Interview: Adam Luxton and On An Unknown Beach
James Gates interviews Adam Luxton, whose third film On an Unknown Beach premieres at this year's NZIFF.
Adam Luxton is a filmmaker from Aotearoa. Based in Berlin for the last few years, he recently returned home to bring his third feature film, On an Unknown Beach, to premiere at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.
A graduate of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, Luxton and his collaborators operate as productive outsiders within New Zealand cinema. His previous film, We Feel Fine (2012), a collaboration with friend and fellow filmmaker Jeremy Dumble, presents an Auckland that New Zealand cinema tends to keep locked out of the mise-en-scene: billboards, carparks, traffic and what Luxton calls ‘non-spaces’.
Likewise, his debut feature Minginui (2005) (a collaboration with another local filmmaker, Summer Agnew) documents the eponymous small town in decay, hiding on the edge of the Ureweras. Told without narration and shot on 16mm, it uses image and sound to show instead of tell.
These films present the people and places of New Zealand in a way that provides a desperately needed counterpoint to the dominant tropes and rhythms that we see and hear every day. Luxton and his collaborators make cinema that’s confident, fiercely independent, generous, and often beautiful.
Luxton and I met at the Sky City Casino on a Saturday night, where we mostly ended up talking about his latest film. On an Unknown Beach, again made with Agnew, offers the same independence and beauty as its predecessors. Audiences will however immediately be struck by its epic scope.
A ‘speculative’ documentary, it follows three different characters as they encounter varying sites of ruin. Free noise/sound artist Bruce Russell wanders through post-earthquake Christchurch offering insightful commentary along the way; coral scientist Di Tracey scans the sea floor of the Chatham Rise to document the damage of bottom trawling; and poet/actor David Hornblow embarks upon a journey of regression hypnotherapy to deal with past experiences of addiction.
James Gates: Your films are all New Zealand films, and yet they seem to reject any dominant national narrative. To what extent do you feel like a New Zealand filmmaker?
Adam Luxton: Well, it’s really weird, because this film sprung from a weird nostalgia for New Zealand. The starting point was Bruce (Russell) and noise music, and these dudes down here doing this thing. In a way it was a nostalgic memory of New Zealand artists.
The conflicting feeling I have when I come down here is that that nostalgia is exactly what it is, as things have changed here fast. But I do feel like a New Zealand filmmaker, and the characters in this film are all New Zealanders, and what they’re doing is connected to this place, and I feel connected to here as well.
JG: As much as On an Unknown Beach clearly shows the three characters dealing with, or simply surveying various forms of destruction, the film overall really feels like a dream that’s not trying to tell the audience this or that. It feels like a rejection of most forms of narrative film language, even though it’s about three real people and their real experiences.
AL: When Bruce watched it, he felt like it had a really interesting dream logic that connected the film in a way. There wasn’t a story that we were cutting together and there weren’t even really strong themes. We didn’t start with a thesis, actually.
When you’re trying to make a factual film, you usually have a thesis and you build [the film] like an essay towards your thesis. The whole thing became about processes of exploration. Three people exploring different sites of ruin and damage, and us exploring the site of cinema in a way.
I’m always thinking about this when making a film: sitting in a cinema and seeing the thing projected on the screen with an audience in the room, and so that too is kind of a site. What you’re looking at when you see projections in the room like that are kind of, well, there’s something utopian about that. It’s like a ritualised space where we all go and watch these projections and we project onto the images as much as they project on to us.
JG: The idea of the film started with Bruce, right?
AL: Yes. Going back a number of years I was kind of interested in making a film, maybe not necessarily about Bruce, but about noise in general.
I was kind of curious about this hermit-like existence that a lot of fifty-something South Island men pursue, this obdurate noise music scene, and I was interested in the aesthetics of it, but also what it represented about New Zealand in the wider sense… this sub-culture that’s completely ignored in New Zealand, but which has this strange rhizomatic following around the world.
JG: You mention the word ‘utopian,’ and that applies across much of this film, in that you provide images that audiences often don’t often see.
