Director: Simon Ogston
Simon Ogston is making the New Zealand music/arts docos where you can’t believe your luck – your favourite cult act, finally, is being correctly, lovingly examined. At a previous film festival it was his take on The Skeptics – and his work returns to this year’s upcoming festival with this tender portrait of writer, poet, performer, musician, Bill Direen.
Ogston’s camera is never far from the Dunedin-based Direen as he packs to embark on a tour of the country; that’s the framing – and subtly, simply, Ogston lets Bill tell much of his own story. We get the contextual comments (Nick Bollinger, David Eggleton), some words from peers (Hamish Kilgour) and we follow the publicity trail (interviews with local radio stations and RNZ) as Direen, perpendicular to the task, takes his words on the road, packs his world down into his guitar case and drives.
That’s it. Essentially. A wee road-diary, with some wonderful archival footage when needed.
But you can tell the filmmaker had fun – and once or twice his subject did too.
It’s a strange business being Bill Direen – no doubt. But a purposeful, fulfilling one; here is one of our great creatives, an artistic mind bound only to the concept of delivering the work. One minute he’s recording vocals in his shower to get an interesting resonance, previously he’s at the kitchen table where we can almost smell the toast and coffee as he carves out his words on sheets of paper – will they be songs, will they make it onto the next record supported by the angular churn of his guitar riffing? Does he know at the time? What matters most is that he’s out there doing the work, walking through the fire within to deliver.
Direen’s output is extraordinary – dozens of records, limited edition singles, books, translations of texts, spoken-word performances, free-improv and indie-rock gigs. Those who know about it already know we’re lucky to have him. This film gently coaxes out a philosophy that the dedication of a life to examination of the arts – and therefore examination of one’s self through the arts – is profound, noble and fiscally fraught. It’s a decision that is made by the work finding the artist as much as it is by the artist in pursuit of the work. That’s mirrored, essentially, by Ogston’s camera flanking Direen for the road-trip. An iPhone captures the trail out the side-mirror, a lovely set of overhead travel shots capture the coastline and greenery – that very New Zealand and New Zealandness – that Direen invokes, evokes and – I guess – on some level provokes.
He’s a determined but fragile soul with a steel-trap mind.
And as Ogston captures him doffing the cap to James K. Baxter and Janet Frame in his performances and on his pages we get a little potted social history; a sense too of Direen slotting in among the great cultural outliers of this country.
A Memory of Others is, eventually, profoundly moving – it’s a stirring mediation on the type of soul who undertakes this work, how monetary concerns are never at the forefront, if the gas bill gets paid and the lights are on it’s time to write, or rehearse, to improvise and explore.
Direen’s performances in the film – the snippets we see – show, brilliantly, how the unsteady ship eventually crests the wave and then coasts from there. Shambolic becomes shamanistic, becomes startling, and always original. It’s rare to capture a unique talent on film and get to the heart of it with and through his own words and just as often through the silence around them. Even rarer that someone so idiosyncratic, doing something so – frankly – idiotic (in the minds of many, I’m sure) can end up offering an experience on film that translates, that seems cathartic, that is so real, softly humorous, understated and mercurial. There’s a golden hue from the camera, and a crooked smile from Direen. And somewhere all around and emanating from both there’s art that inspires, that pulses, that thrives.