Samuel Te Kani

Neighbourhood of Truth, essay by Samuel Te Kani

NEIGHBOURHOOD OF TRUTH
when the Devil rides out, you can always tell by his muddy tracks

Cushla Donaldson and Quentin Lind, Neighbourhood of Truth. Photo by Seb Charles.

I

Neighbourhood of Truth: an oddly opaque lensing of small-town cultures broadly. Even if its onus zooms in on one area in particular, as quietly explicated in a credit sequence in which a computer cursor hovers over an analytics map of typically 'bogan' hotbeds (using the self-describing vernacular of the documentarians themselves). As it hones in, the film's focus becomes a case of provincial satanic panic in the early nineties, featuring a deranged cop and a misguided scheme towards liberating himself from a dissatisfying marriage. And yet the breathing space around this centre-piece billows with cunning generosity. In an oceanic dialogue between one of the filmmakers and an interviewee who is clearly his mother, there is a poignant hallowing of the revolutionary television show, Outrageous Fortune as a cultural revelation for working-class families. There is a sense of very real wounding here, undoubtedly perpetuated by sustained class tensions. This exists despite turn of the century declarations that class is over, replaced with a more ambiguous phrasing and a deluded faith in free-for-all upward mobility (whatever that means these days).

Rather than conventional documentary style, Cushla Donaldson and Quentin Lind escort audiences through a pastiche of New Zealand settler colonial impressions, pulling out the historical footage Adam Curtis style—where style trumps the mode of objective reporting. Which is the point. The frame of the film is an artwork, and the journalistic initiative is tainted by fine arts training. The film adroitly comments on the contemporary ideological construction of objectivity through a genre we've come to know too well, cohered with its own generic signifiers that anyone with a Netflix account will recognise.

Anyone expecting a salacious True Crime chronicle will be pleasantly disappointed. Instead, the viewer will find a ruminative confessional, a sharing of childhood memories and echoes of nationhood through a nostalgia warp. And for those negotiating the homogenising blanket of whiteness, attempting expressions of difference within that wholly damning radial type, something of a barbed provocation, as only the best art films are. There are pale demons in the provinces, and Lind and Donaldson, if not putting these to bed, are at the very least making the bed up for someone else to.

Season three, episode eleven of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is suitably titled Gingerbread. The small sleepy town of Sunnydale in southern California is gripped by a moral panic not dissimilar from the kind experienced in Ashhurst featured in Neighbourhood of Truth. Here the slayer's mother, Joyce, invasively follows her daughter while she patrols for nocturnal evils—Buffy's job description as the chosen one. Suddenly they come across something grislier than even Buffy, with her years of field experience, is used to. Namely, the remains of two dead kids, viciously slaughtered by something. Or someone. Most likely a someone with satanic predilections, considering the vaguely occult markings carved into the corpses.

Joyce here becomes a proto Karen—with show creator Joss Whedon showing the same cultural prescience for Karens as he does for Involuntary Celibates, Incels, in later seasons. Joyce-Karen is quick to query management on the efficacy of the town's response measures. Joyce's puritanical concern for the town's protection and safety from this new menace cosies in her brain like an earworm. Much righteous indignation ensues with Joyce rabble rousing a like minded parent board called MOO (Mother's Opposed to the Occult) that starts purging the local high school of witchery related materials as contraband. Finally, an old timey witch burning is almost seen through to its macabre end before it's realised the ensuing moral panic has been a naughty demon's hallucinatory sway. This servant of the morning star takes the appearance of two slain kids in town after town to whip up righteous fervour and confuse well-meaning parents into burning their daughters alive. Buffy and the Scooby Gang manage to pull back the demon's veil of innocence and kill the fiend in its lumpy form before this can occur. MOO and its sympathisers come-to with dazed horror at where their actions were leading them—along a puritanical bread-crumb trail from the moral high ground to the stubborn stain of filicide.

Still from Neighbourhood of Truth. Courtesy of the artists.

II

Recently the country's thankfully petite cross-section of covid confused and their Id like screams for freedom have crystallised a long-time-coming replication of American populist manoeuvres. A transliteration with somewhat blunted teeth outside its habitus of NRA colours and slavery tense race relations. Where the 'disenfranchisement' of whiteness found a voice there, it mimics here, fully affected by the law of diminishing returns, like a film franchise that just won't die. Consider its incarnation here then as the 'legacy sequel'. A maligned resurrection (cough, Matrix, cough) of fitfully conceived and even more shoddily executed ideas and sensibilities which some stealthy executive ordered through a chain of puffed-up iconoclasts and thirsty wannabes.

This might strike as outside the thematic attentions of Neighbourhood of Truth, but the film's very title tells us otherwise. By postmodernism's fidgety intertextualities, Neighbourhood of Truth (as a title-text) points beyond the film's traceable avowals of provincial witch hunts and media fevered othering toward a broader paranoia and its rotten fruit. Despite its inevitable distortions, this paranoia stands, in fact, with the increased surveillance power of the New Zealand police and a McCarthyish period of satanic panic in our own backyard. Much like our versions of freedom convoys and anti-mandate occupations, a parasite of kneejerk hegemony. A tepid virality, out of date even before the infectious real-time networks of social media and fluid computing. All that hundredth monkey needs to dovetail its autonomy is a pretty little suburb to measure itself against, keeping hedge-clippers handy to trim its own wayward tail.

