We recently completed a documentary project for Nokia Music and the Sundance Channel: six films about the emerging music scene in six American Cities. New American Noise. You can see the trailer here. Emily Kai Bock, Bob Harlow, Tyrone Lebon and Abteen Bagheri all directed segments. The films premiere at the Sundance Festival on the 18th January. You’ll also be see them on the tinternet here.
I hassled Abteen to write a guest post about some of his adventures. As he says, his experiences support the following adage:
Everything you need to know about a city, you can learn at the local strip club.
The documentary style is liberating. There’s a go with the flow attitude, a difference in the feeling of a ‘work day’ when you’re shooting a documentary versus say, a short, music video, or commercial. The feeling and attitude is one I’d like to incorporate in my other work. By week two of shooting (we did Portland and New Orleans back to back) filming was the routine—documenting was life.
First off, with my documentary, there’s no actual shot list. That’s okay. I once crumpled one of those up in Australia before we started shooting The Presets, much to the dismay of producer Tash Tan… but it all turned out okay, if you’re asking me. With a documentary, you may have some ideas scribbled down or stored in your mind, but you’re mostly finding a way to put yourself inside the action you’re trying to capture. You’re waiting for surprises. A shot list could only lead to disappointment.
The crew is tiny, flexible, mobile and in this case consisted of two of my IRL friends: cinematographer Isaac Bauman and producer Chris Black. Our sound guy smiled a lot and had clearly done a lot of shrooms. Mostly, everything was set up for a comfortable environment—getting intimate with our subjects wasn’t difficult because we were close as a group. Eventually, we were just the homies, even though on the surface there was a Persian kid and a bald Jewish guy with a red beard running around inside of clubs in the lower 9th ward with professional camera equipment, but I digress. We were the homies.
And as the homies, it was our duty to loosen up. In the last two months I shot two projects in New Orleans—one a music video involving a major label, and the other this documentary. To save you from a litany of dissimilarities, I’ll point out a major one: we shot this thing at various levels of sobriety…
We were just out there living our lives, integrated into the BOUNCE scene, seeing everything through a digital camera. That’s an important distinction. The camera was digital (c300… with some vintage glass for the haters out there). We had plenty of card space. We’d shoot from morning ‘til 2:00 or 3:00am if we had to. Because we were in New Orleans, with their lax drinking laws (‘drive-thru’ daiquiri shops, people drinking from bottles on the streets), often times we’d enter the New Orleans night with their generous version of a bourbon double in our hands. We’d already been shooting for eight hours and as the parties started, we’d join up. I’m not condoning drinking and shooting, or smoking marijuana and shooting (which we tried once for 1am b-roll—end result paranoia) but I will say we got some damn good footage, dancing with the warmth of liquor in our stomachs. And Isaac Bauman is so skilled that most of it was in focus.
I was asked to blog about a funny anecdote. There’s your backstory. Let’s go back to my through line: everything you need to know about a city, you can learn at the local strip club.
Night eight or so of filming in New Orleans, we’re having drinks. Bourbon. We were staying at a motel outside New Orleans called the Studio 6 (more backstory, sorry). Studio 6 was a long term apartment style motel with felt blankets. We thought we had bed bugs. It was essentially a safe house. Our first night there, a dude named Mike with gold teeth said… ‘Didn’t I see y’all in the hood tonight?’ I turned around and said, ‘Who wants to know?’ But actually, I laughed nervously and said ‘Was that where we were?’ We get to talking. Mike is a nice guy, he tells us to be careful, how everyone thought we were police, etc. Isaac tells him we’re making a documentary on bounce music. He says, ‘OH BOUNCE MUSIC? Well that’s happenin’ at Lil’ Dawlins every night. If y’all want bounce, y’all should go there.’
Back to night eight. We’re having drinks with the client. We mention Little Darlings, which turns out to be a strip club. That’s where we’ll go film next.
