Kathy Dudding’s ode to Wellington, The Return, discovers and celebrates the city’s micro-histories; the small stories and details that people too easily forget and ignore. She talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM ahead the film’s premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festivals.

CITIES are strange things. They’re a space where a bunch of people share a residence, but what a city means to someone varies from person to person, from time to time, from location to location. It’s almost as if a city can never be accurately captured – what may define a city for one person is farthest from another’s mind. Filmmaker Kathy Dudding takes on Wellington from a variety of perspectives in The Return – the memories of her grandmother who arrived into Wellington on a boat from England at the age of three, archival footage of the city, and Dudding’s own searching eye that gleans for the quirky and too often-ignored parts of the city. It’s a beautiful film, a very personal and moving ode to a city, and an intimate memory cache.

The major voice of the film is Dudding’s grandmother, Dorothy Dudding, who arrived into the city in 1911 aboard the Ionic from Brighton. Dorothy Dudding died in 2001, at the age of ninety-three, and Kathy Dudding decided to record her reminisces prior to her death. She had never intended to use them in a film later on. “I didn’t actually see her very often, but when I did, she loved to talk about the past. I just kinda did it [record her], and added to it of course.” She made the recordings into a short film after receiving a copy of her grandmother’s memoir when her grandmother died. She was also doing a documentary course run by Russell Campbell at Victoria University. “I can’t remember how I ended up using that idea for that course. I’d been in that course exploring the essay genre, and I did my presentation on the essay film. I was interested in what that genre did.”

The pinnacle of essay films for many is Chris Marker’s masterpiece Sans Soleil, and Dudding admits it was an influential film in relation to The Return. “Yep definitely. Sans Soleil, it’s the kind of film that’s so busy as well as dense in the voiceover/soundtrack, that you have to watch it a couple of times. I was interested in looking at the juxtaposition of image and text, but having the image not so busy so the text wasn’t fighting against it.”

As a result, The Return is much more minimalist in its construction than Sans Soleil. There are three distinct strands to the film: the voiceover, the found footage, and Dudding’s own interpretation of the city. “When I first did the exercise for the documentary course, at that time we had to make slides. So there were twenty slides and it was twenty minutes long, so it had these long images.” This is reflected in the long contemplative shots of the city which play out as a voiceover speaks. Dudding’s eclectic background also invested itself into The Return’s minimalist construction. “I’ve done a Masters of Fine Arts in video installation, and looking at the current trends in video installation – there were a couple of Dutch filmmakers, Willem de Rooij and Jeroen de Rijke, who showed a piece here in the [Film Archive] and it was a ten minute shot, on 35mm. It was one shot and basically people were living in squalor and getting up and getting out and getting to work.” She also wanted to make the cutting fit the style of film cutting during the time her grandmother arrived in New Zealand, with early cinema’s long, fixed shots and single tableaux. “And also, the city films around the ’20s made the city look pacey and had lots of cuts in showing the rhythm of the city. And I wanted have something that showed the city as leisurely.”

“There’ll be kids in twenty years time, if they’re still around, taking mobile phone videos of their friends when they’re walking down the street, Courtenay Place, that kind of thing. Those are certain perspectives of memory. I guess nowadays so many people have cameras and people have access to it, in forty years times, the footage of Wellington might be totally different.”

As a result the city is shown in a highly personal way, and from three distinct subjective positions. It was her grandmother’s “city in terms of what her childhood stories were, but then it was my perspective looking back in a post-colonial perspective, and then also my kind of visual interpretation.” Dudding also quotes New Zealand journalist/novelist Robin Hyde in the film, who was a childhood friend of her grandmother. Hyde also arrived into Wellington on the Ionic at the same time as her grandmother and the two also had childhood nightmare memories of King Dick, the lion that paced around Wellington Zoo in its early days.

Dudding’s day job as the Film Archive’s archivist also helped with the found footage. “It was a lot of research. Working here obviously [helped]. The access I had was open to anyone, but I did research a lot. I chose it for aesthetic considerations a lot of the time, for example the callisthenics scene or the ‘choosing the files for the conscription’ shot.”

The images she shot were also off-beat and idiosyncratic and reflect Dudding’s world-view/city-view. Surrealism was a key influence. “I lived in Paris when I was in my early twenties, and I read Paris Peasant and Andre Breton and went out with this French artist who was this surrealist painter. It gave me that kind of Surrealist sensibility. That’s another layer to my perspective. For the Surrealists, walking was about chance encounters and irrational meetings, and this walking inspired their pursuit of experimental writing. For myself, walking around the waterfront was also about 'chance encounters and irrational meetings', which inspired my filmmaking, and I documented with my camera.” A key text was Michel de Certeau’s essay Walking in the City who argued that walking in a city is subversive because it goes against the regulated behaviour of the city. De Certeau also valorises the micro-histories of a city, something which Dudding picks up on with the film’s view of a city as being constructed by these individual stories. “The microhistory is often overlooked in the everyday picture. It was about my grandmother’s history as a micro-history.”

In this respect, Dudding subverts the way Wellington is typically conceived. This is certainly no tourist brochure, nor does Dudding indulge in the usual Wellington stereotypes. An example is her long shot on Len Lye’s Water Whirler, an homage to the great Kiwi artist/avant-garde filmmaker. “I’d been planning on doing the Water Whirler, and I happened to see that battleship in the background. It was the perfect shot for that particular passage.”

The film acts as a preserver of memory. “There was definitely an idea of the fragility in memory, and the whole idea about keeping hold of stories and fiction as well.” She admits that her grandmother was worried in her final days about her memory going. Film acts as a preserving medium, and Dudding suggests that this affects how people view a city. “There’ll be kids in twenty years time, if they’re still around (this is something we discuss in the Archive) taking mobile phone videos of their friends when they’re walking down the street, Courtenay Place, that kind of thing. Those are certain perspectives of memory. I guess nowadays so many people have cameras and people have access to it, in forty years times, the footage of Wellington might be totally different.”

The Return is also a celebration of a city Dudding has come to love. She unashamedly focuses on the waterfront in the film, a part of the city to which she is particularly attracted. “It was nice, the process of going out and walking on the waterfront. It was enjoyable, the waterfront is beautiful. I remember back in the mid 1980s when I came to Wellington, people were talking about how the waterfront was going to get better. I’ve been here for that transition. I guess this is actually a ‘city waterfront film’ – a city can only be the waterfront.” Dudding’s film is a lovely evocation of a wonderful city, a city constructed of the very micro-histories that Dudding focuses on and celebrates. And it’s these little stories and aspects that people too easily forget and ignore.