Popularity and fame a definite surprise, but welcomed by all local NZ film makers debuting in the Doha Tribeca Film Festival . The visual effects supervisor for Weta does not usually get mobbed for autographs. Nor does he normally have people queuing to have their picture taken with him.
That sort of crazed fan behaviour tends to be reserved for the Hollywood stars with whom Wellington-based Matt Aitkin has worked with, on films like Avatar, King Kong and the Lord of the Rings series.
But here, following his talk at the second ever Doha Tribeca Film Festival, in the United Arab Emirate of Qatar, Aitken seems to have brought a little of big time Hollywood glamour to this relatively small, and new, film festival.
International stars like Kevin Spacey, Robert de Niro, Salma Hayek and director Julian Schnabel have made, or will make, appearances here this week alongside a sprinkling of Bollywood actors and names better known to the Arab world.
The nightly red carpet appearances always draw a crowd.
And this afternoon, it is Aitken’s turn. He has managed to entertain an audience of around a hundred film makers, fledgling digital artists and a bunch of excitable school children with his insights about working on some of the biggest, most expensive films in the world, that the company, part owned by Peter Jackson, has undertaken.
He shows before, after and during shots and tells behind-the-scenes anecdotes – how 950 people worked on Avatar‘s effects, how they have ‘birthday’ shots, that is, pictures the company worked on for over a year and how software developed to recreate facial expressions on digital actors has functions called the ‘cheesy smile control’ and the ‘super cheesy smile control’.
And he casually calls director James Cameron, ‘Jim’. To some film goers, it may feel a little like finding out there is no Santa Claus. But mostly, listeners in Doha are enraptured. And after the hour-long presentation, a line forms for Aitken’s autograph.
“This never usually happens,” Aitken says, beaming and shaking hands with small children and ghutra headcloth-wearing Arab men alike.
Aitken is part of a small contingent of New Zealanders invited to Doha for the festival, which is partnered with the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, an event created by Robert de Niro, among others, to encourage culture back into the city after 9/11.
Director and actor Taika Waititi gets a similarly good reaction at the Middle Eastern premiere of his film Boy from an audience of around 300.
“It’s the first time I have seen a New Zealand film,” says Nuha Mustafa Hammad, a Palestinian living in Doha. “And the first time I have ever been to a film festival.”
She is enamoured of the experience: “I enjoyed it and yes, I did understand the jokes,” the petite, head scarf-clad woman says, when asked if the action from Waihau Bay might have been lost in translation.
“The accent was very difficult sometimes,” she explains. “But there were Arabic subtitles.”
Waititi’s film is not in the festival’s competition; this, running for the first time this year, is reserved for Arab films. But Boy is up for an audience award. If Doha audiences like the New Zealand-made film enough, it could win a cash prize of US$100,000 (NZ$134,000).
“I gave it four [out of five],” says Qatari local Nassir Al-Ansari, who had come to see the film – also his first New Zealand film – because he had gone out with a New Zealander previously.
“It had a lot of symbolism. I think the concept of the boy admiring his father, no matter how bad things get, is something that rings a bell with us all. I am really looking forward to seeing Mr Waititi’s next work.”
The director himself is a bit tired, having just flown here from Los Angeles and having had to deal with the fact that the airline lost his luggage.
But during an enthusiastic question and answer session after the film he doesn’t show it, demonstrating plenty of good humour.
“The film did change from what I originally wrote,” Waititi answers curious audience members. “It was more of a heavy film before, more in keeping with what New Zealand films are normally like. If it had stayed that way then probably one of the kids would have died. So it’s a bit lighter now. Then again,” he notes, “if someone had died, we probably would have gone to Cannes.”
His jokes even seem to translate into Arabic – after each answer, a translator patiently re-tells them to the crowd. Everybody laughs.
“I have never been to this part of the world and it just seemed like such a cool opportunity,” says Waititi, who is currently working on several projects of his own and who will be seen in a major supporting role in the upcoming action film, Green Lantern, in the middle of next year.
He has a busy schedule in Doha, with stints on a panel and participation in a TEDx meeting (a conference that brings together people from technology, entertainment and design) along with Aitken as well as interviews with Arabic and European press lined up over the next few days.
“When you’re in a new country, you never know what people will think but this was a good reaction, pretty standard,” Waititi notes, before he is chauffeured back to his hotel.
“As long as the stuff translates. The themes are pretty universal.”
Aitken feels that the way in which the New Zealand film makers have been welcomed in Doha, a small country whose rulers, the Al-Thani family, see culture and education as the way to make their oil-rich country’s mark on the world, is a sign that world-beating creativity can develop in geographic isolation.
“There are parallels with Doha,” he told the crowd. “And you need two things to make it work: talent and great projects. The great projects will attract more talent. People came from all over the world to work with us on these films. Then you get into this great upward spiral where things build in a very positive fashion,” Aitken concluded.
Asked afterwards what he thought about the whole The Hobbit-Warner Bros affair, which had been the subject of such heated debate back home while he had been in Doha, Aitken said he couldn’t really comment.
That’s despite the fact that the big movies which have come before The Hobbit are part of the reason why New Zealand film makers are increasingly well regarded by the international industry.
“We’re just thrilled that it’s been green lit,” Aitken concluded sagely. “And I hope to be working on it in the future.”
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