters into the frame, Cliff conveys Gen’s genius and illness with utmost conviction. When the film’s narrative commences, Genesis has spent some years in a mental institution. The authorities are ready to release him, provided he takes his medications and placed under the care of a relative. His only brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) reluctantly takes him out of the hospital. A brief flashback shows us that Genesis learned chess from Ariki at the age of 10. Their long disunion had strained the relationship. Ariki is now a top leader of brutal Maori biker gang. He wants his teenage son Mana (James Rolleston) to toughen up to be part of the gang.

Mana takes interest in chess and his uncle than gang life. Genesis was strongly advised to find a purpose in life; some positivity. The purpose comes in the form of ‘Eastern Knights Chess Club’, which is run by a friend & social worker Noble (Kirk Torrance). The last thing Noble wants for his club of underprivileged kids is a man with no stability. He worries Genesis will build their dreams only to fail them at some crucial point. The kids are a group of charming, unruly oddballs, hailing from environment of poverty and violence. Genesis reckons that he will prepare them for Auckland Junior Chess Championship in six weeks time. He also helps his sensitive nephew Mana to escape from the gang. Problems turn up at every corner and stress levels threatens to derail Genesis, but like the king in a board he is pressed down by the responsibility to bestow stability on his tribe of young warriors, both on and off the board.

James Napier Robertson made his directorial debut with a micro-budget thriller “I’m Not Harry Jensen” (2009). His confidence in writing and astute direction in this film makes him to be talent to watch out for. It is easy to get carried away with a story like this. The sentiment could be over-cooked or the heroic achievements could be overstated. Robertson doesn’t fall into any of those traps. He never over-sells a joyful or sad moment. There are few occasional cliches (for eg, Mana’s act of robbery or Ariki’s arrival to Auckland) but the lives and emotions involved here seem much more complicated than your typical inspirational drama. Mr. Robertson has spent a year with real Genesis, a gentle giant, who is said to have freely talked about his illness as much as showing his prowess. Genesis Potini passed away in 2011 (at the age of 47), while Robertson was working on his script. Although the film shows Genesis helping small bunch of kids, in reality the champion has guided thousands of kids to lead a better life. Robertson recalls that during Genesis’ funeral the hall was overflowing with people. Successful businessmen and lawyers attested that this great man had turned them away from a path to crime. So, in a way the director had the extra pressure to cement Genesis’ legacy through this tale. The riveting end result not only deftly handles the emotions, but also dwells on the broader ramifications of this story. By gaining a pot-belly and through the rocking gait, Cliff is able to mimic real Genesis (as seen in you-tube clips). The performance, however, goes far deeper than a mere impersonation. He flawlessly zeroes-in on the constant conflict between mental frailty and quest to gain inner strength. He offers an unflinching look at the man without ever disrespecting his predicament. Neither Robertson’s script nor Cliff’s acting insinuates about a happy ending or a cure before the end credits. The honesty with which Mr. Genesis was presented & portrayed is the chief strength of this uplifting movie.


The life of Genesis is basically a story of a man who wins over the unforgiving world and his vulnerability through steadfast inner strength. The narrative could have been more crowd-pleasing if the focus is deviated on kids and their preparation of chess competition or Robertson could have weaved a lesson on poverty among Maori community. The choice to keep the focus only on the difficulties of central character and his conflict with brother Ariki lends a broader scope. The life of gangsters in “The Dark Horse” is filled with boredom. They are just seen sitting around, drinking boisterously laughing for no reason whatsoever. We could see the inherent sadness of this (often glamorized) environment (their idea of masculinity is subtly questioned). Genesis quest to transform the lives of kids (including Mana) sort of reflects his connection with board. He has coordinated all the powerless ‘pawns’ of real life to find something – like a purpose – on and off the chessboard. And, these ‘pawns’ (the kids) have become stronger to protect their ‘king’ (Genesis). The kids’ quest for a purpose and Mr. Genesis’ purpose beautifully blends in. Apart from Cliff Curtis, Hapi turns in endearing performance as Ariki. Hapi was once a gang member, who turned away from the brutal lifestyle when his son was eager to follow the path. The way he emotes in the key final confrontation with Cliff makes us hard to believe that this is Mr. Hapi’s first time before camera. The kids are also not trained actors. And their inability to utter some dialogues and natural smile bring loads of charm. 


