Free Party: A Folk History is a timely DIY indie film that follows the birth of the UK's free party movement from the late eighties and early nineties and the social, political and cultural impact it's had on our present times, with appearances from the founders of Nottingham’s very own DiY Soundsystem - but those of you who were lucky enough to go down to Broadway Cinema’s screening of the film back in November will already know this, of course. Director Aaron Trinder tells us about the process of obtaining footage for the documentary from a time before mobile phones and his own experiences of the free party movement…
Firstly what was it that made you want to make this film? When did you first have the idea? How did it develop?
Like a lot of creative people who make stuff for a living, I’m always trying to do my own projects - rather than just paid work all the time. I always had in the back of my mind that someone should make a film about free parties like Castlemorton and the CJB as it was a massive, exciting and influential moment in time which seems to have been largely forgotten - but I assumed someone would get there before me. I thought something achievable might be making a short film about one party I went to as, I could just get started the next day, with a camera, tripod and sound kit- so, I started interviewing people from the story, (members of Spiral Tribe, DiY etc), but once I did this I just realised I had to keep going and tell the bigger story, it was just too good to ignore. Here I am five years later.
For readers too young to remember the era, how important was the free party movement?
I think it's a much ignored but extremely important moment in time for many reasons. I think of it as the last great unifying youth movement just before the internet - where music and culture mattered so much to people they were driven to pursue it as a full lifestyle - outside of the mainstream and with no drive for profit or fame. 1994 seems to be a pivotal year politically, technologically and culturally as it was the point between the digital and the analogue age, and this film's story is just before that moment occurred.
What was your own experience of the free party movement of the era? (I’ve read that you were at the Spiral Tribe NYE party in 1991 documented in the film).
I was a big raver but also had some knowledge and awareness of the travelling, hippy and squat world, having had an early ‘psychedelic’ experience on Glastonbury Tor in 1988 at a free festival. So it connected to two sides of me - and although I only went to a handful of the countryside free parties, the energy and sense of utopian potential of dancing under the stars is a pretty compelling combination. I did indeed go to the Roundhouse in 1991 in Camden and it was quite an eye opener, this huge space in the centre of London, and 10000 people running around in the dark, part apocalyptic dystopia and part utopia.
Your film was paid for through crowdfunding. Tell us about how you managed that, on top of the film-making itself. Is crowdfunding something you’d recommend to other filmmakers?
I tried a few of the conventional means of raising money (pitching the idea to funding bodies etc), but, as its a counter cultural story the mainstream organisations always passed on it, either deciding it was too niche or too controversial. But I slowly found the audience for the film within communities online and set up a group to ask questions and discover new strands / story elements. After a few years of this I realised that the only way I was going to get it to the next stage was to crowdfund. It was extremely hard work, but went very well as the communities in the story were so keen to have their story told. Its not an easy task, but I would really recommend doing a crowdfunder as it not only generates funds, it galvanises a community of people to help get the film out there as well as gets attention for the film in the press etc.
There’s quite a lot of amazing footage from the era. All of this shot at a time before mobile phones and when taking a video camera to a festival would have been quite an arduous task. How did you manage to get hold of it all? Did it take a lot of negotiation?
It was not cool to have a video camera back in the free party / illegal rave era. You were generally assumed to be police / undercover and as people were living this lifestyle full time, particularly travellers, many of them felt oppressed and poorly represented by the press. So the people who did have a camera, were either news crews (which is expensive to license) or a few key individuals who were inside the scene and trusted. It took quite a while for me to discover people, but some approached me once they saw things developing, and once they could see I wasn’t in it for money, or to misrepresent anyone. I did my best to include all of them in the process, inviting them along to screenings, and exhibiting some of their work at an event we held, and even, with Andrew Gaston, who shot a lot of stuff in the European part of the story, becoming direct collaborators in the making of the film itself.
For such a pivotal movement, parties which involved hundreds of thousands of people, there seems to be very little out there in terms of documentation of the free party scene of that era. Why do you think this is? Is that starting to change with your film and the release of Harry DiY and Mark Spiral Tribe’s books?
Yes I guess its a thirty year thing, that people start to look back on that time and recognise that it was a pivotal and powerful moment. For a long time the acid house / rave story was largely based in London or maybe Manchester and Ibiza, and that was it. It is certainly about time for it to be remembered. Mark and Harry have been almost like collaborators / co-conspirators during the process as they were both completing their books and we helped each other with research, and as sounding boards. Good to have brothers in arms to vent at on occasion too. Both very smart and decent chaps.
New Age travellers have had quite a bad rep in the past. Was that something you wanted to change with the release of your film?
