Florian Habicht has talked more than once about how he takes the most risks when he is holding a camera. Habicht's risk-taking has helped make him one of New Zealand's most distinctive documentarians, partly because he enjoys moving on occasion beyond the literal truth. His films show an interest in memorable images, and the joys and idiosyncracies of human beings — whether they be demolition derby enthusiasts, actors, musicians or fishermen.
Florian Habicht was born in Berlin in 1975, to German/Austrian parents (his father Frank made his name as a photographer, documenting London and Berlin in the 60s). After eight years in Berlin, where his family ran a lively pension, the Habichts relocated to Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands. Childhood dreams of becoming a rock star were abandoned, after he won a place at Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts. Initially he studied photography; much later he spent time at Amsterdam's Binger Filmlab. "Both courses let me experiment, rather than be told 'how to make films'," he has said."I think its nicer to learn the rules later."
At Elam Habicht began making "oddball, slightly surreal love stories" using his classmates — "a family of friends" which sometimes included his father — as actors and collaborators. "Being able to mix photography, music, humour, soft pornography, performance, storytelling and experimentation into one form of expression is what drew me to filmmaking'" he said.
February 2000 saw the debut of Habicht's first feature: the 66-minute Leibesträume - The Absurd Dreams of Killer Ray (2000), inspired by cult entertainer 'Killer Ray' (aka Ramon Ronald Edmundson). Like a number of Habicht's films to come — most notably Rubbings from a Live Man — it mixes drama and documentary, spinning sometimes fantastical tales from the memories of the genre-crossing jazz musician (who died in 2005). The film is not to be confused with early Habicht short film Leibesträume. Habicht has also did time as a wedding photographer.
Habicht was keen to keep making films his own way, using small crews and small cameras. In 2003 he made his breakthrough with the $30,000 black and white fairytale Woodenhead, one of a number of films made with funding from Creative NZ's Screen Innovation Production Fund. As writer Richard King explains here, the soundtrack for this surreal semi-musical was recorded first, then footage shot to match, helping achieve the film's surreal, other- worldly look and feel. Habicht cast non-actors in a number of key roles. The plotline involves a young man who sets off with a beautiful princess and a donkey, through a mythical far north landscape.
Woodenhead was nominated in the Best Digital Feature section of the New Zealand Film and TV Awards, and screened at a number of international festivals; Habicht was named 2004 SPADA New Filmmaker of the Year.
Habicht had already begun shooting footage for Kaikohe Demolition (2004) before filming Woodenhead. A warm-hearted portrait of Kaikohe's demolition derby and the locals who take part, it had sell-out film festival screenings before local release. Costa Botes writes about it here. Habicht has commented on liking the way the film "doesn't have a narrator telling you what to think. It lets the people up north talk for themselves." Kaikohe Demolition went on to win Best Digital Feature at the 2005 New Zealand Screen Awards.
In 2008 Habicht completed collaborative movie Rubbings from a Live Man, in which late Kiwi theatre director and actor Warwick Broadhead tells stories from his life, sometimes while playing another person entirely. Broadhead had earlier acted in Woodenhead. Funding from the NZ Film Commission allowed Habicht to bring in a larger crew, to shoot more elaborate fantasy scenes. After premiering once more at the annual NZ International Film Festival, Rubbings was nominated for best film costing under $1 million at the New Zealand Film and TV Awards.
Land of the Long White Cloud (2009) returns to the Northland locales of Kaikohe Demolition and Habicht's childhood, but moves from crashing cars to a five-day fishing competition held on Ninety Mile Beach. Listener reviewer Helene Wong praised Habicht for bringing "an outsider’s objectivity to his human subjects while using an insider’s ease to engage closely with them, coaxing out their deepest thoughts."
In the same period the director began an open-ended $80,000 residency in New York, as the first recipient of a then little-known scheme dreamt up by arts patron Harriet Friedlander, to give Kiwi artists experience in the international hub. Habicht's feature Love Story was born from this time. Part romance, part celebration of a city, part exploration of improvising a movie into being, the film stars Habicht and Ukrainian Masha Yakovenko, who is spotted on the subway, carrying a slice of cake. Habicht has called it his "most personal film". The process of creating it testified to the director's belief that he operates best on a low budget, "not intellectualising too much"; approaching strangers to interview flowed most when he got into "a child-like intuitive zone".
Love Story was picked to open the 2011 Auckland International Film Festival, where the Herald's Peter Calder noted audiences laughing "and also gasping in amazement at the risky, strange, surprising and wildly romantic ideas sprinkled through it". American mag Variety praised the partly crowd-scripted storytelling as "utterly enchanting and uproariously funny", and called the film "marvellously original"; "Habicht emerges as the funniest and most lovable Kiwi to hit New York since Flight of the Conchords." Local critical response was also enthused. Love Story went on to win Aotearoa awards for Best Feature and Best Director in 2011.
March 2014 saw the debut of Pulp: a Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets. The documentary offers an offbeat portrait of the Britpop group led by Jarvis Cocker, and the city of Sheffield, where they began. Pulp's final concerts were set to occur just two months after Cocker met Habicht and okayed the film, so the director didn't have long to prepare. Variety called the result "artfully witty" and "a beguiling celebration of humanity". Magazine NME named it the best music film of the year; Village Voice judged it one of the ten best films of 2014.
Habicht's 2017 feature Spookers centres on a community of people who scare punters as part of a long-running live horror attraction, based at the former Kingseat psychiatric hospital near Auckland. As with a number of earlier Habicht films, the documentary incorporates fantasy sequences. Spookers debuted in April 2017, at Canadian documentary festival Hot Docs, before local screenings at the NZ International Film Festival.
Florian Habicht website. Accessed 21 July 2017
'Florian Habicht: Actor, Director, Producer, Co-Writer' (broken link). Pictures for Anna website. Accessed 18 August 2015
Peter Calder, 'Watching Brief: Florian owns the Civic' - The NZ Herald, 15 July 2011
Charles Gant, 'SXSW Film Review: 'Pulp' - Variety, 9 March 2014
Janette Howe, 'Directing Love' (Interview) - Take magazine, 2014
Richard Kuipers, 'Review: 'Love Story' - Variety, 20 August 2012
Bernard D McDonald, 'Rage Racers' (Interview) - Pavement issue 49, October 2001, page 108
Steven Shaw, 'Florian Habitch to take Love Story to Hollywood' - Onfilm, 6 October 2011
Helene Wong, 'Coastal heartbeat' (Review of Land of the Long White Cloud) - The Listener, 23 January 2010 (Issue 3637)
Bianca Zander, 'imagine that' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times (Sunday pullout) - 3 August 2008, page 24
Love Story press kit
Writer unknown, 'Innocence of demolition uncovered' - The Dominion Post (TV Week pullout), 25 October 2005, page 5 Story