Until trade blocs and football federations came along in the last 10 years or so, Australia had never really considered itself part of Asia — preferring instead to identify as part of the Orwellian non-region of Oceania, and looking to mother England or the new imperial superpower of the USA for cultural mores and economic direction. It’s no surprise given the country’s past.
A similar phenomenon existed with touring Australian bands until the late 90s — the USA or Europe presented as the only viable options for international touring. It’s hard to believe given our relative proximity and the huge crowds of eager young punters in South East Asia. Thankfully, a trail was blazed by some pioneering punk and grindcore bands and now Australian bands are regularly touring the region, and linking up with like-minded artists. LIFE IS NOISE editor Cam Durnsford sat down with filmmaker Rohan Thomas, who documents this change in his film The Other Option, to talk about the origins of the project.
How did you came to make films?
I actually started out interviewing bands for my podcast D.I.Wireless. I’d done little montage film clips for friends’ bands in the past, so I guess the mix of interviewing bands and video editing meant I thought I’d have a crack at a documentary web series. The first was for Poison City Weekender way back in 2010. Then I documented a road trip down the East Coast of the States to the 10th anniversary of The Fest in Gainesville, Florida. I did another really fun series for Poison City again a few years later, but the whole time the idea for the film was in the back of my mind.
How did this project come together?
The second band I ever interviewed on my podcast was Not OK from the Gold Coast who had just returned from a South East Asian tour. I became really interested in what the scene was like in South East Asia, in particular how a band I had seen the night before play in front of a handful of people had also completed a 12-date international tour in front of some big audiences of there. After more research I realised that absolutely no-one had even been there until the late 90s — but now the popularity of touring there had exploded. It felt like something had been uncovered. After a lot of emails and a research trip, I sat down and wrote a script and was on my way.
Did you have an idea of where the story was going to end up when you started out, or was it written in the experience of filming/interviewing people?
I figured if I was going to do a film, and it was going to cover 15 years of underground music history across four countries I had to have my shit together. On my previous doco series I had just stuck a camera in people’s faces and worked the rest out later. So I did as much research as possible, including travelling to Asia to meet people just for research. I wrote a script based on all the common themes that came out of this research. I stuck to that script pretty much the whole way through, but sometimes when you sit down to interview people you get some curveballs! And collecting archive video footage and photos is a nightmare and changes things as well. Overall I learnt so much about how a film comes together.
I imagine travelling to meet people, conduct interviews and film you were treated with the same hospitality that Australian bands were shown on their tours. Were there any experiences that really stood out for you?
Absolutely. The passion, hospitality and hard work of people in the South East Asian punk scenes is what stands out the most, and I hope the film reflects that. I remember I had jumped in the tour van with an Aussie band called Up and Atom when I was in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Somehow we ended up more than four hours outside of town for a show in a hall the middle of nowhere — a tiny village, surrounded by farms and mountains. As usual, the show was running late and it was past midnight and I had to get all the way back to the city for an early flight. I was fucked. The organiser of the show went and rallied this random kid who gave me a private ride at what felt like 100km an hour on a scooter to the nearest train station, then helped me get the last train back to Yogyakarta. He stayed with me until the train left. He probably missed the rest of the show. He just wanted to help. Unbelievable.
Despite the barriers to participation with access to equipment and venues, or hostile cops, would you say the scenes there are healthy? Who are some of the bands you’d recommend?
’Punks always find a way’ — and South East Asian punks are masters of that statement. While the scenes are very healthy and offer touring bands some amazing shows and experiences despite the challenges you mentioned, one thing I learnt from my time there is that there are also elements that are absolutely no different to any other scene (including Australia) such as lack of venues, attracting audiences to shows and dealing with cliques and scene politics. There are some SERIOUSLY amazing bands over there, almost too many to mention. But some faves off the top of my head are Daighila from Kuala Lumpur, Vague from Jakarta and Snäggletooth from Singapore (RIP).
The doco makes a pretty good point about the unfairness of the experiences of South East Asian bands wanting to tour Australia as compared to Australian bands on tour in Asia, thanks to our stupid immigration policies and government. While these policies remain in place, what do you think can be done to help make it easier for bands from the region to visit Australia?
It’s a really tricky one because while the film makes a point of immigration barriers, there are many other issues preventing South East Asian bands from coming here, including money. It is unbelievably expensive for a punk band from Indonesia to be able to book four flights here, then travel around for a week playing shows. But if somehow they can find a way, and find a supportive and experienced promoter here in Australia, and can avoid the pitfalls of immigration, then they are a chance. It has been done. But as you can see, it’s not easy.
Do you think the influx of Australian bands touring has created any resentment from local bands? Watching the film it struck me that there might be the same mentality you see with Australian backpackers abroad – taking lots and not giving much back, being completely insensitive to culture and customs – is that a fair assumption?
The film actually touches on this subject a little and before going there I thought the local bands and promoters would have definitely agreed with this statement. But they didn’t. For sure, there are times where touring bands have been typical Aussie dickheads or haven’t been appreciative of how much work these people were doing to support their tour — and the guys in the scenes in South East Asia won’t want anything to do with them again. But overall as long as the touring band offers some element of respect and interaction with locals, to be honest they are just so stoked to be able to share music, stories, politics and what their city/country has to offer. As one interviewee in the film put it, sometimes the South Est Asian punks just don’t know how to say no.
Some time away to learn from the massive amount of lessons I encountered while putting something this big together, including some technical aspects of filmmaking. But I have three different script ideas ready and have already started putting my feelers out for one of them. I must be a sucker for punishment.
For more info and to get a copy of the DVD head to The Other Option.