Looking, living, death and theft

By Tara Judah

I am “waiting” for The Death of Place (2013) to begin. I soon realise, however, that the journey, and the film, has already started. Dirk de Bruyn is taking me with him, to interrogate place. Only it isn’t where I think it is.

The place de Bruyn has in mind is an intersection – and a little less where than when. It is the sum total of sensory affect: visual and aural. But it is also preoccupied with time, specifically the past. As each manic frame dances before my eyes, I try to locate at least the death of such a “place”.

The information comes in thick and fast. Somewhere beneath the stunning colours, squiggly lines, giant letters, endearing animations, fleeting text and obfuscating sounds is a man, trying to make sense of his identity. The death is impossible for me to locate. As with any sense of nostalgia or personal memory, death can only be experienced after life. I have no living memory of de Bruyn’s childhood; the alphabet I see and the children’s voices I hear are not linked to the experience of learning to read and write for me. I am not nostalgic for any of the individual elements that constitute these beautiful images before me. But I am close, and I have travelled somewhere, on this invitation to share in the experience of affect.

It is not long before I set off again with de Bruyn. This time, I travel to Serbia, Belgrade, Dusseldorf and more in Found, Found, Found (2014). De Bruyn takes me with him on planes, trains, into hotels or apartments – I can’t always tell which – to the Christmas markets, and to one of his screenings of Australian experimental film. I also read his inscriptions: text he has written while waiting at airports appears onscreen. So too do the words of Vilem Flusser. There are other distractions onscreen that catch my eye – a render bar, occasional text from the constant stream of Alex Jones’ Infowars radio program – an aural backdrop that might be conspiracy theory con artistry, or, the truth that so many of us refuse to hear.

There is an interrogation of technology as de Bruyn “steals” images of unwitting strangers. The theft is curious: it captures something each person offered up to the world around them at one specific moment in time, uninhibited through anonymity and unassuming owing to the ordinariness of such everyday experience. To share in it is to travel with de Bruyn even if we do so via a technological enabler. Here, he is not the flaneur, telling us a story; rather, he is the medium, presenting the journey.

I am a weary traveller but set off once more, this time on a lengthier journey: across Canada and parts of North America in A X Canada (1995), a sort of super8 time lapse road movie / video diary hybrid. De Bruyn is with his wife and children. The premier and most striking revelation for de Bruyn on this trip is that, “for the first time, I was considered Australian”. The Dutch Australian filmmaker who has since the 1970s made films about identity and place, has here encountered what it means to have an Australian identity – something I have for a long time suspected might only be possible outside of Australia, myself an immigrant.

De Bruyn rarely addresses the viewer; instead his wife narrates a daily diary, at uneven intervals. Her first entry refers to de Bruyn taping the camera to the dash – his need to document, to record their journey – as an attitude, one that reminds her of scribbling in the margins of a textbook, “to keep our lives going, to inscribe our interests”.

But the film is not only a snapshot of the family holiday, with occasional annotation. Accompanying the footage – itself interspersed with handmade slideshows of tourist postcards, baseball swap cards and scrabble-tiled words and phrases – is a constant buzz of radio coverage. As the de Bruyn family journeyed from Vancouver to Boston and back to Smithers in British Columbia in 1992 they did it against a cultural backdrop of baseball and referendum. On October 24th the Blue Jays won the World Series and on the 26th the Charlottetown Accord referendum failed. The “noise” of the campaigns leading up to the vote is as loud as the speculation over players making their way back to home base. Both become a low buzz, like a blowfly trapped against a window, our constant companion across Canada.

The speed at which the road trip is experienced is accelerated and reminds me that this is now a version of the de Bruyn family memory – a shared experience situated in the past, persistent through the medium of film. Though de Bruyn edits in his own reflections, and acknowledges “I am looking for myself in the fragments of the image”, I neither look for nor find him in this film. Instead I find landmarks interspersed with occasional moments of solitude – when the sunlight streams through the canopy of the trees at their campsite, and when the road is calm – I catch a glimpse of townships and wonder what the people are like, if Canada is as plain as the images I am being shown – perhaps it is more like what I know as Australia than I would like to imagine? I have never been to Canada and somehow de Bruyn’s journey only makes me think of my own childhood road trips along Australia’s East Coast, from Melbourne to Cairns, hours of emptiness and duration that may have once felt endless but are now, as in A X Canada, sped up and immediate as I repackage them into memory.

When the final frame flickers away I feel I am well travelled. And yet I have not left my home. Such is the gift of cinema.

Though I resolve that I still know very little of de Bruyn or the places he has visited, I do feel the weight of experience. It cannot be mapped. It is, though I was sharing someone else’s vision all the while, my own. My eyes, then, are the true flaneurs. In this way, it is the viewer not filmmaker who becomes the thief. Like de Bruyn’s beggar in Found, Found, Found they take from technology whatever is on offer. Even when presented with death, they see nothing but commodity to consume. And they are hungry still.