While the period-drama is an excellent medium for ‘learning’ history, stories of the past have better box-office prospects when fact and fiction are combined. Many films in this genre invent a love-story to humanise the bigger narrative and for this reason the exquisitely made Viceroy’s House (2017) combines two stories in one film: a sweeping historical epic of the last Raj and a classic Romeo and Juliet tale of forbidden love. Although films in this genre have responsibility for fact-based storytelling, we need to keep in mind that history itself is an amalgam of viewpoints rather than a single absolute truth.
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Nations reconcile after war but it is only people who can grant forgiveness. For many, it is an impossible grant that leaves wounds unhealed. This theme dominates the Franco-German film Frantz (2017), a psychological drama about a former soldier’s personal quest for forgiveness. Filmed mostly in black and white, it is a poetically beautiful essay about guilt, lies, and tragic loss, set in the between-the-wars era.
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The primal terror of captivity appears in everything from fairy tales to horror films, and female captives are particularly popular tropes for vulnerability to sexual abuse. Most captivity stories are framed into a binary where the captor is an evil ogre and the captive an object of sympathy. One of the many reasons the Australian made Berlin Syndrome (2017) stands out as a psychological thriller is that it defies these conventions by portraying the captor as an almost normal professional guy and the captive as sexually complicit in her captivity.
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Everyone knows about the Holocaust but few have even heard the word Holodomor. It means ‘death by starvation’ and it refers to the Ukrainian mass famine deliberately engineered by Joseph Stalin during 1932-33. Scholars label it as genocide and estimate between 7 and 10 million deaths were directly linked to Stalin’s policy of depopulating the Ukraine. More accurate numbers are not available because long-standing Russian secrecy has only recently eased enough for the story to be told. The film Bitter Harvest (2017) is the first feature movie to tell this story using a dramatized romance that attempts to humanise a story of inhumanity.
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It sounds like a Disney-style pet-hero tale, but A Street Cat Named Bob (2016) is anything but cute. It’s a harrowing and ultimately heart-warming true story of a recovering drug-addict desperately trying to reclaim his life with all the odds stacked against him. Shunned by human society, his saviour is a ginger moggie called Bob.
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Depression and suicide do not make pretty subjects for a film. It is easy to produce a voyeuristic essay that exploits someone’s despair and self-destruction, but portraying tragedy without sensationalising or trivialising it is as tough as it gets for directors and actors. While most suicides are silent and private, TV journalist Christine Chubbuck chose the most public stage available when in July 1974 she shot herself in the head, live and on-camera. Christine (2016) is her story.
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No matter how impressively a film starts, it’s the ending we remember most. A genre that all too often ends like a limp lettuce leaf is the supernatural horror and I Am Not A Serial Killer (2016) is another example of a strong starter with a lame ending. But it is still an entertaining addition to the genre because of an interesting plot twist that pits a sociopathic teenager against a senile paranormal serial killer.
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Parent-child conflict is a universal theme that can be spun into an infinite variety of narrative fabrics and colours. For mothers and offspring, it is often treated as an angst-ridden melodrama while for fathers and offspring it is usually a comedy. Each relationship mix has its own tropes and conventions but the German-Austrian film Toni Erdman (2016) is far from being a genre film. It is a stream of consciousness comedic study of the father-daughter bond that is quirky, insightful and strangely moving.
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Whether it is drama, comedy or documentary, New Zealand filmmakers punch above their weight. The documentary Tickled (2016) is one of the most unusual films you will see for a long time and a guaranteed conversation starter in the right company. While the film’s title suggests comedic titillation, what it reveals is something more sinister that has wrecked many lives. It is also a fine example of how dogged investigative journalism can stumble from something that appears innocuously weird into something bizarrely dangerous.
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At one level The Confirmation is a simple and endearing story of a young boy spending a weekend bonding with his recovering-alcoholic father. However, the Catholic ritual in the film’s title and the church confessionals that bookend the film suggest more serious themes. Although labelled a comedy, the story is really a dramatic portrait of the growing distance between traditional notions of morality and the ethical relativities of today’s post-GFC world.
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