What the Digital Allows: Two Recent Films
By Jo Smith
Within the context of Aotearoa/New Zealand, the rhetoric surrounding digital technologies is oftentimes caught up within nationalistic discourses that celebrate the New Zealand ‘brand’ on a world stage (witness the celebratory excesses surrounding Weta Workshops and Peter Jackson). The risk of wrapping the concept of kiwi ingenuity around the promises of new technologies is an intoxicating idea for those who seek to identify the quintessential differences of a national product to sell to an international market. At a more local level, the availability of digital recording and post-production technologies has spawned the lo-fi aesthetic of the Aro Valley filmmakers and Gregory King, who have produced visions of every-day life unhinged from the commercial imperatives of mainstream New Zealand feature film production.(2) The accessibility of the Internet also allows emerging and low budget film producers to access a wide range of potential consumers. Recent initiatives by the New Zealand Film Commission to fund websites that promote emerging filmmakers and their product internationally must also be counted as part of the digital “revolution” shaping contemporary film culture. In addition, DVD formatting and the range of special features, additional footage and commentary that the DVD enables, promises to place pressure on theatrical modes of distribution and exhibition in years to come (perhaps foreshadowed in recent clamp-downs on DVD piracy).
Filmmakers in Aotearoa/New Zealand can use these low cost production and distribution methods to bypass national funding institutions and gain an audience eager for visions of the everyday uncluttered by pre-conceived notions of what might count as representative of a nation. Questions can be framed as follows: is digital filmmaking able to pose a challenge to the national orthodoxies (commercial and creative) underpinning government funded film initiatives? What new visions of New Zealand society and what fresh approaches to filmmaking do digital technologies enable? Or, given that the New Zealand film industry has harnessed its orthodox notion of kiwi ingenuity to the potential held by digital technologies, do discussions of digital technologies (and the films produced with these technologies) simply replicate and proliferate nationalist discourses? Finally, is there a balance to be found between these options? Can digital production, distribution and consumption function within the constraints of the national frame while placing pressure on these frameworks to urge its audience to revisit the assumptions that they have about what are national orthodoxies?
The work of Florian Habicht demonstrates this final option most convincingly in his dual ability to attract government funding to produce highly original cinematic depictions of the landscapes and people of Aotearoa/New Zealand. With a German background and childhood roots in Northland, Habicht is an odd mix of influences. His use of digital technologies not only produces an original cinema that blurs fact and fiction, reality and imagination, but it also expresses a collective vision that captures a community of interests outside of the norms of mainstream New Zealand society.
DVD formatting and the vaudeville roots of cinema
Billed as a “grimm musical fairy tale”, Woodenhead premiered in the Auckland International Film Festival in 2003 with much of the pre-screening hype generated by word-of-mouth and an artful poster campaign. The film is notable for the out-of-sync sound and image relationship due to the sound track having been recorded prior to filming the live action. This production method produces a dream-like cinematic world where sound and image interact in an almost hallucinogenic fashion. Shot on digital video and then de-interlaced and de-saturated to give it a celluloid quality, the final black and white footage depicts a New Zealand landscape with a fantastical feel suitable to the fairytale narrative that unfolds. The plot involves an innocent dump hand (Gert), and his mission to guide the dump boss’s daughter (Plum) to her wedding. Even though Gert has explicit instructions not to touch her, a malevolent character working for Plum’s father intervenes in his mission and Gert and Plum have sex. A strongman, who has escaped from a traveling circus, then abducts Plum. Gert saves Plum, who then saves Gert (by agreeing to marry her father’s henchman). Gert then returns to the dump. Shot on a budget of $30,000 (with $25,000 from Creative New Zealand’s Screen Innovation Production Fund), additional funding from the New Zealand Film Commission enabled Habicht to produce a website that continues the aesthetic design of the film, which also carries over into the DVD packaging and poster campaign (designed by Teresa Peters). The website (www.picturesforanna.com) hosts a variety of materials on both Woodenhead and Kaikohe Demolition and includes film reviews, DVD sales information, news updates (including information on how you can add your vote to the user ratings of Kaikohe Demolition on the International Movie Database site). In terms of disseminating and profiling his works the website goes far in maintaining and proliferating the artistic presence of Habicht and his collaborators.