Its true that so called ‘New Age travellers’ have been pretty much vilified in the press over the years and many within that community were at first suspicious that I might be another person attempting to paint them in a negative light. I certainly hope the film goes some way to see beneath the headlines and show that they certainly weren’t what they were portrayed as in the media.
Have you ever watched the film/s about Fyre festival? Is that kind of ‘luxury festival’ the polar opposite idea to free parties?
Yes indeed - Fyre Festival really was the polar opposite of what the early free festivals and free parties were, when something has become so commodified and so far from the original spirit - that and Woodstock 99 where they charged ten dollars for water - They got what they deserved!
A lot of promoters put on festivals as a business nowadays. What was it that made people in this era put on free parties? Why is it important they were ‘free’?
The concept was really borrowed from free festivals in the seventies and eighties. Bring what you expect to find - an anarchist utopian idea, of people gathering and making something for each other and themselves. Of course they weren’t always perfect, many of them were chaotic and occasionally a bit edgy. But as soon as a gate appears and a wrist band and bouncers, its something else, it can still be lots of fun, and I’ve enjoyed many festivals over the years, but its no longer an experiment in peoples best nature - its controlled entertainment within walls.
What were the logistics like for someone trying to put on a free party back then? You’d have to be quite organised and a lot of work must have gone into planning and promotion.
Ironically I think word of mouth was very powerful back then, so many of the parties weren’t in any way ‘advertised’ or ‘promoted’ at all. Maybe someone left a message on a ‘party line’. Maybe someone did a black and white flier, but peoples excitement to find these events meant they didn’t need to advertise them. But certainly a lot of love and care went into things like the decor, the sound system, the environment that parties were held - mostly in common land or empty warehouses etc.
Nottingham’s DiY crew (represented by Harry and Grace) are quite pivotal in your film. When did you first come across DiY Soundsystem? What was it like working with Harry and Grace?
DiY are very important to the story, because they were one of the earliest ‘sound system’ crews to hook up with the travelling community. As Harry says in the film ‘the travellers had the marquees and the generators, and we brought the decks and the music and the city people and it just worked a treat…’. Both Harry and Grace are fantastic, alongside Jack, and Chilly Phil from the DiY / Free Party People cross over. Harry and Grace added a lot of humour to the film - its been great working with them for the research, and also as guests on the panels of the various Q and As we’ve been doing for the film.
You’ve spent a few months at the end of 2023 touring the film. How has it been received?
It's a cliché maybe, but its been ‘mind blowing’. The reactions of people both young and old have been really incredible. I never expected this response, and I’m really humbled by it all. Peoples positive reactions make all the massive challenges of getting something finished completely DIY all the more worthwhile.
How was the screening at Broadway Nottingham?
Just wonderful, amazing sound and image in the big screen there, lovely people who looked after us and the packed crowd was so passionate about the story, and responded so well to the film, that I missed my last train home….
Any news on a wider release?
We’re dealing with licensing issues for music and archive, which, for a DIY (pun intended) project like ourselves is currently out of reach for a general release, but we’ve got a years worth of film festivals upcoming so watch this space after that.
Do you think there could be a future for free parties again? Perhaps as a contrast to the monetisation of festival culture? Or has that ship just sailed.
Many younger people who saw the film were very keen to tell me that there is still a strong scene, and that they’re ‘doing it for themselves’. I think people will always want to gather, dance, meet and enjoy themselves, and although world is increasingly commercial, expensive and sanitised, young people will find a way, and doing it themselves for free seems like a pretty good option, despite all the draconian laws on gathering in common space, noise, protest etc.
Is there anything else you wish we’d asked you? And why?
In the end as much as the film is about ‘free parties’ as about the erosion of common space. The CJB seemed focused on Travellers and ravers, but it also focused on protestors, ramblers, wild campers, the right to roam etc and the latest laws (the Crime Sentencing and Police Bill and subsequent Public order acts) have increased these restrictions dramatically, so ‘noisy protest’ can mean a year in jail, sitting on the road to block traffic can be multiple years in prison and travelling lifestyles are effectively illegal. This film is about the need to remember that space used to be free-er, and we shouldn’t take the increasingly commodification and restrictions of it lying down.
What’s next for you as a filmmaker?
I’ll be touring the film across the EU in 2024 including film festivals in about seven countries so far, aiming for some kind of general release at the end of the year, while producing a feature doc called Dirty Squatters on the band 2000DS with my collaborator Andrew Gaston as director - watch out for that one, its a crazy tale.
Free Party: A Folk History was screened at Broadway Cinema as part of the 2023 Doc’n Roll Festival
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