Making a film about people and dancefloors

A film about recreational drug use, people and dancefloors is set in a media milieu that is at best problematic. We see programmes on the BBC or other television channels that at best are compelled by licence to be “balanced”, to show “both” sides, as if there were only ever two sides. More often, when it comes to controversial subjects, we find eager journalists and film makers presenting the story from one side, juxtaposed to another that is marginalised or misrepresented, and therefore absent.

In many respects the first approach stems from philosophically inept translations of the concept of objectivity – the object exists and we look at it from “both” sides. The second from an attempt to objectively recount someone’s story, with a forced nod to the other.

There is a sense in which we might consider journalism and some forms of documentary to have emerged from the sorts of positivist sociology that sought to scientise human society. This supposed to take human societies and communities and transform them into comparable data sets, through which they could be analysed and objectively evaluated, ranked and improved.

By the beginning of the twentieth century interpretivist sociology and cultural anthropology consolidated a hermeneutic mission to understand from cultures from within. In this sense the sociologist became part of the “object” of study to gain insights the observer’s epistemological limitations were not guaranteed to notice, let alone understand.

Film and participatory action research

The People and Dancefloors research project is very much in the tradition of this sort of anthropology, as Dr Zampini calls it “participatory action research.

The broad approach of the People and Dancefloors project is to forego moral judgement or contribute directly to policy formation, instead focusing on the very basic and much needed question of inclusion: which voices are missing from the debate around recreational drugs and dance culture and how can they be included? Therein lies the objective of the film as a mediation.

My approach to this film is as with any other: to listen to what people want to say and figure out a way to help them say it, which is appropriate to their character and the broader community in which they are enmeshed. My own experience with drugs provided a basis for understanding some general parameters, although “party drugs” have been only peripheral to my experience – I never quite understood the appeal.

Exploding preconceptions

As might be expected, my preconceptions of the participants and their scene were rapidly dispelled in the first workshop I attended: a GP, lecturers, social workers, teachers and other professionals presented an immediate challenge to those preconceptions. The participants weren’t “wreck heads” who had been derailed and discombobulated by drug experiences. The seriousness of the discussion indicated a much more thoughtful interaction with drugs and dance than I’d expected, and I was surprised that the contributions laid waste to my thoughts on the visual narrative I might develop for the film.

One participant complained about the visual representation of the sweaty, wide-eyed characters gurning into the camera in news representations of clubbers. The visual aspects would have to be sensitive. Later on, Sarah talked about what her dad would think of her drug experience, and with disdain says he would think that you take LSD and “everything would be tie dye.” So two clichés were addressed immediately and it became apparent that a great deal of thought would have to go into the visual elements.

Drugs and domestication

It is important to ask where interviewees would like to be filmed, so they have a choice in their representation. By practicality or decision, interviewees chose to be interviewed in their homes. The normality of the domestic sphere therefore lends itself to a deliver a message – these are normal people with normal lives. It’s a powerful message.

Thought of domestication and normalisation re-emerged when speakers reflected on social attitudes and media reporting of alcohol. How should one represent what interviewees all agreed was a more dangerous drug that has a tendency toward prompting violent reactions among users? Of course, the first inclination is the footage of men and women fighting and screaming in town centres on Friday and Saturday nights. But we know this. It’s too easy.

Given the domestic symbolism we used an advert for Aldi tea: an elderly woman talking about how her husband likes tea but she prefers gin. Interviewees had spoken about how their parents deride their drug use but consume alcohol every night. This normalisation is a more powerful message than replacing dramatic representation of recreational drugs with dramatic representation of alcohol. It tells us alcoholism is normal, pervasive, acceptable and funny.

Representing dance

There was a compulsion to reflect on the consumption of drugs throughout human history, but this was not mentioned by interviewees. Dancing, however, was. Humans have always danced. And so the opening scenes are of dancing in the past – an early twentieth century calypso band introduces the film. Nineteenth century footage of a lone woman dancing asks how different dance is today. Black Americans are seen dancing together in the early twentieth century.

Footage from raves in the 1990s accompany stories from interviewees, and footage we filmed in “pop up” clubs fills the space between chapters and overlays interviews. There were no sweaty gurning messes on the dancefloors, instead we see a man and woman delicately moving in harmony – not sexual, not manic but loving, and calmly enjoying each other and the music.

The participants

The interviewees themselves were mainly people who had responded to a call. We interviewed everyone who had asked to be interviewed but we had to consider how to mediate those who wanted to speak but no be identified. Audio recordings were sent in by those not wishing to be seen, which added an interesting, almost poetic dimension.

As a non-drug user, George was reluctant to be involved, crucially because he didn’t want to be seen as a voice that undermined the others. We asked him to do the interview anyway, and we wouldn’t use it if he didn’t want to. Fortunately, he agreed for us to include his contribution and his thoughtful, kind, joyous persona energises the film.

Building a narrative

The entire structure of the film is given by the interviewees and the themes they focused on. Consequently the film is divided into chapters: dance and people’s introductions to it; the meaning of drugs; people’s identities in relation to drugs, how people see taboos, and media representations.

There are notable and perhaps surprising exclusions in the film’s narrative. The policy discussion was largely ignored. The overriding concern of interviewees was not to discuss policy or justify drug use, but rather a desire to be heard, and be part of a sensible debate.

Many of the interviewees bemoaned the inability and unwillingness of the mainstream media, to facilitate debate. The media were decried as inaccurate, biased and sensationalist – insights with which every media scholar is familiar. We arrive, therefore, at the logical end of the film – there is so much to tell, so much to know, so much to share. There are narratives that tell of positive impacts of recreational drugs on people’s lives, but these are not heard. And so the film ends with a call – we will have to do this ourselves. And we are. 

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