IFFB: Speaking in Code
Attending a festival in the same town your family calls home can be a bit tricky. Festivals, understandably, program films at times when the largest audiences possible might attend--weekday nights and all day long on weekends. But that means that your free time falls when everybody else is at work and you're booked solid when they're not.
So I was especially delighted that I was able to catch the premiere of Speaking in Code at IFFB with my brother, house music DJ Mike Swells. Code evangelizes for electronic dance music, specifically techno, examining its spread from its origins in African-American clubs in the midwest to the huge festival circuit in Europe and trying to figure out why it fails to thrive on that scale in its home country. [Boston's tiny scene is a case in point: My brother seemed to know nearly every person in the balcony. He also knew filmmaker Amy Grill's husband David Day, another Boston-based DJ and promoter, who I'd met as well, way back when he worked at Other Music's short-lived Cambridge branch.]
Director Amy Grill is fortunate in her documentary subjects, odd ducks united by their passion for techno music. Philip Sherburne, who decamps to Spain from San Francisco [I quickly glimpsed a copy of Benjamin's Illuminations on his bed amid the packing clutter], and Day himself are the only Americans of note. Instead, there are established figures like Gerhard Behles of Monolake, who tends his plants in a gorgeous white-on-white Berlin flat, having made his fortune by inventing Ableton Live DJ software. We get a glimpse of BPitch Control's queen Ellen Allien, and Miss Kittin, too, yielding the stage at a Spanish fest called Sonar to up-and-comers Modeselektor--at the prime time of 4 a.m.
But scenes like Modeselektor performing before thousands of ecstatic dancing bodies, which give the viewer a sense of the scope of this music's popularity in Europe, are all too rare. More common is footage like that of Grill spending time in the German countryside with the Wighnomy brothers, one of whom gets increasingly morose and withdrawn over the course of the narrative. Or else back in Boston, where she and Day try to promote their beloved music, at one time even hosting several parties per week in their live-work loftspace, all the while falling further behind in paying their bills.
In all honesty, one of the first notes I made during the screening was "Amy G. v.o." I completely understand the economies behind documentaries, particularly a globe-trotting one like Code, but I was skeptical of her choice to serve as narrator. And I was less than sold on her choice of her partner as the representative of the U.S. techno scene, nice as David is. But the film takes a turn for which its editors/advisors can't be lauded enough. Grill's "economy jet set lifestyle" in pursuit of these musicians unexpectedly but persuasively morphs into a moving portrait of a marriage. We see Grill and Day grow further and further apart over the course of the film, until Grill realizes that her husband is no longer her co-producer but one of her characters. This realization marks the beginning of the dissolution of their marriage, and the choice to show this plays as brave rather than exploitative, again thanks to the editing.
Would that I could say the same for the post-screening Q&A. Even though the hometown crowd was supportive, the awkward arraying of bodies on the stage--Grill on one side, Day on the other, with editor Jason Blanchard in between--expressed more eloquently than their words the careful balancing act struck between exes still united to promote their common love of techno music.