Cult figure Bill Direen and the South Island road trip of a lifetime

Bill Direen stars in a new documentary by Simon Ogston, A Memory of Others. It screens in Christchurch this weekend as ...
Simon Ogston

Bill Direen stars in a new documentary by Simon Ogston, A Memory of Others. It screens in Christchurch this weekend as part of the NZ International Film Festival.

Bill Direen has a distinctive manner and bearing.

Quietly spoken, thoughtful, intellectual and serious, every word he utters feels considered, full of gravitas. There's a sense that, even when discussing the mundane nuances of everyday life, something mysterious and poetic is whirling in motion inside him, unseen.

Early on in Simon Ogston's cinematic Bellbird Pictures masterpiece, A Memory of Others, we find prolific poet, script-writer, author and musician Direen alone at his homely kitchen table in Dunedin, blobs of blue ink freshly spilt upon a page of lyrics.

You can almost feel the Dunedin air crisp with frost and the brittle warmth offered by a two-bar heater.

Direen, with his guitar hanging loosely about his hip and the top three buttons of his shirt undone, changes before our eyes from a quiet man in brown trousers into the cult figure who once mesmerised crowds in Berlin and Paris, a mercurial performer part New Zealand's answer to Tom Waits and part Cormac McCarthy.

His lip snarls, his artfully selected words spit fiercely from his tongue and a hand tightens about his jacket collar provocatively as the most glorious guitar sounds fill the air. When Direen instructs you to "do the alligator", you do it.

"I think primarily it was that he is quite unique, he spans rock music and literary genres," explains Ogston when asked to articulate why he wanted to document Direen's life.
"There are not too many novelists out there who play rock music and vice versa. I assumed he would be an articulate and thoughtful individual who would have interesting things to say and that turned out to be the case."

Every time he performs, Direen admits over the phone, there is a moment when he is afraid.

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"Afraid that it is all going to collapse around my ears, that I will not remember the words to songs, or the structure of the music, or fail to communicate with the other musicians. Perhaps that insecurity is part of it. But they never do collapse, the musicians send out the communication tendrils and we are soon cooking away."

Ogston has somehow managed to capture the essence of Direen's solitary creative spirit on film during their musical road trip last year and it's compelling viewing.

Rather than simply document Direen's sprawling creative output, Ogston has himself created a piece of art.

South Islanders rarely see themselves on film. The scenic beauty we often take for granted in our own backyards regularly serves as a grand backdrop to big budget flicks, but it is imminently delightful to see an alternative Kiwi figure such as Direen, one of many Flying Nun pioneers, star on the big screen.

There Direen is, the man at the front of such groups as Vacuum, The Bilders and many, many more, his long black jacket digging at his calves, as he stands on a stark clifftop in the middle of a Dunedin winter.

Watching Direen stride across a deserted road, wheeling his amp into the back of a not-so-reliable Honda Odyssey, he's about to embark on a journey so many of our musicians make in the south - a winter tour which can be fraught financially and physically taxing.

"It was a complicated tour for me and Bill to organise," says Ogston. "We hadn't even met."

Before setting off on their road-trip film voyage last year, which features interviews with Hamish Kilgour, John Chrisstoffels, Nick Bollinger and others, Ogston filmed Direen painstakingly fixing the Oydssey letters to the rear of his car.

There's something magnificent and unassumingly New Zealand about this film and, in particular, this cinematic moment.

"The film was an odyssey for both of us, I think," Ogston says. "That car... we had our hands full just keeping it going. I remember a moment in Oamaru where I thought I was going to pass out from the stress."

Christchurch is the hometown of both Direen and Ogston. Ogston first recalls linking Direen's name with his beloved grandparents, Bill and Doreen.

"I often heard his name growing up in Christchurch and his name has always stuck with me because of the interesting coincidence with my grandparents' names," Ogston says. "I thought people would be aware of Bill's name and I've been a little surprised at journalists and people I've spoken to who have never heard of him. That garage rock, late 70s, early 80s with The Bilders... that's terrific rock music, Velvet Underground, Television-influenced post punk rock 'n roll as good as anything out there. His contemporaries, people like Chris Knox, the Clean, the Chills have a higher profile. Bill cast his net a bit wider and tried a whole bunch of genres and perhaps made it difficult for his fanbase to keep up with what he's doing."

