James & Isey (2021)

Image via miff.com.au

A well-meaning but underwhelming documentary that fails to paint a compelling portrait of its quirky Maori subjects.

Florian Habicht stumbled upon this idea for a documentary through his friendship with James Cross. It is ostensibly about James’s mother, soon-to-be 100-year-old Isey Cross, and James as he plans her 100th birthday party. Habicht is a ‘fly on the wall’ as we see the pair go about their daily tasks. There are some highlights, not least Isey going marlin fishing, but a lot of space is taken up by James talking about himself. He is a frustrated singer and actor and we get to see the video clips from his past. He often seems to be very conscious of his audience and I didn’t get a strong sense of authenticity from him, rather ego.

We get some insight into Maori culture and spend a fair bit of time watching James perform healing rituals in the landscape but without much context. There are subtitles giving us facts about 100 years of Aotearoa – how old Isey was when the influenza pandemic hit (a few months old), when bubble gum was invented (9) and when Doris Day released Que Sera Sera (37) – but Isey doesn’t really speak about her past or what she lived through. In fact, she doesn’t speak much at all. There is no real insight into what has changed in 100 years or who she is as a person.

Habicht seems too enamoured of his subjects to realise he doesn’t have much of a story.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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