A version of this article appeared in The Age, August 23, 2010.
This year the Melbourne Underground Film Festival is returning to its genre roots, with various films about psycho killers and a “secret screening” of Bruce LaBruce's LA Zombie, originally destined to have its local premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival before being banned by Australian censors. But MUFF's maverick spirit is perhaps best conveyed in a new film from Sydney: Lanfranchi's Memorial Discotheque, an hour-long documentary by sound designer and web producer Richard Baron.
Three years in the making, the film pays tribute to an artist-run studio and performance space on the second floor of a former chocolate factory in the inner suburb of Chippendale. (The name derives from underworld figure Warren Lanfranchi, shot down in an alley behind the building in 1981.) Between 2002 and 2007, Lanfranchi's hosted everything from raves and gigs to theatre, cabaret, and mixed-gender jelly wrestling; aptly, one of the most successful shows was a live "remix" of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), which toured to Melbourne for the 2006 Comedy Festival.
On the phone from Sydney, Baron says the project originated as a three-minute student assignment. Some of his friends were living at Lanfranchi's when news came through that the owners had decided to convert the building into a hostel, inspiring him to document the venue's final days. “I thought it would be a good subject, not realising I was biting off more than I could chew,” he says. “And I've been chewing it ever since.”
With no previous filmmaking experience, Baron had to learn on the run, in the midst of clashes between residents of Lanfranchi's and the authorities sent to evict them. “A lot of the time there was no electricity, as the power kept getting sabotaged by the landlord's representatives,” he says. “Filming was pretty difficult in a warehouse like that, with no natural light, and basically me sticking my camera in people's faces.”
Given the “unauthorised” nature of Lanfranchi's, many of those involved were wary of media exposure. “They had no entertainment license or liquor license or anything like that,” Baron says. “Funnily enough, the City of Sydney listed them on their website as a venue when of course it was completely illegal.” He shot about fifty hours of material in the two months before Lanfranchi's closed its doors, but he says most of the usable footage was obtained in the final week. “By then people were comfortable with me filming everything.”
In the editing stage, he was able to draw upon another twenty hours of video documenting performances at Lanfranchi's over the years, much of it “really bodgy handicam lo-fi footage” in keeping with the venue's aesthetic. “It's all made from borrowed equipment, asking favours from people,” he says of the documentary. “So it's definitely a very DIY kind of film, which is very similar to the space itself.”
According to Baron, Lanfranchi's “was basically the last space operating under that underground-illegal model in the inner city.” The film's recent world premiere in Sydney was followed by a lively discussion around issues of government funding and the future of artist-run venues. “We could have stayed there all night debating things,” Baron says.
Late in the film, Baron cuts to an interview with Sue Hunt, the inaugural CEO of CarriageWorks, a multi-million-dollar contemporary arts centre that opened two suburbs away from Lanfranchi's in early 2007. “It's funny how blunt that comparison comes across to people,” says Baron, who insists that no malice was intended – though he was struck by some of Hunt's comments, especially her description of the area as a “wasteland”.
The film provides a platform for some more outspoken commentators, such as the performing artist and long-term Lanfranchi's resident Phoebe Torzillo, who expresses doubts about the scale and purpose of an enterprise such as CarriageWorks. “What I'd personally like to see is seven Lanfranchi's,” Torzillo says, suggesting that governments may have ulterior motives for promoting artistic activity in specific areas. “Artists can be co-opted into being the front line of gentrification.” Cultural differences aside, it's a thought that might resonate in Melbourne as well.