Focusing on life's quiet moments

By Kiran Dass

Kind of a prickly, enfant terrible of New Zealand cinema, Wellington filmmaker Campbell Walker isn't interested in typical cinematic devices like the restorative three-act narrative, fancy effects or explicitly telling audiences how to think or feel.

"I'm often bored with films that spend a long time verbally articulating what's obviously going on. I'm more interested in things on the most simple emotionally direct and personal levels," he says.

Walker's lo-fi, down-the-line films eschew militant narrative structures and obvious plot flagposts. Instead, they're played out in real time, which is often harrowing but ultimately rewarding. His first two digital features Uncomfortable/Comfortable (1999) and Why Can't I Stop this Uncontrollable Dancing? (2003) have both played in past International Film Festivals. This year Walker is back with his latest offering, Little Bits of Light.

In an attempt to ease her crippling, unrelenting bouts of depression, Helen (Nia Robyn) and her boyfriend Alex (Robert Jerram) retreat from the city to a shabby old haunted house in rural Taranaki.

"We can see some cows," deadpans Alex.

Claustrophobic and feverish, the couple rarely leave the house as Helen suffers unbearable lows while Alex tries to be supportive. While Helen is as limp and lifeless as a rag doll, Alex sticks by her and occasionally we see glimpses of the vivacious girl he first fell in love with.

Walker, with input from his two actors, wrote the script with his partner Grace C. Russell and based it on Russell's fight with depression and Walker's struggle to understand it.

"If you're not putting something of yourself out there, how can you expect the actors to want to? If you're not prepared to make work about things that aren't in every other film, why would audiences want to come along?

"If you're not making simple, casual interchangeable entertainment, you've gotta be prepared to put something out there that justifies the effort for the audience," reasons Walker.

He doesn't see Light as a "social problem" film but Walker says he knows of many people whose lives are touched by depression who have a slight understanding of it. And of course, it can be a smart move to write about what you know.

"It's certainly no exaggeration to say that dealing with the blunt end of Grace's depression has been the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with in my life," he admits.

Like all of his films, Light was simply shot on a digital camera with long takes and sparse editing. Walker's lo-fi approach makes watching his films an intimate experience because the lack of manipulation means it's less like you're watching a film and more like watching real life. He demonstrates how, at the end of the day, ideas and stories can triumph over format.

"See, I don't think this is a particularly lo-fi film, but it's definitely not a glossy one," he counters.

"The style is deliberate and carefully developed and I very much like the way it looks."

Whether it's the simple act of making a cup of coffee or listening to music, Walker's films embrace rather than edit out the quiet moments in life that cinema often ignores. In Light there's a charming and comic scene where Helen attempts to teach Alex how to ride a bike.

"That was based on Grace trying to teach me how to ride a bike and not succeeding. I was really excited when Rob told me during auditions he couldn't ride a bike, either. But on the day of the scene he somehow managed to be able to ride it in a convincingly awkward and funny way," laughs Walker.

So he knows when to inject a dose of humour to give us relief from the bleakness. Walker recognises how situations can be both funny and sad at the same time. On one of their rare jaunts outside of the house, Alex and Helen play Cow Song by Southern Californian country-rock outfit Mountain Goats to, erm, a field of cows, who hilariously react like an audience of typical, slackjawed indie kids.

"I tend to like a less ostentatious form of humour, so if something was overstated I'd tend to lose it pretty quickly."

And music plays a large part in the film, particularly Alex and Helen's love of the Mountain Goats, which is the only music featured. Rather than being thoughtlessly plonked on as an afterthought, the music in Walker's film is incidental and occurs when the characters are listening to it."

"I wanted a sub-theme of the film to be about the way we listen to music and the way that music can help in life, and I wanted it to be music that related to my process of dealing with Grace's depression."

With Light, a sturdy whisky would be a more appropriate accompaniment than popcorn. While Walker's films can be difficult to watch for their unrelenting social realism and rough visual style, they highlight one of the most special things about the medium of cinema - the ability of the film-maker to be able to move and challenge us and make us think about our own lives. Walker recalls one of the most memorable responses to Uncomfortable/Comfortable.

"At a costume party a woman in a Wonder Woman costume told me that Uncomfortable made her realise how there was a whole lot of stuff that she wasn't happy about in her life and relationship and that she'd been able to change as a result of seeing the film. So I changed Wonder Woman's life!" 

Lowdown

Who: Campbell Walker, director of digital features and film festival regular

Past films: Uncomfortable/Comfortable (1999), Why Can't I Stop this Uncontrollable Dancing? (2003)

Latest: Little Bits of Light

Where & when: Screening Auckland International Film Festival, Thursday July 21 6pm; Friday July 22 11.15am

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