Finding everyday magic in the ruins of Christchurch

Film makers Adam Luxton and Summer Agnew wanted to know what lies beneath the "primordial" Southern Ocean.
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Film makers Adam Luxton and Summer Agnew wanted to know what lies beneath the "primordial" Southern Ocean.

A homesick film maker looked for new meanings in New Zealand. PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.

One of the finds of this year's New Zealand International Film Festival is a "speculative documentary" that grew out of failure and nostalgia. Film maker Adam Luxton explains that he was living in Berlin when he conceived a project about New Zealand experimental musicians from the so-called "noise" scene, who he admired in a romantic way for their tenacity and isolation. He pictured them in their semi-rural South Island locations.

"There was a little bit of nostalgia and homesickness," he says. 

Coral is pulled up from the seabed and examined in On An Unknown Beach.
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Coral is pulled up from the seabed and examined in On An Unknown Beach.

That film did not pan out, but Lyttelton sound artist Bruce Russell emerged from that failed project to be one of three stars of On An Unknown Beach, Luxton and co-director Summer Agnew's speculative documentary. In one strand of the film, Russell walks through the quiet ruins of post-earthquake Christchurch and constructs abrasive sound art from old, possibly obsolete equipment.

In another strand, marine scientist Di Tracey surveys a seabed that has been ravaged by trawling. As she sits in front of a screen, dictating what she sees, her words "sand, coral, rubble, sand, sand ..." start to resemble Russell's sound poetry. Both are "applying processes to describe the unknown", as Luxton says. 

Luxton and Agnew previously collaborated on the film Minginui, which screened to much acclaim during the festival in 2005. For the Di Tracey sequences, they spent three weeks on a research ship as it sailed rough waters south-east of New Zealand. For the third strand, Luxton and Agnew brought in David Hornblow​, an occasional actor and qualified drug and alcohol counsellor. He created an "apocryphal" character and was given different terrain to examine. 

Lyttelton sound artist Bruce Russell, right, pictured performing with The Dead C, is the intellectual heart of On An ...
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Lyttelton sound artist Bruce Russell, right, pictured performing with The Dead C, is the intellectual heart of On An Unknown Beach.

"We said to him, 'Do you want to come down to Motueka and get hypnotised?' The actual hypnotherapy session is not staged and that created a wealth of material that came out of the depths of his own psyche."

It is about exploration – of the sea, of sound and of oneself. Luxton and Agnew felt like explorers as well, never quite sure where they were heading and discovering meanings and connections only as Luxton edited the film back in Berlin. 

In one sequence, Russell browses the Charity Barn in Linwood and says: "There's something very Christchurch about the idea of an outdoor junk shop. Everything was outdoors after the earthquake. Christchurch was turned into a shanty town for weeks. Some of it still is." 

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Russell is a philosopher who can't help searching for meaning, even in boxes of crockery and glasses. He muses about his interests in alchemy and Renaissance philosophy that have probably baffled fans of his noise music acts The Dead C and A Handful of Dust. What is the connection between modern noise and that old philosophy? 

"For me it's the heart of the film, this intellectual bomb that he lets off while strolling around in the junk shop," Luxton says. "When I think about what the film means to me personally, I think about it as a post-rationalist poem. It's the idea of finding magic in the everyday." 

One of Russell's former collaborators, musician and songwriter Peter Jefferies​, inadvertently supplied the title. His song On An Unknown Beach comes from his album The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World. Strangely enough, it has been covered by Amanda Palmer. It suits this melancholy and thoughtful film, as it suggests privacy and exploration. 

"It always seemed appropriate. There is a scene right at the start with a dog on the beach looking at the waves. That felt like such a primordial image, of looking and wondering."

Given the experimental nature of it, Luxton and Agnew were nervous before the first festival screening in Auckland and the Q and A session that followed. But they were encouraged that viewers found their own logic in it and were "blown away" by the enthusiasm of Metro critic David Larsen, who called it one of his festival highlights. 

As for Luxton, his partner has just had a baby and he is back from Berlin for good, looking for a city to live in. There is a powerful scene in the film, almost like a dream sequence, in which Hornblow runs past rows of bland new houses on the outskirts of Auckland. "The film started as nostalgia for New Zealand and that is the imagery I was greeted with when I returned in real life. I guess it's reality biting." 

He wonders if Christchurch might appeal instead. "In a way, it reminds me of Berlin," he says. "This broken space. How there is potential in a place that is not organised properly yet."

ON AN UNKNOWN BEACH has four screenings in Wellington on August 6 and 7 and two screenings in Christchurch on August 9. Luxton will be in attendance. 

 - Stuff

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