From film to website to DVD and poster, every media format is informed by a “variety show” styled bill of attractions that directly connects new technologies with an historical aesthetic that references earlier forms of popular culture. In the instance of the website’s opening page a prominent black and white photo of a tattooed woman dominates the page, making reference to nineteenth century visual culture by featuring a character most often found in a traveling sideshow or carnival. This website illustration echoes the oddball circus characters that feature in the film itself as well as the quirky characters in Habicht’s earlier works (most significantly, eccentric musical cult hero Killer Ray). This sideshow aesthetic and these characters are indicative of Habicht’s recurring obsession with the margins of society. As partner and collaborator Teresa Peters puts it, “Florian likes to celebrate the quirks of humanity […] So many people don’t read that as a language, but his films are full of that. Documenting craziness or idiosyncrasies.”(4) The special features of the DVD version of Woodenhead enable Habicht to pursue his love of the odd and uniquely talented as well as extend his interest in the multi-act format of vaudeville.
When buying the DVD version of Woodenhead consumers get the standard “behind the scenes” documentary, trailer, music video and director’s commentary along with more novel additional features. The menu page of the DVD is again in the style of a circus bill of attractions and features collages of black and white images where film characters’ faces appear attached to bodies other than their own. The menu page contains special feature options that include Habicht’s earlier short Liebestraume (featuring out-of-sync sound and image and dreamscapes reminiscent of early David Lynch). The DVD also includes footage of Killer Ray in Thailand, stills and artwork by Habicht and Peters, the short film “Horoscopes with Lutz” which features the voice of Woodenhead’s radio presenter and Woodenhead lead Nicholas Butler. The menu option “Circus Acts” is an explicit reference to the variety of performances showcased on the DVD and this option includes dance performances and a music video that builds on the cinematic world conjured up by Woodenhead (albeit in colour this time) and which feature Woodenhead’s choreographer and Woodenhead musicians. The consumer is thus presented with a range of media content and a colorful cast of characters that demonstrate the collective efforts of the Woodenhead team. Through a combined viewing of the DVD extras, Habicht appears as cheerful ringleader to an otherwise chaotic mix of larger-than-life characters dedicated to the art of creative expression. While named “Florian Habicht’s grimm musical fairy tale” on the film’s artwork, the DVD’s content clearly demonstrates the collective nature of Woodenhead’s world. Rather than approaching Florian Habicht as an auteur, the formatting of the DVD suggests that one might consider the name Florian Habicht as an assemblage of multiple personalities and personae, an assemblage that perhaps fulfils the popular investment of a democratic spirit that informs the rhetoric surrounding digital technologies.
Digicams, DVDs and cinematic democracy
The last “command” in the Dogma ‘95 manifesto accentuates the collective nature of filmmaking in its decrees that the director must not be credited. Von Trier and Vinterberg (along with many others) consider the concept of the auteur a product of bourgeois romanticism. Critiquing the French New Wave for their reliance on individual films to contest bourgeois cinema, the manifesto states:
With a rhetorical style that echoes the manifestos of earlier enthusiasts of cinema Dziga Vertov and his Kinoks, Dogma ‘95 credits digital video with the powers of providing greater access to creative expression for those who might otherwise be excluded from the expensive art of celluloid filmmaking. This greater accessibility would henceforth dethrone the prestige and privileges attached to the figure of the auteur. Or so the rhetoric surrounding digital technologies would suggest. However, one must be cautious of the utopic tone of von Trier’s and Vinterberg’s manifesto (allegedly written in 25 minutes with frequent bursts of laughter) at the same time as acknowledge that the doxy of Dogma ‘95 functions as a provocation to push the boundaries of film production processes.(8) The constraints that the “Vows of Chastity” place on the filmmaker act as productive limits in order to forge new visions of cinema. The suggestion that the “technological storm” that is digital innovation can democratise cinema must also be approached as perhaps an ideal and yet provocative call to arms to filmmakers and film viewers alike. In the case of Habicht’s filmmaking to date, it is tempting to make the case that while he in no way attempts to make Dogma films, his digicam process, his repertory approach to acting and his attention to DVD formatting echo the democratising spirit that Dogma ‘95 sought to imbue digital technologies with.
