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James & Isey

"an unclassifiable triumph"

★★★★½ - STUFF 

- Florian Habicht's tiny tale an aroha-filled, sentiment-free joy - 

As far as anyone knew, Florian Habicht (Kaikohe DemolitionSpookers) had folded up his documentary director's chair and joined the slightly more lucrative and stable world of directing TV commercials.

But, stories have a way of finding their teller, and so it came to pass that Habicht, back in his beloved Far North, in the town of Kawakawa, stumbled across the then 99-year-old Isey Cross and her son James. Isey would be celebrating her 100th birthday in just one week's time.

With James keen to mobilise the entire town for the occasion, Habicht – I guess – sensed that an unrepeatable and unwriteable moment in space and time had presented itself to him. And that the least he could do was get his camera out and make a record of whatever unfolded in the next seven days or so. 

That James & Isey is a portrait of two immensely loveable people and the bond they share is probably the laziest and least interesting thing I could say about this film. Yes, of course it is all that. If you are not warmed, charmed and entertained by James & Isey then I will – seriously – refund the price your ticket myself. Also, check your pulse.

But Habicht has done something more here. He's an idiosyncratic director, with a wonderful eye for a frame and a face, but maybe an even better sense of when to just stand back and let a story tell itself. A good documentary maker never needs to interrogate a story too hard, otherwise the shape – the truth – of the subject will be lost. 

Habicht's stillness, his attentiveness and the sheer irrepressible likeability he brings with him are maybe his greatest strengths as a film-maker. His subjects don't ever forget that there is a camera in the room, but they do at least know that Habicht's camera has enough politeness and tikanga to be allowed to stay when the real truth is being told.

And so, while James & Isey is a fantastically accomplished and affectionate celebration of the irascible, indelible Isey, Habicht's camera here also becomes a confessional, a confidant and a collaborator for James. Who, we sense, might need this birthday to be a public success far more than Isey really cares.

It's a rare film that can be this free of sentiment and saccharine while still positively rolling in romanticism, nostalgia and pure, honestly given aroha. James & Isey, at every level it pitches itself at, is an unclassifiable triumph of heart and instinct over the odds.

Habicht has found another tiny and unlikely story to tell. And, as ever, he has found a whole world within it.

Last month, now 102, Isey – and James – made the trip to Tāmaki Makaurau as guests of honour at the premiere of their film. The standing ovation they and the film received might have been expected, but it was also hugely deserved. 

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

James & Isey is now playing at Light House Cinema!

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