Adopting American exceptionalism as a universal signifier, as widely recognisable as it is locally illegible, is a methodology stemming from critical engagement and seems to be nowhere near losing its historic appeal. Even when its translations align, marginalised people embrace the imperial instruments of their own oppression, i.e. Destiny Church vampirising vulnerable Māori and Pacifika families for their last dimes. Brian urging them across the harbour bridge to join the MAGA flags and some self-contradictory libertarian sentiment.

Cultural memory is like sitting round a table, holding hands and waiting for knocks from the other side. Neighbourhood of Truth, in its gorgeous and gradual unfolding, its mosaic approach of patiently excavating legibility from its jumbled shots, brings as much clarity as it does stylistic occlusion. It uses the postured lure of journalistic integrity and delivers something much more intimate. In that intimacy, the film stages a type of seance and resurrects a sequence of events that are weirdly relevant in this climate of gunky misinformation. It tracks like mud through a showroom.

Still from Neighbourhood of Truth. Courtesy of the artists.

III

Paranoia about surveillance holds anxieties about surface details. Similarly, interests in death metal and D&D are flagged as warranting police concern. There is a curtailing of these benign cultural interests, seen as symptomatic of insurrectionist organisation and immunological threats to national security. Which then is the more effective instrument of normativity? The judicial arm of police authorities themselves, or the mores of decency through which cautionary cultural prohibitions and their conflated threats are filtered and actioned?

If anything, surveillance has proliferated into a fluidly expansive public sport concomitant with those technologies which mediate and produce lifestyles. Think here along the lines of Foucault's much traversed biopower. Power not as repressive but as productive. Power is enacted through a plethora of creative controls managing the possible life-forms in any given society by channelling bodies and their various motivations towards specific expressions. Subsequently, the excited body is always preferable because it bears more energy and is easier to elicit responses from in its excitation. Thus, the trending salacious media and moral indignation for production. Fearful and panicky bodies are as prosperous in bio-political extractions/outcomes as the pleasured or aroused bodies.

The above gives the impression of deep-state-like coordination operating from a single and conspiring source. In reality, bio-political ministrations are consummate relays of impersonal feedback, mechanised by the singularity of the economic bias. That economy is a proto-algorithm that exclusively appraises societies in growth gradients. And like with any conveniently tidy metric, a porous space is allocated for externals. These generated externalities are monitored so anxiously, lest they try to cross back over and contaminate the magic circle of legitimation. Like Satan ejected from heaven, taking up new residence in the lake of fire and its idyllic sulphurous bergs. Between heaven and hell, an abyssal border, elite guest lists, and increasingly voluble moralising.

In Neighbourhood of Truth, an avowed satanist interviewee mentions the gentle monotony her chosen lifestyle actually entails… a bookish pursuit like most occult commitments. If anything, occultism is history, a textual history as muddied and subsequently fruitful as art history and as telling in its concomitant periods and entanglements with conspicuous historical players. Between satanism, occultism and popular conceptions of magic, there's an assumption of performative discourse towards physical outcomes and preclusion of agenda beyond that. That expectation is probably linked with those same primal centres which might give a person a satanic proclivity. In the public imagination, or as this has been lovingly shaped, satanic predilections might include kiddy-fiddling, virgin-slaying and/or blood-drinking. Then there are the devil-may-care orgies, of course, which by some fleshy invocation bring the tainted flock closer to their Luciferian obverse of the Holy Ghost—the Unholy Ghost?

The queer body in bio-political crucibles is all but constructed and coded with contamination where it refuses the procreative chain which so much is organised around. Exemplary bio-political curation bar none. Perhaps necessary if the species has a mind at all to buttress historically entrenched subsistence measures, even if this buttressing loses sight of founding premises. But I digress. Progressions of the queer body have been fairly assimilative of late, adopting new technologies and cultural legitimations that give it procreative options it never had before. It's free pass now, where its mere existence once presupposed a carte blanch misanthropy, a glitch in the gender order, a whiff of species-dysphoria and the guiltily relieving prospect of extinction. Even as it renegotiates itself now in the western metropoles where the queer enjoys undreamt mobility, the queer body carries its entirely nominal baggage of economic externality as a lingering residue. Affective, yes, but in disproportionately visual discourse fixated on the body, the trafficking of such affect is everything. Meaning doesn't wither and fold in the event of new meaning, which rationally cancels it out. It sticks like mud. Like wastewater, it's gotta go somewhere.

With its orgies and its embodied configuration of virile sexuality (masculinist by way of being inherently violent), there isn't much plotted distance between the erotics of the queer body and the (alleged) bottomless amoral hankerings of Satanists. As disruptions of a procreative status quo, opening up a chink in the prescribed ways of inhabiting a sexual body, the queer body is that same immunological threat to the collective that satanism was in the imported-from-America moral panics of the seventies, nineties, and twenty-tens again. It's no wonder then that satanist congregations of the twenty-first century have reformed with this othering function in mind [1], which their church's moniker has traditionally served. They now actively adorn themselves with the othering, reclaiming and mobilising this frequently fantastical différance to their own ends. Shepherds of those externals who find themselves scapegoated, for whatever reason.

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[1] Hail Satan?, 2019. [film] Directed by P. Lane. United States: Magnolia Pictures.

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Related to the exhibition Cushla Donaldson and Quentin Lind: Neighbourhood of Truth
Published August 2022