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Aunty and the Star People’s long haul

Late last week, Gerard Smyth’s latest doco Aunty & The Star People was one of the titles pushing out the end date for the NZIFF’s run in Auckland. Extra sessions were added following sold out sessions.

Although Wellington won’t close its doors for another week or so, Aunty & The Star People opened to a sold-out screening there too.

Aunty & The Star People is hardly a commercial exercise in filmmaking, Smyth and festival director Bill Gosden both have a good understanding of the potential of such titles.

Among local filmmakers Smyth is hardly alone in praising Gosden’s savvy when it comes to putting together a festival programme. It’s one of the comments that comes up regularly (unusually unsolicited) during interviews. “A national treasure” was the term Smyth used to describe Gosden, although he’s not so old or decrepit as images the term might bring to mind.

Aunty isn’t Smyth’s first film in the festival, although the festival wasn’t yet the NZIFF back in 1997 when his Out of Sight played. 11 years later Smyth’s portrait of cinematographer Alun Bollinger, Barefoot Cinema brought him back to the festival.

His more recent When A City Falls would have been an obvious selection had Smyth been prepared to wait eight months to release it.

Now, it’s the turn of Jean Watson, or Jean Aunty as she’s known in southern India. Aunty & The Star People is the story of one NZ woman’s time in Tamil Nadu, working to bring change to the lives of children from families that are, for various reasons, disadvantaged. Watson turned 80 last year, an event that occurred while Aunty was being shot.

Jean Watson

Aunty & The Star People: Jean Watson at Karunai Illam

Smyth expects the film will play well with older females, the “anything with Helen Mirren in it” demographic largely responsible for the impressive box office earnings of last year’s Gardening With Soul, 2012’s How Far is Heaven.

There are similarities between the three productions and their subjects beyond the fact that they all have Gold Cards. While Watson isn’t a card-carrying bride of Christ she has strong spiritual beliefs. She’s also, according to Smyth, very opposed to having herself portrayed as anything more than an ordinary person, someone who – it seems from the film – just gets on with life.

Early in life she was married to Barry Crump, which surely encouraged independence, and wrote about the experience in her 1965 novel Stand in the Rain. Following a holiday in India in the 1980s, which turned into a three-decade journey of supporting children there, Watson wrote the non-fiction Karunai Illam: The Story of an Orphanage and Three Sea Stories, a collection of linked pieces set in southern India.

Just as her work in India came about by accident, so did the connection with Gerard Smyth which lied to the film being made.

Smyth is a long-time Christchurch resident and has, in recent years, become even more strongly identified with the city. Having rushed out of soon-to-be red-zoned central city premises clutching a camera to capture some of the first images shot after 12.51pm on 22 February 2011, he went on to make When A City Falls.

The film, which NZFC and NZ On Air boarded as it came together, won Smyth the Best Director Documentary at the 2012 New Zealand TV Awards. A strong advocate of here being a Christchurch voice among those telling the sotry of the earthquake and its aftermath, he went on to document the rebuilding of the city in Christchurch: From the Streets.

Indirectly, it was the earthquake that brought him into contact with Watson. Smyth’s daughter got out of Christchurch following the earthquake, travelling to Wellington with friends and a commercial espresso machine salvaged from a damaged building. In Wellington, the friends set up a cafe in Berhampore. As it happened, Jean Watson was their neighbour.

From there to Smyth to a documentary wasn’t too much of a leap.

Aunty & The Star People trailer

Smyth shot the documentary pretty much unassisted over much of last year, including making a two-month trip to India in July and August. The sound was recorded by Jan Sandle, formerly of Christchurch and TVNZ but for many years now a TV tutor at Eqypt’s Cairo University.

Recently returned from the UK, Scott Flyger (Songs For Amy, Waterloo Road, Footballers’ Wives) edited the film and Chris Sinclair (3 Mile Limit, White Lies and Smyth’s When A City Falls) did the sound post. “We’re pretty thrilled to have a high-end post facility in the (Christchurch) CBD,” Smyth reckons, seeing some upside in the ongoing redevelopment of the city.

The film’s EP, Jo Coffey, known around Wellington’s Berhampore as the owner of handmade chocolate business L’affaire au Chocolat, also comes in for praise from Smyth – not least for raising the funds that enabled the two-month trip to India without which the film would have been a non-starter.

Watson herself spends around three months a year in India, and has been making the trip for 30 years.

Jean Watson

Aunty & The Star People

Aunty will play on beyond the NZIFF. Smyth has been in discussions with most of the arthouse and independent cinemas around the country, aiming to give Aunty a wider release as quickly after its festival run as schedules and decency permit. Capitalising on interest generated by the festival screenings promptly is important, and Smyth can now play the “sold-out screenings” card.

Smyth won’t do too much travelling around NZ to support the film for its remaining festival appearances beyond Christchurch – although not for lack of willingness. The second series of the NZ On Air-supported Christchurch: From the Streets won’t complete and deliver itself to TVNZ.

He would also like a break and, once Christchurch: From the Streets is complete, he will have one. He’ll be making a two month visit to India. More of Aunty?

Smyth explained how impressed with India he’d been during his trip last year, especially people’s level of optimism and the rush to modernise the country. But the trip isn’t for work. “It’s an unpaid sabbatical,” he said, “which is just the same as making an unfunded film – but I’m not taking a camera.”

Aunty & The Star People has additional NZIFF screenings in Auckland at 11.15am and 6.15pm on Monday 4 August at the Academy, Auckland.

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