With Hunt for the Wilderpeople setting the all-time box office record in New Zealand this week, we can acknowledge the remarkable talent of Taika Waititi as a director who not only has a singular voice but also a golden touch.
Box office is one mark of success for feature films and Taika has three of the top ten New Zealand hits with Wilderpeople, Boy, and What We Do In The Shadows.
Look to that other marker of filmic success, critical acclaim, though, and our lot there has fallen while our feature fortunes have risen.
The pinnacle of critical acclaim is the Cannes Film Festival.
New Zealand hasn’t had a feature film director in competition at Cannes since Jane Campion with Bright Star in 2009.
Christine Jeffs with her film Rain was selected for the Cannes Director’s Fortnight in 2001.
We have to go back to the early nineties for the next appearance of a New Zealand director when Campion’s film The Piano won the Palme D’or in 1993, while the Stewart Main and Peter Wells directed Desperate Remedies was a Un Certain Regard entry the same year.
Alison Maclean’s Crush was in competition in 1992.
It’s left to Vincent Ward to round out our Cannes competition entries with The Navigator in 1988 and Vigil in 1984, while Sam Pillsbury’s Scarecrow was the first Kiwi at Cannes, in Directors Fortnight, in 1982.
Geoff Murphy gets a mention with Utu screening Out of Competition in 1983.
If we spread our net a little wider to the other top two auteur-driven film festivals Venice and Berlin, we increase our catch of Kiwi directors making their marks.
Adopted U.S. son Jake Mahaffy won the Orizzonti Award at Venice with Free In Deed in 2015. The same year Petra Brett Kelly’s documentary A Flickering Truth had a showing there. And in 2011, Tusi Tamasese’s The Orator was selected for Orizzonti.
Two countries over in Berlin in 2016, we get a better turnout. Lee Tamahori’s Mahana showed Out of Competition while Tammy Davis’ Born to Dance was in Generation. And it’s in Generation where we have had the rest of our success with features: Taika’s mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows in 2014, Daniel Borgman’s Weight of Elephants in 2013, as was Louis Sutherland and Mark Albiston’s Shopping. 2012 saw Petra Brett Kelly’s documentary Maori Boy Genius and Rob Sarkies’ Two Little Boys. Taika’s Boy made it there in 2010 and Armagan Ballantyne’s Strength of Water in 2009. There were other successes before 2009, too, and also in the recent addition to Berlinale, NATIVe, where there have been a number of New Zealand retrospective screenings.
That said, a New Zealand director has never had a film selected for the main competition in Berlin (as far as I can find).
Cannes, however, sits at the top of the auteur tree, and we’re obviously not punching above our weight there. So what’s up? Or is that just our due?
One experienced New Zealand producer I spoke to about it said the reasons for our lack of recent success at Cannes are many and complex. Included are that it’s very political, competition is so much more intense, and that we have a lack of true artistic voices in film. To highlight this he pointed out that those directors who have succeeded at Cannes in Vincent Ward, Jane Campion and Alison Maclean all have an arts background (Pillsbury was an English major and Jeffs an editor), which many contemporary directors these days don’t have.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed the dearth of Kiwi feature competition offerings at Cannes. Much as NZFC seems hell-bent on commercial and genre films at the moment, a nice artsy Cannes competition selection would undoubtedly go down a treat.
Kiwi film auteurs front and forward, please. Cannes and we need you.