The special features of the DVD version of Woodenhead highlight Habicht’s production techniques as collaborative processes. Habicht’s core collaborators include Teresa Peters (art director), Marc Chesterman (music and co-sound design), Chris Pryor (DOP and co-editor) and Jeffrey Holdaway (sound engineer). The DVD’s long winded “making of” documentary highlights these contributors and delves into the process of recording the audio script prior to filming live action as well as interviews with most of the cast and crew. As such, the extra features of the Woodenhead DVD documents a kind of community of creative individuals who are organized by Habicht into producing a cinematic world never before seen in New Zealand filmmaking practices. Habicht plans to use this same core group for his pending documentary production Land of the Long White Cloud(9) and Chesterman, Pryor and Holdaway feature in the second film completed by Habicht, the documentary Kaikohe Demolition (2004), a film that depicts a different kind of community than that of Woodenhead’s world while still maintaining a recognisable “Habicht” vision. Made in the space of three years, Kaikohe Demolition documents a small Northland town that became notorious when its children attacked a Santa at the Christmas parade when he ran out of sweets. The documentary provides a counterview of this lower socio-economic population (primarily Maori) by focusing on the community spirit behind the demolition derby car club that meets frequently to compete for prize money. The film makes compelling viewing due to the charismatic figures of Demo men Ben Haretuku, “Uncle” Bimm and John Zielinski and the poetic depiction of demolition cars moving in tune with a haunting soundtrack.
Produced on a budget of $7,500 (again, with the aid of Creative New Zealand’s Screen Innovation Production Fund), Kaikohe manages to turn economic constraints into aesthetic choices through the use of digital technologies. The discrete digital filming technologies used by the two-man film crew generate an atmosphere of intimacy that could also be attributed to a shared appreciation for machinery and technology. Habicht notes in one interview, “we were just boys with our toys and so were the Kaikohe Demo men!”(10) While this may suggest the potential for a celebratory take on masculinity and machinery (as well as risk a romanticised depiction of life on the poverty line), the film manages to produce images of spectacular automotive action and car-men culture at the same time as gesture to the larger socio-economic context out of which man and machine come together. This attention to context is also continued in the DVD version of the film, which includes coverage of the premier screening of Kaikohe at the Auckland International Film Festival and voice-over commentary from participants that add an additional layer of intimacy to an already intimate feature film.
In an interview featured on the DVD version of Kaikohe, Habicht admits that he never really knew what kind of film he had made until he attended the film’s premiere, suggesting that the reception of the film was as much a creative act as the making of the film itself. The documentary aesthetic Habicht deploys, along with the DVD extra features that promote the film as a community initiative, produces a participatory style of filmmaking that is then captured in the footage of the film’s premiere. The kind of film that Habicht has made is one where the participants hold centre stage and where the hand of the auteur is simply another tool for the participants to use. This is demonstrated in premiere footage when Habicht makes a brief speech and then quickly hands over control to two of his key participants, John and Uncle Bimm, who introduce other members of the demolition club. In this live performance the participants are the focus while Habicht fades into the background, a characteristic also of the documentary aesthetic deployed where Habicht chooses direct-to-camera address for the participants and avoids the voice-over method.
The participatory form of filmmaking that the DVD special features enable provides a refreshing approach to the documentary tradition and allows Habicht to maintain a role as a mediator between the camera technology, the members of the Kaikohe Car Club and the implicit audience “to come” that forms part of any creative process. In addition to the footage of the film’s premiere, Habicht also takes a backseat in the DVD commentary track accompanying the documentary, which instead features Ben, Uncle Bimm and John (and the occasional quip from Habicht) and adds another layer of information or observation to the live action footage. These commentaries extend and upgrade the initial observations on life in Kaikohe at the same time as providing a commentary on what it is like to be caught onscreen. In foregrounding the demo car club members, Habicht has created a film that acts as a gift to the community from which it emerged and is a treasured viewing experience for its national and international audiences. In doing so, Habicht manages to produce a reverse-shot of that “white neurotic industry” that Merata Mita defined Pakeha cinema as in her landmark essay “The Soul and the Image”(11) Where Mita saw films such as An Angel At My Table and Smash Palace as demonstrating an industry obsessed with making films about white men and women at odds with their environment, their country, or themselves, Kaikohe Demolition celebrates the community spirit and the creative energies of a small town while gesturing to the larger socio-economic conditions facing its members. This is cinema deeply embedded in the environment and the people of Kaikohe, an embedded-ness that comes from the digital technologies used to produce it. Perhaps, in these techniques, Habicht (understood as an assemblage of community, technology and filmmaker) achieves a kind of democratic spirit that decentres prevailing national orthodoxies.
