Florian Habicht's films mix his interest in showcasing the country and its people — whether demo derby enthusiasts, fishermen or legends from the stage — with his own, distinctive take on the documentary genre.
Habicht was born in Berlin in 1975 to German/Austrian parents (his father Frank made his name in Europe as a photographer documenting London and Berlin in the 60s). When Florian was eight, the Habichts relocated to Pahia in the Bay of Islands. Childhood dreams of becoming a rock star were abandoned after he won a place at Auckland's Elam Art school. Initially he studied photography; later he would spend time at Amsterdam's Binger Filmlab. Habicht has said that "both courses let me experiment, rather than be told 'how to make films'. I think its nicer to learn the rules later."
At Elam Habicht began making "oddball, slightly surreal love stories" using his classmates (and sometimes his father) as actors and collaborators. The most ambitious of these was the 66-minute Leibestraume - The Absurd Dreams of Killer Ray (2000), about cult performer 'Killer Ray' Edmundson. Like a number of Habicht's films to come — notably Rubbings from a Live Man — the film mixes drama and documentary, as it spins sometimes fantastical tales from the life of the genre-crossing jazz musician (who died in 2005). The film is not to be confused with early Habicht short Leibestraume.
After leaving Elam, Habicht was keen to keep making films his own way, with small crews and small cameras. In 2003 he made his breakthrough with rule-breaking digital feature Woodenhead. The soundtrack for this surreal semi-musical was recorded first, then footage shot to match, helping achieve the film's surreal, otherworldly 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 mute 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.
With his next film, 2004's Kaikohe Demolition, Habicht brought his distinctive talents to documentary. A warm-hearted portrait of Kaikohe's demolition derby and those taking part, it had sell-out film festival screenings before local release. Costa Botes writes about it here. Habicht has argued that he likes 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 New Zealand Screen Awards.
In 2008, Habicht completed Rubbings from a Live Man, in which late Kiwi theatre director and actor Warwick Broadhead retells his life story, as well as playing most of the characters in it. Habicht had earlier cast him 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 (under $1 million) at the New Zealand Film and TV Awards.
In July 2009 he made Land of the Long White Cloud. The documentary returns to the Northland locales of Kaikohe Demolition, but moves on from crashing cars to a five-day fishing competition held on 90 Mile Beach. In The Listener, 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." Around the same time the director began a year long residency in New York, as the first recipient of a scheme dreamt up by late arts benefactor Harriet Friedlander to give New Zealand artists experience in the international hub.
Habicht's feature Love Story was born from his time in New York. Part memoir, part romance, part exploration of improvising a movie into being, the film stars Habicht and Russian-born Masha Yakovenko, who is spotted on the subway, carrying a slice of cake. Habicht has called it "the most personal film I've made". 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". Local critical response was enthusiastic, and the film went on to win Aotearoa awards for Best Feature and Best Director of 2011.
March 2014 saw the debut screenings of Habicht's Pulp: a Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets. As well as the above topics, the film offers an offbeat portrait of the group led by Jarvis Cocker, and the city of Sheffield, where they began. Pulp's final concerts were occuring in Sheffield just two months after Cocker okayed the film, so Habicht didn't have long to get prepared. Variety called the result "artfully witty" and "a beguiling celebration of humanity". Pulp had its Kiwi premiere during the 2014 round of the NZ International Film Festival, and later got an honourable mention at the Athens International Film Festival. Village Voice judged it one of the ten best films of 2014.
Habicht's next feature Spookers centres on a group of people who work at a live horror attraction near Auckland. It is set to debut in April 2017, at Canadian documentary festival Hot Docs.
Florian Habicht website. Accessed 22 March 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
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)