“The Dark Horse” (120 minutes) is one of the best uplifting drama i have seen in recent times. Although the story line may make you think of it as yet another ‘against the odds’ story, the towering performance from Cliff Curtis and the sensible directorial approach will impart you with an unparalleled movie experience. 


Flocking [2015] -- A Profoundly Disturbing Drama

Swedish film-maker Beata Gardeler’s “Flocking” (‘Flocken', 2015) is an unsettling portrait of the mob mentality. Its understated examination of worsening societal behavior & false sense of solidarity reminds us of Thomas Vinterberg’s incendiary drama “The Hunt” (2012). The images are cloaked with dull, grayish shades, a palette which looks like a polarizing view to the shiny progress of the Scandinavian nation (in various things). In the recent years, Sweden has been scrutinized by international media for the authorities’ cover-up of sexual assaults and lower conviction of sex offenders. “Flocking” is loosely based on a true incident in which the old-world social misogyny thrived in a remote Swedish town. But the themes explored here are universal, since we often come across such gruesome episodes all over the globe. The film works as a condemnation of victim blaming and the perils of group-think in the digitally connected world (it won the Crystal Bear for Best Film in Berlin Film Festival).    

The movie opens on a very small, religious town boisterously celebrating a wedding. The faces of Fourteen-year-old Jennifer (Fatime Azemi) and the good-looking, 15-year old boy Alexander (John Risto) comes in and out of focus among all the wedding guests (they exchange empty looks), gradually setting in a distressing atmosphere. We soon learn that Jennifer has reported to local authorities that classmate/friend Alex has sexually assaulted her in the school restroom. ‘Why would you lie about something terrible like that?’ asks Alex’s mother to Jennifer after driving to her home. She also asks them both to be friends as if they are 8-year olds with a petty quarrel. Jennifer’s single mother is an unstable, alcoholic woman who already has gained ill reputation in the local community. When the girl painfully clings to her claim, the community instead of finding whether the accused is guilty, flock up on Jennifer, calling her an ‘whore’. The court and police doesn’t place her in a net of safety. An online chat group and tweets channels in collective anger to push her into isolation. Even people whom Jennifer thought of as a friend are persuaded by the mob. The community’s thinking about rape and their expectations of the behavioral attitude of rape victim are as unnerving as the suggestion of sexual assault. The mob defending Alex keeps on arguing about his popularity & good looks.


Although “Flocking” tracks down the familiar process of witch hunt, Baeta Gardeler’s restrained direction unflinchingly raises the claustrophobic tension without relying on dramatics. Gardeler divides the narrative into chapters as the community’s social dynamics become too complicated in each chapters. The director opens each chapter with a symbolic image juxtaposed with words typed in online bullying campaign against Jennifer. The images subtly keep on placing an unwanted burden on us, successfully provoking us to reflect on our contemporary society. The bland color palettes give a very commonplace, naturalistic look. The highly disturbing incidents amplify the tension due to this mundane atmosphere. Although the Gardeler doesn’t make us doubt Jennifer’s reticent behavior, she closely observes Alexander, who is burdened with guilt. Alex is not shown as just another apathetic member of the mob. The way Alex’s relationship with his mother and the manner with which he purges his guilt in the final scene disturbs us more. The heavy impact we derive in the end wouldn’t be the same if Alex was just shown as single-dimensional villain.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking aspect of “Flocking” (apart from town priest's behavior) is the episode involving David, surrendering to the masses. His transformation shows how easy it is for people to go with the mob rather than stand apart & do their own thinking. When the infuriated Jennifer takes a shot-gun in her hand (towards the end) I hoped for a bloody, cathartic experience. But, Gardeler ends up the movie on an ambiguous note, which pervades the emotional pain ten-fold. A violent scene wouldn’t seem to offer right resolution for Jennifer’s ordeal (although viewers would desperately want that). When Alex does ‘something’ to take advantage of the town’s stupid resistance, there’s a stifling feeling that we too are standing by closer to him, passively observing the cruelty. That image of Alex along with the very last frames sends us up in a dark, contemplative mind-set, kindling more tough questions. Fatime Azemi’s carries the whole film with her quaint but loudly resonating performance as Jennifer. It was very distressing to watch her wallow towards the breaking point. 


