In his contribution to the recent special issue of the
dedicated to New
Zealand writers, Steve Braunias discusses
for a paragraph or two the film that Paul Janman and I want to make about the Great South Road
. Braunias is himself a veteran explorer of the road, and his essay for the Griffith
describes some of his adventures amongst the car yards and barren parks of South Auckland.
Positive references to the film Paul and I have
provisionally titled Twenty Steps Down
the Great South Road
have turned up elsewhere in print and on the web in
the couple of years since we announced the project. These citations are generous and embarrassing, because we have taken only a few
halting steps down the road of our film.
There are some excuses we can offer for our tardiness. In 2013 Paul was busy promoting Tongan Ark
, his first feature film, with
interviews, festival appearances, and the occasional visit to an outpost of the
Free Church of Tonga, while I was living two and a half thousand kilometres
north of the Great South Road, on an island where the speed limit is forty
kilometres an hour, and where roads are sometimes indistinguishable from pigs’
Steps down the Great South Road
nevertheless begun to seem, to some of my more cynical friends, like a sly joke. Hamish
Dewe, whose cynicism has a sophistication and passion that are almost
overwhelming, asked me whether I’d come up with the idea for the film after
reading Jorge Luis Borges’ short story 'The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim'
purports to be a review of a massive novel about a heretical young Muslim’s
occult journey across India. The novel, of course, didn’t exist. Whenever Borges
had an idea for a long book, he pretended that the book had already been
written and reviewed it in a handful of pages.
Paul Janman and I want to try to prove Hamish
Dewe wrong. Now that I’m back in
Atalanga and Paul has escaped from his Ark
we’ve been making a determined effort to script and shoot our film.
We’re being assisted by Ian Powell
, an artist
and technician famous for his collection of absurdly
outdated cinematographic technology. Some self-consciously reactionary film
makers have rejected digital technology, and rediscovered the video cameras of
the 1980s; for Ian, though, only cameras from the magical decade and a half
after World War Two – only suitcase-sized, Bible-black objects that leave a
purple dent on the shoulder of anyone who shoots a short scene with them – are
worthy of the task of recording the twenty-first century.
Ian’s dearest possession is a Swiss-made
camera that was hauled, because of its reassuring bulk and reputation for
toughness, into the Arctic by a team of BBC journalists in the 1960s, and used
to record the passive-aggressive ‘Cod War’ that saw Icelandic gunboats and
British frigates confronting each other in the northernmost stretches of the
North Sea, as London wrangled with Rejkavik over the boundaries of fishing
grounds. Having survived its tour of duty in the deep north, the camera is, Ian
believes, ready to turn its cold eye on the wilds of South Auckland and the
Ian Powell’s cumbersome, outdated camera
produces film that can only be shown, initially at least, by cumbersome,
outdated machines. Recently he unloaded a carload of his relics – an old,
knock-kneed projector, as well as reel after reel of glistening, rustling film
- at Paul’s house, while the great director attached a white bedsheet to a
dining room wall.
As I switched off the lights and sat beneath
the flickering blue beam that Ian was busy aiming, I tried to remember the name
of the Papakura Community Constable whose visits to our primary school had been
festive occasions back in the 1980s. The old cop would lead us slowly to the school’s
small, stuffy library, wheeze as he stretched to pull the curtains in the high
windows, and play us short films about traffic safety and marijuana that had been
made with an artlessness reminiscent of the great Italian neorealist directors.
As one of the busier sections of Highway One
bumped about on the grey felt screen he had unfolded, our visitor would
describe, in a low, deadpan voice, some of the more spectacular traffic
accidents he had attended. We would gulp and giggle as he explained the various
ways to separate a severed limb from a sliver of steel.
Knowing that the house would be full of kids,
Ian had brought around a reel filled with the 1980 version of Popeye
, in which a florid Robin Williams
thrashes around for hours in a tropical lagoon, waiting for a plot or some
decent special effects to turn up. The kids loved it, and I realised how much I had
missed, in the decades since that community constable’s visits, the soft roar
and skittish images of an old-fashioned cinema.
The evident fragility of Ian’s
desperately whirring projector – the fact that it might, at any moment,
collapse, like an exhausted marathon runner – made the images on the bedsheet
seem all the more beautiful. The machine’s sound became part of the film, as
real and fragile as the waves that slapped the back of the semi-submerged
Williams and the coconut trees that shook their heads wryly at his antics.
was intended as a mere prelude to the New Zealand premiere of Schooner to Tonga
, a documentary film
made in Spanish by an obscure director sometime in the 1960s and discovered in
a small town in the Mexican desert a couple of years ago. After buying the reel
that held the film for a few dollars during a drive through Mexico, an American
collector had contacted Paul, whom he knew as the maker of Tongan Ark
, and offered to send him the artefact.
his find off to Auckland, Paul’s benefactor played the film’s first few minutes
onto a wall, recorded them with a video camera, and posted the resulting
footage on youtube. I blogged about this eerie fragment
, which shows a group of
young men and women touring an Auckland that is alternately psychedelically
bright and penumbral, last year. The rest of Tongan Schooner
is reputed to show a journey around the Friendly
Islands, a place seldom professionally photographed, let alone filmed, in the
As Ian carefully fitted the reel that held Schooner to Tonga
to his projector, Paul
hummed excitedly. As soon as the reel began to turn, though, Paul’s
bedsheet turned an almost fluorescent shade of white, and the room was filled
with the sort of terrible shriek my cat makes when it gets its tail caught in
the fridge. Ian was soon dismantling and packing up his projector, and
explaining to Paul, in a suitably compassionate voice, that Schooner to Tonga
had been so damaged by
Mexican dust and sunlight that it would have to be meticulously restored by
I hope that Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road
premieres before Schooner to Tonga
. We're filming on Saturday: wish us luck.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]