NZIFF – two more documentaries

I have now seen four films as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, and have one more to go. Three out of four of those films have been documentaries, and I have already done a brief post on one of them, I Am Not Your Negro.Yesterday I saw Everybody Knows… Elizabeth Murray, followed by Bill Frisell: A Portrait. The former was only an hour in length but it was packed with archival material as well as footage filmed in the last months of Elizabeth Murray’s life as she prepared for exhibitions including a long overdue retrospective at MoMA in New York. The film, made by a woman – Kristi Zea, a costume and production designer – made no small note of the absence of  women in art history but its main focus was on the woman herself – her history, her practice and and her thinking, and this was achieved by filming the artist as she worked and talked to the camera, mostly with little hair as a result of her cancer, and Meryl Streep reading excerpts from her diary as a voice-over. Streep managed to make these snippets sound entirely natural, both in the way she read and the way she captured Elizabeth’s voice.

Elizabeth Murray, who became an artist because her teacher at school saw her talent and approached her parents with an offer to pay for her tuition at Art School, never imagined she would achieve anything, but worked regardless until her death at the age of 66. The film contains commentaries from family and many other artist friends as well as from gallerists including Paula Cooper, her first dealer.

The film would be inspiring to any artist, particularly women artists, a term that Elizabeth did not want to have applied to her (she just wanted to be an artist, understandably) and I very much enjoyed seeing footage of some of the galleries I had visited in 2015 and the streets I had walked.

Such was also the case with the next film, about Bill Frisell the jazz guitarist. Although I was aware of him as a musician, I knew little about him, and the film revealed him to be a highly talented, unassuming man who is liked and respected by everyone he knows and works with. In the same way that the Murray film showed her work practice through through her own talking and painting, so did this film show Bill, often in his study with his huge collection of guitars, in rehearsals for small and large concerts alike, and the culminations of the concerts themselves. There were also many other commentaries from other musicians.

At one point Bill walks us through Greenwich Village, NYC jazz territory, talking about various places, such as where Bob Dylan wrote a number of songs, and taking us into the Village Vanguard, one of the most famous jazz venues in NYC if not the world. The film felt at times a little chaotic and all over the place, but perhaps that echoes the person – not to suggest that he is in any way disorganised, but to demonstrate that he is a person of prodigious output who does not push himself to the forefront of the other musicians with whom he works but rather, stays in the background, bringing out the best in them while adding the unique Bill Frisell sound to all the music he plays.

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