The refined exploration of the familiar societal horrors like herd-mentality & victim-blaming in “Flocking” (110 minutes) offers an emotionally draining movie experience. This trip through darkness is certainly tough to watch, but it’s a vital film about the nether side of community dynamics. 


Twenty Best New Zealand Movies


In 2012, prior to the release of Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, New Zealand’s film industry’s worth was declared around $2.4 billion (the enormous Bollywood film industry’s worth is little over $2.9 billion, according Forbes’ 2015 estimate). Feature film production has been one of the very important sectors for New Zealand’s economy. Although, the industry attained its international breakthrough through the critically acclaimed films (partially funded by UK or US producers) like “The Piano”, it was Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy that changed the game. His large production crew based in New Zealand created a great technological skill base in the country. International audiences have fallen in love with the breathtaking landscapes of New Zealand, exhibited in prominent Hollywood blockbusters. Wellington’s Weta Digital Studio continues to offer various post-production and special effects facilities. In 2013, New Zealand secured Avatar movies deal.

But, apart from working on international productions, the New Zealand film industry has made some brilliant home-grown films. There were complaints that the big-budget productions, set in New Zealand, have immensely affected the local film-makers trying to find money. Few other film-makers have stated the difficulty in finding technical crew for the local films due to higher wages. Despite such complaints the nation’s domestic content has vitally increased and were commercially successful. Taika Waititi’s recent off-beat comedy “Hunt for Wilderpeople” had an incredible success at New Zealand box-office, taking in record $1.3 million in the opening weekend.

The first screening of a motion picture in New Zeland happened around the year 1896 and a documentary made in 1900 happens to be the oldest surviving film in New Zeland industry. The industry’s first film was premiered in 1914, but the national film industry was boosted only during the late 1970’s after the establishment of New Zealand Film Commission. Directors like Roger Donaldson, Geoff Murphy, and Vincent Ward were the prominent film-makers of the era. They were subsequently followed by Peter Jackson (his early splatter-fests has a cult following), Jane Campion, Lee Tamahori, Niki Caro, and Taika Waititi. However, most of the New Zealand film-makers who earned a name through local films eventually had to seek projects in UK or USA. Peter Jackson is alleged to be an exception to this ‘migration’ tendency (noted in Wikipedia article: Cinema of New Zealand). Taika Waititi is also able to do charming, low-budget films, while pursuing for a career in Hollywood (he is making “Thor: Ragnarok”). 

Prominent actor Sam Neill has been one of the keenest observers of the New Zealand cinema. His documentary “Cinema of Unease” (part of BFI’s “Century of Cinema” series) analyzes the dark and strange movies made in New Zealand. He explores the madness and other forms of dysfunction that thrives amongst the community. Most importantly, he chronicles the arrival of fresh voices from the often marginalized Maori and Samoan communities. I hope the following list would provide a window to approach some of the nation’s domestic cinema.

 Roger Donaldson’s political thriller was said to be one of the first New Zealand movie to attract large audience base and believed to have provoked the establishment of film commission. This film was Australian actor Sam Neill’s second movie appearance. Based on a novel by C.K. Stead, the narrative is set in imaginary future, where New Zealand is under a fascist regime. Sam plays the central young man role, who is disinterested in politics. But circumstances make him a criminal of the state and he is caught between revolutionary guerillas and totalitarian government. Compared to the Hollywood features of the same era, “Sleeping Dogs” has a rugged production quality that may not go well with contemporary viewers. But it is worth watching for Neil’s breakthrough performance. 

Geoff Murphy’s classic entertainer bestows the joy and mayhem we usually find in 70s American chase movies. A hoodlum named Gerry takes off a rental car with a stolen license. He names the car ‘Pork Pie’. On his journey to south, he picks up couple of people. One of them is John, who is in the pursuit of his walked-out wife. The group’s string of exploits on the road grabs the attention of local police force. The magnificent scenery adds more to the entertainment quotient. 