Digicams, DVDs and cinematic democracy
Matthews’s observations strike at the heart of the mongrel roots of cinema where creative energies and economic constraints consistently inform one another, leading to national cinemas that are anxious to identify a brand rather than express a variety of ways of being in the world. With a funding regime that highlights experimental works freed from the constraints of commercial imperatives (SIPF), and through the use of cheap and accessible digital technologies that can bring these creative energies to life, Habicht has sidestepped the naval gazing tendencies of a national cinema while still remaining connected to the circumstances out of which his filmmaking emerges. This technique is particularly effective in Kaikohe Demolition.
While the recent NZFC funded feature film In My Father’s Den (2004) revisits the trope of “unease” introduced in Sam Neill’s and Judy Rymer’s Cinema of Unease (1995), Habicht’s Kaikohe Demolition (2004) goes some way to decentre this tradition. If, as Duncan Petrie defines it, Neil and Rymer’s film “foregrounds a history marked by social conformity, Puritanism, fear, insanity and violence”(13), Kaikohe Demolition foregrounds the possibilities of an affirmative approach to life in the face of social inequities. As a film that documents a primarily Maori community, Habicht uses an unobtrusive filming style to capture the spectacular car collisions of the Kaikohe Demolition Derby and, more importantly, allows the men (and women) of a small town in Northland to express their exuberance for life.
The film begins with a black screen over which the sound of a karanga welcomes the viewer. Editing then fades into one of the signature landscape shots of Northland that Habicht introduced us to in Woodenhead. This time landscape shots include the Nga Wha Hot Pools and the bubbling sound of the springs is overlaid with one of the recurring guitar chords that punctuate the landscape shots and narrative transitions of the film. This first guitar chord sequence signals the arrival of a group of young men climbing down the hill to enter an iron-clad building. As the motley crew enters, they pass an elderly man dressed in a bathing suit, looking into the distance. The bathing-suited fellow appears out of place in this shot as the identity of the building, as a bathing area, has not yet been made clear. No one acknowledges his presence (an action notable for a film set in a small town in the North Island), and his presence in the landscape demonstrates the surreal sense of humour and fascination with the odd and the elderly that Habicht introduced audiences to in his earlier work (such as Liebestraume which features his father Frank Habicht). Moments such as these indicate the blend of reality and fiction that characterizes Habicht’s filmmaking, and in Kaikohe this blend lends a touch of the remarkable to the banalities of the everyday and challenges the national orthodoxy of keeping truth and fiction separate.(14)
According to Habicht, shooting the documentary on digital video enabled him to use the reality-effects of video to disguise the more fantastical elements of the documentary. When discussing his next venture Habicht notes:
A “Florian Habicht kind of way” means that Habicht will draw upon the skills of his Woodenhead collaborators for his new project and that he will pursue an aesthetic that consistently asks its audience to suspend prevailing notions of what constitutes reality. Kaikohe Demolition continues this Habicht style in the striking juxtaposition of demo race footage, where fantasies reign supreme, and direct-to-camera conversations, that draw from the reality-effects of documentary.
