Artist Gabriel White got stopped by the police while filming Oracle Drive, his leisurely one-hour ode to the poetic meanings of Albany (yes, Albany), showing early next week at the NZ International Film Festival. He was performing for his camera on a roundabout; the cops said he was distracting traffic.
"I was being a little arrogant, but the landscape itself was so arrogant, it was an understandable mistake," says White.
That explanation does what his films do - make you think about familiar places in unfamiliar ways - a bit like British writer Jon Ronson, but with more fantasy and an obsession for topography, like Ronson crossed with Caro Diario director Nanni Moretti.
The explanation is also characteristically idiosyncratic and droll. I once saw White take off his shoes and hold them against the sides of his head as low-hanging ears. Just cos.
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If you are amused by the light-hearted musings of White's short, Aucklantis on YouTube, see Oracle Drive, which is similar but more stylish (even on an unbelievable budget of $7000). White becomes a solitary black figure in the distance, crossing empty green lots edged in empty cars. In voiceover, he reports that Nile Rd is "long and meandering [but] there's nothing especially Egyptian about it," before noting that Seine Rd runs off the Nile and "the source of the Tyne appears to be a birdbath".
These are not - or not only, anyway - cheap-and-easy laughs at suburban illusions of grandeur. I grew up near Balmoral, and never once wondered why the Queen holidayed next to a Bollywood cinema and several cheap Chinese eateries. Oracle Drive asks: what if we do wonder? What if we play with our surroundings and their layers of possible meanings? (In Aucklantis, White claims he reads the "Surplustronics" electrical goods store sign on Queen St as "Semiotics". Figuratively as well as literally, it seems.)
"Anything can be sexy if you want it to be," White suggests in Oracle Drive. He says to me: "Point a camera at an ugly sign and strangely and weirdly it becomes magical." The sublime and the ridiculous are presented at the same time, as the same thing.
White was a year ahead of another idiosyncratic, fantastical filmmaker, Florian Habicht, at Elam. I thought they might be inspired by the same teacher - but no.
"For better or for worse, students were left to their own devices," says White. "Being left to your own devices, you end up being a bit of a dreamer. This resulted in my case in a kind of sarcasm - about institutions, not bitter, but feeling under-stimulated. Florian was much more generous."
For White, Albany stands for a "production line idea of what a society is. A lot of people are pretty comfortable with the kind of landscape I was filming, and I suppose I was trying to make them a little bit uncomfortable". Whether he succeeds or not, his audience will see the North Shore like they've never seen it before.