Cinéma du Réel 2022 review: The Plains (David Easteal)

“What we get instead is a close and unalarming look at one person, a reminder that history is not bigger than anyone but, instead, anyone is bigger than history.”

Somewhere in the first half of The Plains, a man reflects upon the reasons why we go to work. The desire to do something, yes, but also the need to bond with other human beings. In a time of greater isolation for many workers, something as simple as a shared car ride may appear tantalizing. The man in question is Andrew, a lawyer who sometimes drives his younger colleague David home. David is a lawyer and a film director, and has decided to shoot some of these rides over the course of a year in an exercise that is part re-enactment, part spontaneous conversation, but first and foremost is about bonding. The Plains is the result of that exercise.

Bonding has its particularities, though. It helps to have the other person’s undivided attention. David is evidently engaged with Andrew in conversation, but we are forcibly drawn into it through a static fly-on-the-wall view from the backseat of the car with very few cuts in between. The fly-on-the-wall mechanism is subverted, however, by the fact that what we are watching never intends to be an untouched reflection of reality. The camera is never addressed, but it’s the kind of disregard employed by actors in fiction, not the one supposedly obtained by leaving the camera far too long with subjects for them to forget its presence. Invited to gaze at the characters from behind, we are turned into children watching the adults speak in the front seats, quietly grasping what they’re saying, trying to discover how the world works through their conversations. Sometimes we listen to both of them, sometimes it is just Andrew driving by himself, always calling to check up on his mother, who is in a nursing home and whose health is deteriorating. The images are punctuated by wobbly aerial shots of Australian plains made by Andrew in his spare time, a gentle reminder of the creative potential of any worker caught in a supposedly non-creative job.

What starts with something that sounds like regular small talk between the two men is transformed by an eagerness to break the ice and to understand how the other person lives. This eagerness is mostly evident in Andrew’s questions to David, and although David is quieter, the presence of the camera speaks for him. We hear about Andrew’s youth, his relationship with his parents, the way his mother’s personality shaped his and his sister’s, and how certain events in his life shaped the way he sees the world. We hear him talk about his decision not to have kids, his stance regarding marriage, and his relationship to work. The clock is ever-present, always after 5:00 pm, in the middle of traffic. Sometimes we notice the velocity of time passing by; sometimes we get so absorbed with them that when we check the clock twenty minutes have flown by.

Listening closely, listening extensively, listening with attention, means understanding that whatever generalizing claims we make about society or generations will lose their ground when dealing with any single person. A philosophy and a world emerge from each individual, both of which are more complex and interesting than often given credit. There are no concerns in The Plains about theorizing on inter-generational differences, or guidelines on how to deal with the death of a loved one. What we get instead is a close and unalarming look at one person, a reminder that history is not bigger than anyone but, instead, anyone is bigger than history. As Andrew and David bond, we bond with them.