While interviews with demo men in the Hot Pools clearly mark the film within the documentary genre, initial scenes of demolition racing have a post-apocalyptic and otherworldly quality to them. In one of the first sequences to feature racing scenes, windowless and battered demo cars crawl around a muddy track and are juxtaposed to footage of John and Uncle in a demo-ready Ford Holden Camira inviting the film crew to have a “blat” around the track. The sequence then transitions into striking slow motion footage of multicolored demo cars moving in a perpetual circle or sliding transversally across the muddied track. Accompanying this footage is a dream-like sound track featuring female vocals (Po Roa aka Andrea Tunks). The sampled sound of a bogun car horn morphs and entwines itself with the background brass instrumentation and vocals, turning the signature sounds of petrol head culture into an artistic expression with otherworldly qualities. This sound track (Chesterman and Habicht wrote the song for this sequence), coupled with footage of colliding cars and steaming radiators, allows the audience to invest more poetic sensibilities into the scenes of automotive violence. The final racing sequence of the film is a more ferocious affair and is filmed in real time accompanied by a rock music track whose lyrics declare, “I can do anything that I want”. The car sequences thus become the arena for fantastical investments on the part of the demo car participants as well as the film viewer, while the interview sequences help to construct the larger socio-cultural conditions out of which these activities emerge.
Ben Haretuku provides the most philosophical commentary on life in Kaikohe, the negative connotations attached to the town (and the term “bouncer”) and the pleasures of the demolition derby. After a sequence involving John and Uncle using a chainsaw to retread a demo car’s tyre, shots of the Kaikohe landscape and an impending storm function to underscore the rural setting of the township. These shots include the darkening skies over an empty football field, an abandoned car sitting peacefully in the verdant green grass, a dead cow floating in a creek and the corrugated cladding of the Nga Wha Hot Pools. We then meet Ben in a bubbling hot pool where he introduces himself and tries to explain to the film crew the pleasure he derives from competing in races. His initial conversation revolves around derby culture but in subsequent interviews he touches on his job as a doorman, his leadership of an anger management group, the poverty of the township and the affluence of the surrounding Bay of Islands area (including Keri Keri, Paihia and Waitangi). Ben is also the character who retells the story of the attack on Santa Claus by Kaikohe kids in 1991. In keeping with the counter narrative that the film presents of a community-minded Kaikohe, Ben explains how the joys of his simple life in Northland (“Kaikohe is the centre of everything”) outweigh the adventures of his overseas experiences. Given the charismatic screen presence of Ben, the enthusiasm and joy of Uncle Bimm and John, and the footage of a community joined together in the pleasures of Derby Day, the film does much to alleviate the negative stereotypes surrounding the town (and demolition derby culture). To underscore this counter narrative, the documentary ends with a Christmas parade and shots of Kaikohe children and Santa Claus on a beach.
Kaikohe Demolition screened on national television in October 2004, fulfilling a promise made by Habicht to his cast that they would be on television. Each medium of release (theatrical, televisual and DVD) has inspired a warm reception from the audience who appreciate that this is a story told by insiders of demolition car racing culture. Yet it is the DVD version, with its capacity for presenting extended footage and including voice-over commentaries by the cast that highlights the collective nature of the production process. The coverage of the Kaikohe premiere most tellingly demonstrates how filmmaking practices can form synergistic relationships with the community that a film seeks to depict. The commentary tracks (at times featuring candid remarks from the cast about their onscreen representations, at other times fleshing out the details of demolition techniques) extend the participatory powers of Ben, Uncle and John, adding another layer of intimacy to the film. The blend of fantasy and reality (enabled by digital video formatting) offers the viewer an invigorated approach to small town New Zealand, free of cliché and affirmative without becoming overly celebratory. By focusing on a community event and the charismatic individuals who live there, Kaikohe provides a candid and poetic depiction of a lower socio-economic region of New Zealand rich in community spirit.
As a filmmaker with an eye to the possibilities of what digital technologies can allow, Habicht has produced two feature films that capture the creative possibilities that the rhetoric surrounding new media consistently proclaim. Not only that, Habicht’s awareness of the multi-form nature of contemporary entertainment highlights the conditions of contemporary cinematic production. The special features of the DVD versions of his films draw our attention to the larger political economy out of which these films emerge. These low-budget productions pose a potentially political challenge to the orthodoxies of State-funded cinema in their potential to present the off-screen space of the national imaginary (a Germanic New Zealand landscape in the case of Woodenhead and an affirmative depiction of small-town New Zealand in the case of Kaikohe Demolition). Working within a community of creative people (be they Woodenhead’s or demo men), Habicht’s digital cinema demonstrates how one can make cinema in New Zealand that is not obsessed with defining the nature of this place but which is concerned with affirming the potential life worlds that exist within the everyday of Aotearoa/New Zealand.