Having followed Ogston throughout his filmmaking career, I note he is often drawn to documenting creative New Zealanders who live outside the mainstream, existing on the fringes.

"Partly it is dissatisfaction with what's served up by the mainstream," he admits. "I enjoy the process really, recontextualising the work of people who I think are interesting, who I admire. Presenting a selection of Bill's material in one place which is a bit more accessible for people. That's probably a good description of what I've done in all my films."

A Memory of Others, shot with Jeff Smith, is Ogston's sixth film. While his previous works have been self-funded, this time he's had backing from Creative NZ and the NZ Film Commission and is immensely grateful for the support. His next film, planned for release in December, is about Phil Judd.

"A Memory of Others is my attempt to make a work of art rather than just a piece of archived material, it's something a little poetic."

Its title comes from one of the prolific Direen's books, but there are other meanings, too.

One of the many highlights of the film is Direen reciting Janet Frame's words in a typical small-town South Island community building, beautiful simplicity laid bare. 

"It was his determination to expand the scope of the film to take in others like James K Baxter," says Ogston. "Bill was keen to have the light shine on others and not just himself, a memory of others is about that in a way."

But Christchurch also looms large in Direen's memories.

Striding around in a yellow hard hat and hi-viz vest inside the Christchurch Town Hall as it is being rebuilt, Direen sings in the manner of a old-time showman: "Trouble, trouble, upper Christchurch explain. It does not hurt, there is no pain... Christchurch complains... Christchurch remains... dollarised, colourised, now showing."

As a teenaged thespian, Direen was the first to tread the boards at the Christchurch Town Hall on its opening night in 1972.
He was also instrumental in Christchurch's experimental theatre group, The Blue Ladder Theatre, among others.

"We were able to rent, from Anthony Gough, a space on Cashel Street, rather cheaply," Direen recalls. "The Clean rehearsed there more than once. It was these spaces which lent themselves to such pursuits. The council should invest in these spaces now and Christchurch would flourish from it, I'm sure."

Droning bass, surging guitars, darkly bleak and largely instrumental is generally how we like our soundscapes here in the south island and A Memory of Others captures this spirit beautifully.

Our artists, poets, writers and musicians, flourish in society's gaps and in isolation, darting away from the limelight in favour of honourable artistic endeavour.

To his substantial credit, Ogston's films offer rare glimpses of our creative outsiders, souls who stoically survive on limited funds, driven by a desire to create art.

But, driven as he is to document our creative outsiders, Ogston allows us to glimpse ourselves too, rising stoically from the swamp.

From his home in Middlemarch, Direen says he has a "baby grand" piano and "tinkle away or work on song lyrics or poems there".

"Not being a best-selling writer or poet, one has to be resourceful to survive, so I have turned my hand to plenty of different things. It keeps me fit."

Ogston says "any number of things" could have derailed the project. Friends and family were enlisted to help in various ways, too.

He describes the Christchurch scenes in A Memory of Others as "the film's centrepiece".

"Bill's identified with Christchurch, people should be proud of him. He's an example of a reasonably small number of people who've had a huge influence on the culture of the city."


Bill Direen performs at Christchurch venue, The Darkroom, St Asaph St on Sunday, August 20.
A Memory of Others screens at Hoyts Northlands tonight, Saturday, August 19 at 6pm and at 5.30pm tomorrow, Sunday, August 20 as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. The screenings will be followed by a Q&A session with Direen and Ogston.

Simon Ogston's documentaries include:
1. A Memory of Others, about literary and musical figure, Bill Direen.
2. Gone with the Weird about 90s Christchurch band, Squirm.
3. Rumble and Bang about 60s Christchurch band Chants R&B.
4. Sheen of Gold about Skeptics.
5. A rockumentary profiling notorious 1960s group - Invercargill's Unknown Blues - and their equally infamous biker mates, the Antarctic Angels.
6. Philip Dadson: Sonics From Scratch, a comprehensive portrait of one of New Zealand's great experimental artists and, coincidentally, Ogston's father-in-law.

Go to to watch documentaries by Simon Ogston.

 - Stuff


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