MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: DIRK DE BRUYN AND AUSTRALIAN AUDIENCES (ENG)
By Tara Judah
In 2013, I saw Dirk de Bruyn’s short film WAP at the Revelation Film Festival in Perth. In terms of its formal experimentation, the film evokes Martin Arnold’s Cinemnesis. Thematically, it takes a critical eye to the White Australia Policy, scrutinising what the policy promised new migrants with one hand while systematically refusing with the other. Later that same year, I saw his film Telescope (2013) at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Concerned with suburban spaces and the history of race relations in Australia, Telescope is a visual dissertation that deals with issues of identity and land rights, in a politically postcolonial, largely migrant culture. It’s also the examination of de Bruyn’s backyard.
Perhaps, in part, it’s owing to my own eight-year leave of absence from Australia, where I interrogated my identity, living in my birth-country (England), rediscovering my heritage and trying to make sense of the double diaspora I feel sandwiched by, that I haven’t seen more of de Bruyn’s intelligent and reflective experimental films. Still, through Steven McIntyre’s documentary – a chronicle of de Bruyn’s career through a wonderful ‘in conversation’ exploration of his impressive filmography (one that spans more than forty years) – I couldn’t help but wonder why such a significant and prolific filmmaker has had so few public screenings and retrospectives.
The question was soon asked during the audience Q&A following the screening. How did it feel to have this documentary shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival when the style of filmmaking it’s about is “ghettoised” by these kinds of institutions? As someone who has only been attending experimental screenings in Australia since my return in 2010, I can’t speak to the history of its exposure. From my experiences over the past four years, however, I suggest that the absence is part of a wider problem: Australian audiences.
Experimental films, when they do get screenings and showcases, are held in small cinemas or little known non-theatrical spaces. The cinema screenings rarely pull a full house. Part of the problem, of course, is population. We simply don’t have the size and diversity that characterises cities like London and New York. The second part of the problem is audience development. Despite a handful of curators trying to carve out a space for it, commercial viability and not nearly enough finance for publicity are negatively impacting factors. The notion of taking a chance on something unknown seems alien to Australian audiences who have been reared on a mostly multiplex diet. And so, the audience stagnates; the usual suspects with an occasional, curious friend in tow.
With that in mind, the documentary The House that Eye Live In (2014) had its world premiere at MIFF: the city where de Bruyn lives, teaches (as a filmmaker and academic) and focuses many of his films.
There was what we’d consider a ‘decent’ turn out here in Melbourne – a small cinema with more seats taken than empty. So why didn’t the festival make a bigger deal of de Bruyn’s talent and showcase at least one collection of his shorter works within the some 500 films-packed program?
Thinking retrospectively now about The House that Eye Live In, an intimate knowledge of de Bruyn’s oeuvre is not necessary. Though I’m somewhat familiar with his key themes and aesthetics the film draws this out well enough for newcomers. And if ever there was a filmmaker able to put the theory of his own work into words, it’s Dirk de Bruyn. But the reason a showcase of his work should have been presented is quite simply because the documentary makes the viewer hungry for more. In the absence of such accessibility and visibility, however, the experimental viewer, always on the margins, must embrace his/her role as scavenger.
As de Bruyn’s films show, being ‘different’ and feeling alienated is key to the Australian immigrant narrative. Perhaps there is a bittersweet irony, then, to how, on this incredible landmass, we struggle to find and cultivate spaces where we can create, exhibit and engage.