Smash Palace (1981) 

Roger Donaldson’s compelling tale of a father is diffused with a sense of unease and defeat. It is set in some remote corner of New Zealand, where the car-obsessed Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence) has his own wrecking yard. The man’s frustration’s finds an outlet through racing cars. His obsession with race impacts his marriage life. Shaw’s unhappy, delicate wife Jacqui, a Frenchwoman, pursues an affair with his best friend. Their eight year old daughter Georgie (a touching performance from Greer Robson) is largely abandoned. The situation becomes darker when Shaw finds out about his wife’s affair. This emotional roller-coaster is not for those seeking an entertaining experience.

Utu (1983)

Geoff Murphy’s historical drama is set in the 1860s New Zealand, the era when Maoris fought against the British for betraying them over a land treaty. Murphy and his cinematographer Cowley’s efforts in “Utu” were hailed for setting new technical benchmark in New Zealand cinema. The attack scenes were viscerally thrilling and the entire shoot in wilderness was amazingly done. The lack of complexity in the historical portrayal and in certain characterization (by today’s standards) may be considered as a flaw, but still it is one of the important works about a lesser known bloody past of the nation.  

Vigil (1984)

Vincent Ward’s grim but poetic coming of age tale was the first New Zealand movie to compete at Cannes Film Festival. The film chronicles the life of a lonely 11 year old girl, known as Toss, living in her parents’ isolated farm. A tragedy befalls the family and the arrival of a stranger increases Toss’ emotional conflicts. Critics hail “Vigil” as one of the first best personal cinema to have come out of New Zealand. I love the films impeccable, gorgeous imagery. It doesn’t have the profound depth (both in characters and narrative) you find in contemporary movies dealing with isolated communities, but it is watchable for Fiona Kay’s remarkable, haunting performance. 

Geoff Murphy’s cult sci-fi, based on Craig Harrison’s novel, opens with a memorable shot of a naked man on his bed, waking up in the morning (like Danny Boyle’s protagonist in “28 Days Later”) with no idea of his current predicament. He is a scientist named Zac Hobson and soon finds out that he may be the only person alive in the world. The rest of the population seemed to have just disappeared. To his surprise, he finds a beautiful woman survivor named Joanne. They are sexually entangled, but the arrival of Api, a strongly built black male, escalates the tension. They work together to prevent the ultimate destruction of the world. “The Quiet Earth” is definitely not for all sci-fi fans, but I feel that it is a fine reflection on the human condition (although the subject matter is explored more profoundly in other sci-fi novels).  

Vincent Ward’s highly impressive adventure fantasy opens in 14th century English village, swept up by the fear of the plague – ‘Black Death’. A young boy named Griffin keeps getting strange visions and believes that if he led his villagers to an abandoned mine, they can be saved. A group tunnel their way out of the darkness and happily emerge on the other side. Soon, they Griffin and his group find out that they have arrived at New Zealand, circa 1988.  The film had some stunning visuals for its time. It received a five minute standing ovation at Cannes Film Festival and won numerous awards in other festivals. “The Navigator” is not a time travel or sci-fi movie. It’s a mystical work with healthy dose of magical realism. 

This biopic chronicling the troubled life of New Zealand’s celebrated writer Janet Frame signaled the arrival of one of the most talented film-makers – Jane Campion. The narrative is set in the 1920s and 30s when young Janet Frame grew up in her impoverished family. She was a plump little girl with red hair. Although Janet was considered a wallflower she had passion in creating stories (encouraged by her father at a young age; he presented a journal to write). She became a teacher, but a panic attack changed her life’s course. She was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and spent eight years of her life in a mental institution. Even though Janet’s story has enough space to make a sugar-coated, upliftment story, Jane Campion sensibly offers a portrait that doesn’t shy away from the darkest aspects. Kerry Fox’s performance was one of the best I have ever witnessed on-screen. Her pure portrayal must be a lesson for actors on how to infuse life into the characters (it’s sad that this great actress didn’t get many such roles in her career). 