AL: Yeah images that are unseen in cinema, which is exciting. We were at sea for nearly a month, so it was an epic trip in many ways. The reassuring thing about that trip was the material that we were experiencing via our scientist, which was the actual footage of the seabed.
I wasn’t really prepared for the level of human impact; it’s just a wasteland down there. We’re cruising along for a kilometre and it was just a desert of smashed up coral as a result of deep-sea trawling. It wasn’t like seeing partially impacted or a slightly scruffy seabed, it was just mowed down.
And then you’re down there long enough for it not just be an impacting image but a monotony of coral rubble. Then you find out that coral will grow back at one millimetre per year – one of things they’re going down there to survey is rates of regeneration. It certainly made an impression.
JG: There’s a real sense of ‘after’, as if waking up and reflecting on the impact of a previous era or moment. The film seems to acknowledge that we’re surrounded by ruins and damage, but that complaining or judging is not the only or best response, or that it’s too late.
AL: This film is not to complain, and it wasn’t to come up with some fucking bullshit positive spin either. It’s funny because we had a test screening with a two-and-a-half-hour edit in Berlin, where [we included] a lot more explicit information, in a traditional documentary sense. And a lot of it’s negative; Di talks about the impacts of trawling on the sea-bed, and it’s not always good news.
But one of the things that Greg [King, fellow NZ filmmaker] said was, “we all get that it’s fucked, we all know that, we get it all the time. What we don’t need is to have it told to us, because we can see it with this footage: Christchurch, and the seabed.” We can see what’s up, and the challenge is not to tell us that over and over again, it’s to find where the film goes.
The thing about damage is that there are opportunities for regeneration. Di’s looking for regeneration of the sea-bed, and what she finds is kind of grim. Bruce is really excited about the fact that Christchurch is ruined and represents the chance to make something that can work more for people than the Christchurch that was there. The flip-side of a ruin is that you don’t have to look at what was there anymore, and you know you can make something else. It’s not easy for corals but it’s not easy for anything.
JG: There was something about this film that strangely reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
AL: It’s a good analogy, because it finds this image of its own internal cinematic logic. The earliest mental motifs I had were for a caveman hitting a stone. A caveman, sitting in a landscape, hitting a stone.
And in a way Bruce is kind of like that. There’s this kind of dumbness about it, and I think Bruce has always maintained that there’s a kind of labourer aspect to what he does. What I mean is that there’s an aspect of that to all human endeavours. In a way what I wanted to do was pull back all of the editorial and spin and context to what people do and present this… it’s not like a nature documentary, but there is this kind of pulled-back view of humans doing stuff on the planet and the stuff they’re doing is here, and here and here, but it’s still just stuff they’re doing: we’re just people on the planet…doing stuff!
And the stuff, it hurts us sometimes, and David’s a person who’s been through a lot of hurt. I always think about this one thing, this snippet of conversation I had with David when I first met up with him to talk about this film. He said, “There’s something wrong with a society that churns out addicts and broken people.” And I think that’s a beautiful truism even if it sounds a little reductive. But it’s true, in that we’re a culture that churns out people who are lonely and broken and feel as though they have no value and that’s a very sad thing about the world.
And as far as New Zealand goes, in a lot of places it feels like there aren’t any values unless they’re monetary values – if it doesn’t have an economic value then it doesn’t have a value. And I think that’s a really slippery position to be in for a culture. I think it’s really important to realise we’re just caveman banging stones, and if you start to add values that are artificial to it, such as economic values, then it distorts reality quite a lot.
JG: When Bruce uses a horn in empty square in post-earthquake Christchurch, it’s a striking image for a number of reasons – one being that it seems to reject all kinds of norms and values.
AL: Yeah, well, it’s a ‘dumb’ thing to do. It’s the sound of a deep sea trawl net scraping along the bottom of the ocean. It’s a less epic form of dumbness.
And the only thing that changes the value of those activities is that one of them has an economic value, which has unfortunately distorted the the value of dragging that net across the bottom of the ocean. Bad caveman.
All images courtesy Ponzi Pictures Ltd. Learn more about On an Unknown Beach and buy tickets at the NZFF website.