Holy Moly, a documentary about techno that isn’t shite. In fact it’s good. Actually strike that, it’s artistic, and would probably engage those without even a passing interest in the music until the end.
This isn’t so much because of the quality of insight offered by the portraits presented here of the six veterans of the Berlin DJ booth, although what the likes of Ricardo Villalobos and Move D have to say about Berlin, and the rave life from the perspective of a club jock, can be interesting. At one point Move D, standing in one of his favourite childhood spots, sounding quite stoned, ruminates about the interconnectedness of nature, music, and Kubrick’s 2001.
Elsewhere, Ricardo Villalobos reclines listening to an obscure spiritual record in the studio, the camera fixed, a woman issuing an impassioned speech on Islam for minutes as he unpacks and studies the complicated gatefold sleeve. “Intense,” he critiques. This is typical of the style of this film, which gives the viewer a window into the working lives of the protagonists. Where documentaries about this subject often feel like they were edited by a border collie with ADHD, constantly splicing in close-ups of dancers ‘avin it, crazy visuals, and snippets of bombastic music, in an attempt to capture that feeling of exhilaration you get when standing by the bass bins on a strobe-lit floor surrounded by mates coming up on a strong yoke, this film avoids that hackneyed pitfall.
Here, the camera is anthropological. Romuald Karmakar’s lens remains static throughout; I’m not sure if it moves at all throughout the film. The spaces are documented both before and after: an empty club, an empty warehouse, a pastoral Welsh scene replete with river and trees. Then, cut to the same shots pulsing with a throng of bodies. Though not as meditative, the composition makes this thoughtful, understated film reminiscent of documentaries like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, or Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno.
But the really clever thing about this film is the sound. Someone on the production has made the inspired decision to record not only the crowd, and what is coming out of the output channel on the DJ mixer (what the audience hears) but also the channel that is playing in the headphones of the DJ, i.e. the record or CD that is being cued and beat-matched before being mixed in. In various shots we see through a fixed camera, people dancing, the DJ in shot mixing, and on the soundtrack we hear him/her pulling records backwards and forwards, stopping them, slowing them down, trying to sync the new track to the record that the audience is dancing to, which we can’t hear.
The effect on the viewer is strange and dislocating while presenting a rarely glimpsed window into the world we seldom see, through the ear of the DJ. This is the one very simple, yet dazzlingly effective, technique deployed by the filmmakers that elevates this documentary above your standard club culture fare, and places it near the realm of art.
- Jack Hairbrain is an Irish DJ based in Cologne, via Portadown, Derry, Belfast and Manchester. If you don’t find him in the club, he teams up with artist Garth Simmons for Bedtime Stories on Manchester-based Reform Radio