There ought to be more silent films. Sound — voices, music, background clatter — isn't always necessary. It can be a distraction. Sometimes what you see is all you need to get. It works particularly well when the subject is death, that final and ultimate silence.
Not a single sound was recorded during the 28-minute crime scene video that was screened at the High Court at Auckland yesterday on day three of the Malcolm Rewa murder trial. Rewa, 65, is charged with the 1992 murder of Susan Burdett. She was raped and killed late on a Monday night in her home in Papatoetoe. Her body was discovered on Wednesday morning. The film was made that afternoon: the clock on her kitchen wall reads 2.10pm.
The film opens outside her house. There's a really close-up view of the tarseal on Pah Rd. The anonymous film-maker seemed to love that road. Their hand-held camera lingers on that road for quite some time. And then it pans to a crime scene tape in front of a long hedge. There's a power pylon in the distance. South Auckland noir.
Burdett was 39. She worked as an accounts clerk. She lived alone. She remained good friends with her ex-husband, and had an active social life on the ten-pin bowling circuit. She kept her bowling trophies in the spare room of her unit. Winifred O'Sullivan lived in the next unit, and appeared as a prosecution witness on Monday, when she described hearing "a loud bang" on the night Burdett was killed. "And then softer bangs," she said. "And then nothing."
After filming the tarseal and the police tape and the pylons, the video abruptly showed the body of Susan Burdett on her bed. All you could see of her were her legs. She had long legs, and they were bare.
The killer had covered her face and the upper half of her body with a duvet, as though the fatal, brutal blows to her head had never happened, and posed her with her legs crossed, as though his hateful rape had never happened — his staging of her body seemed as though he were deeply sickened and ashamed of what he had done, or merely deeply frightened.
There was a floral pattern on the wallpaper and a row of soft toys — a white cat, a blue teddy bear — on a bedside table. Her slippers were by the door and her feet were next to a pillow dropped on the floor. Her body sank a little into the mattress — this was New Zealand in 1992, peak times for a waterbed — and on top of the bed, next to her body, placed in a straight line, not at an angle, left there really quite tidily and neatly, was a softball bat.
The bat is at the front of the courtroom. It's inside a transparent case. There are four small nicks taken out of the wood, to test for blood spots. The bat is dark brown, almost red, and 82cm in length. Burdett kept it by her bed for self-defence.
The film moved slowly around the rest of the house (the tea cosy in the kitchen, the teacups on hooks) and out the back (chairs on a patio, a bright hibiscus in late summer bloom). Twice it returned to the bedroom. The first time was to show the duvet slightly taken away to reveal Burdett's bloody face. The second time was the very final image in the video. Her body had been removed. All we saw was the bed where she was killed. The loud bang, the softer bangs, and then a final and ultimate silence.