The Piano (1993)

Jane Campion’s poetic masterpiece was set in 1850s New Zealand. The director uses a distinct voice as a form of expression for her protagonist Ada (Holly Hunter), a woman who hasn’t spoken since she was six years old. An arranged marriage takes Ada and her 11 year old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) from native Scotland to remote North Island forests of New Zealand. Her husband Stewart (Sam Niell) is a socially awkward man who leaves out Ada’s only solace in this isolated life -- piano (in the beach, considering it as unwanted burden). Her tormented situation becomes direr with the introduction to a local man George Baines (Harvey Keital). “The Piano” clinched both the best actor and supporting actor (female) awards for the year (Anna Paquin was the youngest actor to hold the gold statuette). Campion and cinematographer Dyburgh lyrical frames still looks breathtaking (in each repeat viewing). It is a must watch film for any movie-lover seeking emotionally challenging humanistic cinema. New Zealand movie industry got its major international breakthrough with this film. 

"Next time I write in this diary, Mother will be dead. How odd, yet how pleasing", wrote Pauline Rieper in her diary, a 9th grade student, who brutally killed her mother. It was a murder that shocked the 1950s New Zealand. Peter Jackson’s controversial drama explores the friendship between Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and her friend/co-conspirator Juliet Hume (Kate Winslet). The girls who were marginalized among their peers designed an elaborate fantasy world (“Borovnia’), cooking up stories of bloody revenge and so on. Although Peter Jackson gained cult status with his splatter-fest movies like “Bad Taste” & “Brain Dead”, this foray into digital film-making gave him a grand success. The film keeps the objective facts of the crime and focuses on the girls’ chilling detachment from reality.

Lee Tamohari’s timeless treatise on domestic violence offers a very distressing movie experience. Based on the novel Alan Duff, Tamohari’s debut feature takes place in South Auckland’s urbanized ghetto. Maoris, the marginalized members of the society, have lost touch with their tribal past to only be further weighed down by alcoholism, gang violence, unemployment and rampant poverty. The narrative focuses on the Heke family, held together by a strong-willed woman Beth (Rena Owen). Even though the film gets a bit melodramatic at few circumstances, it is one of the significant movies about a community, deprived of culture and livelihood. In 1999, a sequel was made (“What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?”). 

Rain (2001)

Christian Jeffs’ brilliant mood-piece is set in an underpopulated seaside town, where the 13 year old girl Janey is enjoying her vacation with family. The parents are on the verge of divorce and all they do is sit around and drink whiskies. Mother Kate has a sexual escapade. And Janey is on the path to explore her own budding sexuality. Alicia Fulford who plays Janey gives a mature performance, finding the perfect balance between childish innocence and the increasing awareness about sexuality. Although the story-line is pretty simple, it was a very sensitive coming-of-age and fractured-family tale. And, of course the movie experience is enriched by splendid visuals. 

Whale Rider (2002)

Niki Caro’s fascinating tale of woman empowerment (based on Witi Ihimaera’s 1986 novel) is set in a small fishing village, in the eastern coast of New Zealand and is more optimistic about the modern survival of Maori community. The people of the village believe in the legend of Paikea – a demi-god ancestor who arrived to New Zealand on the back of a whale. Since then, the first born of the Paikea descendant is considered as Whangara chieftain. But Chief Paka is disappointed that none of his sons show interest in becoming a ‘chief’, a title which has no relevance in the stifling, modern times. Koro’s mature 12 year old grand-daughter Pai (Keisha-Castle Hughes) feels that she has the strongest will to be a chief. How she carves out her place in this rigid patriarchal society is the core of this elegant movie. This is yet another New Zealand film with a highly nuanced performance from a child actor (Keisha recently played the role of Obara Sand in “Game of Thrones”). 

Adapted from Maurice Gee’s novel, Brad McGann’s multi-layered, emotionally devastating film is one of my top three favorite movies made in New Zealand. The film is about a beautiful friendship between celebrated war photographer Paul Prior (Mathew MacFadyen) and a teenager named Celia (Emily Barclay). Paul has returned to his hometown after 17 years to attend his father’s funeral. Paul’s encounter with Celia makes him travel into his father’s seedy ‘den’ of secrets. ‘Sins of father’ is the central theme, although it is explored in a non-cliché manner. The authenticity & intimacy of human emotions you feel in this movie will definitely move you to tears.   

