Experimental Reviews

Brown Bread (2021) – 5 stars

Director: Felix Davidson

Writer: Felix Davidson

Running time: 9mins

In physics, the phenomenon known as the observer effect sees observed systems disturbed by the act of observation. This is usually due to the instruments necessary to examine certain particles altering the state of said articles. Broadly, some things can change because of our determination to witness and understand them – and thus while we might hypothesise what their unaltered states might be, we cannot see them for ourselves.

In my time viewing films for Indy Film Library, I have come across a few films – usually the experimental ones – where there is such a level of subtlety, that discerning their ‘meaning’ almost feels like undertaking such a scientific process. In a non-literal way (in actual quantum theory, the observer does not need to be conscious for this effect to take place), sometimes this means I am afraid that I might be imposing myself on what another viewer sees after they read a review.

If that proves to be the case with Brown Bread, it would be a great shame. Such a beautifully crafted, bitter-sweet short deserves to be enjoyed precisely for its ambiguity – rather than for what one critic would like it to be about.

Writer, director and animator Felix Davidson describes his student project as “a labour of love,” and doesn’t it show? The film is a profound, technically polished opus; which itself dances delightfully around a metaphysical version of the observer effect. It is part of the universal human experience to fixate on our own mortality; to know what is in store for us at the close of play. But it is something we can never know until observing it first hand – and after, the process will leave us in a changed state where we cannot understand what we have seen.

The film centres on the “passing” of a nameless individual, following some kind of traffic accident. We hear the crash, before a strange, spiralling sequence of half-realised images allude toward a consciousness circling the drain. When the plug is finally pulled, two featureless figures stand alone in a monotone plane. One is the individual whose fate we overheard, the other jokingly dismisses the idea it is God – but ventures nothing else about its identity. It informs the new arrival that there will be a series of memories to play the newcomer out, before it re-enters a state of “Nothing.”

There’s some wonderfully dry wit in this little mid-section. The recently deceased’s only response to being confronted by the void is, “Again.” And of course, trying to think about your consciousness before your birth will confirm exactly what this gallows humour refers to.

What then follows is a dreamlike procession of half-recollections. As “time is different” for our poor unfortunate soul after death, all the memories converge into an amorphous blob – something which depending on your point of view could be quite a nightmarish prospect.

Utilising found footage, digital film, animated loops and visual poetry, Brown Bread blurs boundaries between archival footage, modern film and animation, even as it seeks to examine them, much like its thematic ruminations on the wider themes of death, memory, and time.

When we are asked “do you fear death?” it is a knee-jerk reaction of many of us to downplay that. We comfort ourselves with wholesome ideas, like our long-gone loved ones coming to ‘fetch’ us, or a sepia-toned carousel of warm, well-defined memories lulling us into our eternal rest. But what if there is no coherent slideshow of wholesome nostalgia, no fitful highlight reel of a life well-lived?

Instead, what if there is only scrambled delirium? Our mind, on its last gasp of oxygen, desperately tries to tally up a life-time of constructed meaning among limited bursts of disconnected imagery. Isn’t that a horrific thought?

Perhaps.

But perhaps, this is also a hint toward something grander than understanding ourselves as a single light that can simply be snuffed out. Perhaps, as these memories, which have accumulated seemingly at random in the final moments of a consciousness are reflective of the broader accumulation of human history, or even the history of life on Earth.

While it might not make sense that memories we separate as important like a baby’s first steps would appear next to a vivid recollection of a full moon, or super 8 of a smiling man in a suit, each of these moments played some role in forming the consciousness as a whole – and were kept alive by that consciousness’ existence. They might appear as ghost-like intruders compared to the memories normatively attributed with more worth, but they are materially as important in crafting a unique perception of the world, and a personality people cherished.

At the same time, we might not all be thought of as important in the so-called grander scheme of things. But each one of us has impacted countless lives beyond our own – having also been impacted by countless lives ourselves. Having added to the sum of events on this planet, traces of our influence – recognised or not – will continue to echo throughout the world long after our bodies depart. We may return to nothing, but paradoxically, we will always have been part of something – and in an improbable universe, that is a miracle in its own right.

What I think this film does so well, is that Brown Bread manages to capture the bitter-sweet poetry of this paradox. There is an inescapable terror, and a sadness to the end which we all face. Our exact personality can only exist once, and will never be seen again – while having briefly enjoyed an unlikely existence, we will return to the void from whence we came. But like those strange, seemingly random memories glimpsed before we die, perhaps something of our essence will still linger, in the world we leave behind. It is a beautiful effort, in sentiment, and execution, and with it, Felix Davidson has produced one of the most accomplished short films you will see anywhere this year.

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