Little Darlings is in the heart of the French Quarter. We roll up with no camera, which was our way of not scaring anyone. After Chris talks to the doorman, we learn, as expected, that we’re not allowed to film inside. By this point, two beautiful black women have their arms around Isaac, who is being taken inside. Another stripper grabs my hand. The client says, ‘Let’s go inside!’ She tells me I need to let loose and have some fun. I’ve been working too hard, she says. Alright, I say. Fuck it.
Next thing I know, everyone is gone. A stripper is holding my hand. No one can hear my mumbled confusion. Is Isaac getting a lap dance from two women at once upon stepping in the joint? Where is my producer? All I hear is, ‘You gonna buy me a drink, baby?’ I go to the ATM. I buy the stripper a pineapple daiquiri cuz I’m supposed to let loose. I’m feeling good.
Fast forward to two lap dances later in a dark room filled with cigarette smoke. The dances are interrupted by me asking the stripper in my lap about bounce music. After all, I’m doing research. Still no sign of Isaac or Chris. Is there some kind of private room I don’t know about? When are they going to play bounce music?
I leave the room, a bit disheveled, looking for my crew, who have now abandoned me. Maybe they’ve staged a mutiny. As I’m walking back, a beautiful woman grabs my hand. She tells me her name is Bunny. She has red hair and light brown skin. Two dances for the price of one she says. I wish I could have said no. If you’re offended, remember I’m a boy in my early 20s and I acknowledge my path is not a righteous one. She takes me to the ATM. The machine isn’t working, so I have to put in my PIN a few times. Now I’m in another room. She asks me if I’ve been with a black woman before. I ask her about bounce music. How the strippers dance to it, if she’d maybe like to do an interview later…
So you know, lap dances happen, whatever, and I leave the room. No regrets. Bunny was nice. She told me a bit about bounce music, the artists she likes, how they shake on stage after midnight. I’ve learned all I’m going to learn. I’ll call them tomorrow for an interview. I had let loose. I had a lead to film the next day. My mission was done here. I walk straight for the exit. I’m all lap-danced-out. Not more than 20 feet away (umm 6.096 meters), there’s my crew, the client, all sitting on a couch. Isaac is having the time of his life, ‘making it rain’ with thirteen brand new one dollar bills. I was the only one who got a lap dance. The isolation was necessary, I convince myself.
We continue filming the next day. All is well. I’m all out of cash, clearly. I go to get some. My bank card is missing. Uh oh. Check my statements online, all my money (I didn’t have much) has been withdrawn at a restaurant. And what’s it next door to? Little Darlings.
I sit and think about it for a second. First thought: I lost my card. Wait, but how did they have my PIN number? Thoughts of Bunny’s swaying hypnotic hips come back to me. Oh, Bunny… you so sly.
I couldn’t even be mad. What an artist. She stole my debit card AND the PIN number. This isn’t an ordinary crime. This isn’t the work of a novice. This is real, skilled trade stuff. She was with me at the ATM. She hit the cancel button so the machine wouldn’t work. She saw me put in the numbers. I was straight hustled.
And there’s this particular anecdote’s half-assed moral. New Orleans: Straight hustlin’. Bunny was the embodiment of the New Orleans attitude—‘I’m here to get mine.’ The BOUNCE scene was just like that. A bunch of rappers looking out for themselves—open beefs, drama. It was some East Coast West Coast shit happening right there in the neighborhood. Beautiful. Out of competition comes the best work.
Stay on the grind, young blood.
The documentary experience in New Orleans was completely unique—as I’m sure it is in every city. The beauty of location. There was no drinking in Portland. We shot on fixed lenses with a bigger camera rig. In New Orleans, our camera was stripped down, shooting loose on a zoom lens, roaming around our subjects. I’ve learned that for me, content and location are huge in dictating style. Not all of my stuff looks the same, and I’m okay with that. I’ll keep looking for my own style, allowing the material and the circumstances to push me in the natural direction.
Portland has its share of wild stories as well… scoped out a few brothels (just the lobby) during down time. Filmed six hours of footage at a drag queen show that never made the cut. Honestly, none of this stuff seems weird until I stop to write about it. Label it as research. Until next time…