Director Roger Donaldson (“No Way Out”, “Thirteen Days”) who gave us the classic Kiwi entertainer “Sleeping Dogs” returned back to his native country with the true story of 68 year old motorcycle enthusiast Burt Munro. Munro perfected his Indian bike and went on a trip (to Bonneville Salt Flats, USA) to attain the dream of becoming the world’s fastest motorcyclist. Anthony Hopkins was the perfect choice to play the central role. It took Mr. Roger Donaldson some 25 years to get Munro's tale to the big screen. His love of Burt's story is readily apparent in the way he handles the material. The film broke the New Zealand box-office records during its release. 

Robert Sarkies’ follow-up to his cult-classic “Scarfies” (1999) focuses on the infamous Aromoana massacre. In 1900 a seaside village’s residents were terrorized (for 22 hours) by a lone gunman with a semi-automatic rifle, stalking and shooting them down. Sarkies goes for a contemplative approach (that’s reminiscent of Malick’s “Badlands”) to tell this conjoining tale of survivors and victims. Actor Karl Urban (“Star Trek, “Dredd”, Pete’s Dragon”) plays policeman Nick, who is part of the local under-resourced police force. Sarkies sensibly avoids the sensationalistic viewpoint to fully concentrate on the tragedy felt by the intertwined community.   

Boy (2010)

Actor/director Taika Waititi’s simple, introspective coming-of-age tale finds hope & whimsicality from a saddest corner of the world. Waititi’s brilliant sensibilities in balancing the eccentric humor and the community’s alienation or loneliness make him one of the prominent film-makers of New Zealand. The way he contemplates on parental neglect through an inventive, surreal tone feels so touching at times. James Rolleston’s performance as the 11 year old boy thoroughly wins over our empathy. Despite traveling in a familiar territory, there’s nothing mawkish or cliched here. 

Waititi’s vampire mockumentary (or faux-documentary), written with “Flight of the Concords” fame Jemaine Clement, is creative enough to circumvent the follies of this much criticized sub-genre. The narrative tracks down group of old-fashioned vampires, living in modern-day Wellington, age-group ranging between 183 and 8,000. Waititi once again sprinkles his brand of deadpan comedy and ironic observations, never missing out to keep the emotional integrity on check.

James Napier Robertson’s touching biopic of troubled Chess genius Genesis Potini is escalated to greater levels by the soulful central performance by Cliff Curtis (“Three Kings”, “Blow”). Genesis, afflicted with bi-polar disorder, taught the game of chess to underprivileged kids, who grew up among alcoholics, drug abusers and hoodlums (eventually turning those kids away from life of violence and poverty). The narrative is not a slight bit mawkish and Mr. Robertson sensibly approaches the Genesis’ mental illness, unlike many American movies. The use of Chess pieces to incorporate Maori mythology and metaphors for life itself blesses us with a profound movie experience. 

Waititi, before his Hollywood debut (“Thor: Ragnarok”) as director, made this low-budget but immensely charming dramedy. Once again the central theme is parental neglect plus the joy and pains of being a misfit. This wry comedy showcases the rollicking adventures of a plump, precocious 13 year old boy (Jules Dennison) and his foster father (Sam Niell). Both of them are also the subjects of a nation-wide manhunt. Waititi always finds room for compassion and humor in the grimmest of scenarios, while never belittling or caricaturizing this characters. The warm-hearted performance of Sam –from the years of “Sleeping Dogs” to “Jurassic Park” to “Wilderpeople” – bestows such a relishing experience. 

Notable Omission:

Chris Graham’s feel-good comedy about four rowdy Samoans (with all-Polynesian cast) is riddled with fine party spirit (unlike the pretentious American adult comedies). This film was a perfect vehicle to render slice of life about the Samoan community.  Of course, there is a bit of negative stereotypes here to maximize some laughs. 

Movie-lovers could try and watch these following New Zealand films too: Foottrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989), Housebound (2014), Scarfies (1999), What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? (1999), The Price of Milk (2000), Eagle vs Shark (2007), The Dead Lands (2014) Topless Woman Talk about their Lives (1997).

I couldn’t find/watch Peter Jackson’s mockumentary “Forgotten Silver” (1995).