New Horizons Film Festival, taking place every July-August in the beautiful city of Wrocław, Poland (home to the oldest restaurant in the world, legend has it), is the perfect example of what I would call a boutique film festival catering for a discerning audience. Unlike most film festivals, that are usually spread out all over a city, almost all the Nowe Horyzonty film screenings take place in one venue, making it possible to maximise on your viewing time, a precious asset for a film journalist.
The programme is diverse and bold, as far away from conventional cinema as possible, with a penchant for personal, provocative films from all over the world, experimental and hybrid works, films made by artists from other artistic disciplines, forgotten and underrated works, yet atypical and searching for something fresh and innovative.
If you’re lucky to be invited, the festival will put you up in a nice hotel (I stayed at the delightfully minimalist Puro Hotel last year) and invite you to all kinds of exclusive film gatherings & art/music events every evening. Last year I had the chance to meet some new independent filmmakers whose films were making a lot of buzz on the festival circuit, such as People That Are Not Me, a personal film about millennials struggling with love and relationships, from Hadas Ben Aroya, a young female filmmaker I would describe as an Israeli Lena Dunham, as well as catch up with filmmakers I’d already met and interviewed before, Florian Habicht being one of them (read my previous interview with Florian here).
His latest film, Spookers, a documentary about New Zealand’s only haunted attraction theme park, is as spooky as it sounds. Set in a former psychiatric hospital, the film is a multi-faceted portrait of the fascinating people who work there. The film also touches on mental illness and includes a fascinating, in-depth interview with one of the former patients who was hospitalised there for years suffering with schizophrenia.
Below is my interview with Florian Habicht from Nowe Horyzonty 2017.
Spookers Park in New Zealand is known as one of the biggest scare parks in the world. What drew you to this place?
I was actually asked by Mad Men production company if I wanted to make a film about this place. I knew about it but I was too scared, horror is not my thing. It’s been going for 10 years, it’s open on Friday and Saturday nights, half an hour South of Auckland. It’s the only scare park in the world where the scarers are allowed to touch you.
This time I had a feeling I should go and check it out. When I got there all the performers were putting on their make-up and masks and prosthetics and…what I got was a lot of joy and excitement.
Did you get to know them before starting shooting?
Yes, on camera, I spontaneously gravitated towards certain people and they ended up being the main characters in the film. That was quite strange, out of 200 people who work there, the people I went to at the beginning, or came to me, ended up being the main characters.
200 people work there but not on the same night?
No, it’s 60 on a night.
And you focus on 10 main characters in the film. Talk a little bit about them.
I think they are a very special group of people because they are very brave, very young, honest, which makes great artists. They are ready to share very personal things.
And they are all actors, right?
Yes, they are all actors but they haven’t been trained. They auditioned to work at Spookers and then they learnt the job by scaring people. Then they taught each other…
Some of the people in the film refer to themselves as freaks. They are very unusual characters, it’s probably what drew you to make this film.
They are unusual characters, like you and me.
And everyone else!
Who fascinated you the most?
The first who fascinated me was David, who is Zombina. When I saw Zombie Bride in the dark, we met in the dark in an alley way, I thought it was so amazing. Then I got to know him and he’s the most soft and beautiful person…He only dresses up as a female character at Spookers. The character is totally his creation, the clothes, the make-up. He’s such an amazing performer.
The dance you captured in the film is astonishing…
Yes, they had techno music for Halloween once at Spookers and he was dancing like that.
Most of them have deep issues that resonated with the film…and they opened up on camera. Did that surprise you?
Yes it did. Almost everyone has an interesting issue and then the masks, a bit like myself with my video camera, I saw a similarity there. It’s something that lets you be more free, more who you really are.
You found a former psychiatric patient, Debra, who was hospitalised there for 18 years. Tell me her story…
She’s remarkable. For me, she experienced the horror of life but also the magic of life, all in one body and soul. Right now she’s teaching mental health at an university. She lectures there and she’s also helping people who hear voices. She heard voices when she was young and was diagnosed with schizophrenia later on. Her doctors told her patients that their visits upset her and they stopped visiting. But she was not upset by that, she was upset for being there. Now they changed the whole system in the way they deal with mental health patients, now it’s community care. There are still psychiatric hospitals but it’s not for long term, only for short-term.
Debra was adopted twice. Her first adopted parents gave her back and then she was adopted again. You need so much love as a child, and being adopted is hard enough for adopted people, imagine being adopted twice!
In your interview with her, she came across as someone so vibrant and optimistic, she totally blew me away.
Me too. And she only got out because the place closed. She only got well afterwards. The electric shock therapy didn’t help her at all, it was the community that helped her recover.
Half of the people there are Māori and islanders. As a New Zealander, I love Māori, they are amazing on camera, very natural. Most of them don’t have much money. In New Zealand, there’s a problem with poverty. I live in a city and where I live it’s money, money, money, it makes me depressed. It used to be the colourful, artistic, cool part of town and now it’s the trendy, money people. And most of the people in the film have so little money. The park makes money but the actors work only twice a week there. But the background where they come from.
What I found interesting is that this place is a family business.
Yes, the idea was to have a maize, then they asked the local bank manager if it was OK to dress up and scare people with a chainsaw! And there was this guy, a friend, the mayor of the city and his wife Beth, who had the brains. And when that bank manager was chasing people with a chainsaw, the people just loved it, they went crazy for it. And it was supposed to be just one show. Then they realised they can make a business out of it. So they got other friends involved, to dress up, put on masks.
So that was the pilot…which became a series…
Exactly. That’s when they relocated to Auckland and they were looking for a building.
Was it a coincidence that they chose this former psychiatric hospital as their location?
They say it was, yes.
Is it true the place is haunted?
Yes, everyone who works there experiences supernatural things. For me, I could feel the energy was very heavy, different rooms felt different, vibrations or whatever you call it. But other people hear things, see things…There were a lot of intense things that weren’t allowed in the film.
But you didn’t capture any ghosts on camera?
Ghosts or no ghosts, there’s a very dark side to this documentary.
Yes, and come to think of this, New Zealand has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Every day, one and a half people kill themselves. And the government cut funding to mental health. There was a line you ring if you’re feeling depressed and the government took the money from them, they needed to give more money to the rich! We have a very right-wing government that is very money-focused.
I thought Scandinavia had the highest suicide rates…
Actually there’s a Scandinavian country where men live very long and it’s because every night before they go to bed they meet each other and they compliment each other: You’re so wonderful, I love your jacket…And those men live 10 years longer. That would make a good subject for a future documentary!