Alessandro Ugo’s F(r)EE documentary

Music doc aficionados Doc N Roll films are back showcasing another electronic music documentary: Alessandro Ugo’s free party film F(r)EE. F(r)EE is one of the first flicks to lift the lid on free party culture, featuring extensive interviews with some of the free tekno scene’s original founders.

Born from a melding of the UK rave scene, the new age traveller lifestyle and militant, anti-capitalist punk politics, the free tekno movement is a true contemporary counter-culture. What’s more, it’s enjoying a recent wave of documentation by those embedded in the scene, like Mollie Macindoe and her photography book Out of Order, Rab Lewin’s photobook Off Limits and now Alessandro’s film.

Whether you’re a seasoned teknival-goer or clueless about why anyone would ever spell techno with a K, you can watch F(r)EE at its premieres in London, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Brighton and Glasgow throughout June and July. Part-time free party partisan Rob Smith chatted to Alessandro for more details about the film…

How did you first come into contact with the free tekno movement?

When I was 17 and I had already started going to some raves, but only in clubs. A few months later, the same friend who took me to those first raves (thanks, Cora!), told me that some older friends invited us to a free party. I had no idea what it was, but was told: “It’s free, you go to the woods, there’s a massive wall of speakers, the music is way louder than in clubs, and you can dance until you want – even for days”. I still remember the excitement of calling the infoline and having to find a party rather than just driving to the given address of a club.

I won’t hide that initially, I attended free parties as a young, silly partygoer who just wanted to have no restrictions when partying hard. In the next few years, however, I became more mature and involved with the movement, mostly from a cultural and musical approach.

Moving from Milano to London then allowed me to discover some cultural differences like food, weather… and ways to enjoy free parties. In Italy/Europe, high-tempo tekno music is especially linked to the concept of free party, while in the UK, any kind of music is allowed.

What’s the most memorable/unique experience you’ve ever had at an event?

My second free party was memorable for one reason: inside the city! For the first one, we had to drive for hours, walk through the woods and find the party, which was indeed in the middle of nowhere (an amazing experience, by the way). For the second one, we just took the tube, walked a few minutes… and there it was. A massive abandoned warehouse in the old industrial area of Milano, banging bass all over the place. There I met old friends, made new ones, and felt this weird, cool sensation of taking over part of a metropolis to create a party that would go on for days. Funny enough, I had to leave the party pretty early (around midday…) as I had to attend a wedding in the afternoon with my mum…

Any legendary sound systems you’ve got a soft spot for?

Narkotek. Definitely, Narkotek was the sound system that I most enjoyed and still do. Brutal, fast, loud and with lots of musical changes to twist every single cell of your body and soul. I had the privilege to interview them in Lyon, though for only a brief period.

Why was now the right time to make the film? How long did it take to put it together?

I’ll start with the second question: it took five years! Well, with some breaks in between, but it’s been a pretty long journey. It started in 2017 with the idea to create a feature documentary. The film was eventually completed in 2022.

I think this was the right moment to release the film, especially in Italy, where the political right wing now in charge has just created the same anti-free party laws that the British Government had created in 1994 with the Criminal Justice Bill. Hopefully, this film will help to broaden the view that some people may have on this world. That’s also why I call it “a music documentary” and not “a documentary about free parties”. I’m not here to promote the free party world but to give new tools and perspectives to understand it.

While acid house and the early UK rave scene have a well-established web of origin stories, myths and literature surrounding it, we’ve only recently seen a surge in people, like Molly Macindoe, writing and sharing photography about free parties. Why do you reckon this is?

I’ll answer by citing a statement from the documentary: “Internet killed the underground”. Media sharing has become increasingly more accessible to anyone. This allowed moments that were before kept underground to become public, thus slowly losing that sense of secrecy. You can, however, still be underground, in the sense that, yes, it’s not 100% secret any longer, but it hasn’t all become a fashion nor a commercial sell-out. Being underground is a way of living.

How did you start working with the Doc n Roll crew?

I never used Instagram (or at least, my account would come to life every six months, see a couple of pictures posted, and then die again for another six months), but I was strongly advised to create a profile to promote the film. With the help of a friend (thanks, Max!) we did it, and that’s when I was approached by the Doc n Roll crew, encouraging me to submit the film to their music documentary festival. “Hurrah,” I thought. I was happy… until I received an email saying that my film didn’t enter the competition.

However, to my surprise, I was contacted by Colm again, who explained that the film would not work at the festival but would work well in the cinemas. This happened on the same day another distribution house in Italy told me they wanted to show my documentary in my home country. Happy days.

What are people’s biggest misconceptions about the free tekno scene? How does the documentary address them?

I think everyone has different misconceptions, but the biggest is probably that those who go to free parties are troublemakers. Sure, there may be some, but rotten apples are everywhere, from free parties to schools and churches. The free party vibe is pretty chill; people want to go there, have fun and forget about problems. The majority of free-party-goers are truly easygoing. I tried to address this in the doc by letting those in the scene talk freely about their positive experiences.

In the trailer, Shockraver discusses how he dislikes people who use free parties to launch their careers. Is this commercialisation of the free party scene something you’ve come into contact with?

This is a pretty deep and complicated topic, widely addressed in the film by 69db from Spiral Tribe. It is difficult to draw a line, labelling artists “sell out” or “still underground”. I myself, when I was young, could not accept that a DJ who’d play at a free party could also play in a club. But then you grow, mature and understand why this happens. Perhaps, part of the line could be drawn at the moment that an artist doesn’t attend free parties at all anymore, denigrates them and only plays in commercial events.

Any personal favourite music books, films or docs you can recommend?

A must-watch for many is “Tekno – The Breath of the Monster” by Andrea Zambelli, who’s also present in my film (and whose interview should be a stand-alone documentary itself!). It is completely different from mine, and it shows the experiences of those who embrace the free party world as a way of living.

What are the biggest challenges the free party scene faces going forward?

One of the most significant challenges the free party scene faces is the increasing crackdown by authorities in many countries. In recent years, several countries have introduced new laws and measures to prevent the organisation of free parties, citing noise pollution, public safety concerns, and other issues. This has led to increased police presence and arrests at free parties, making it increasingly difficult for organisers to find suitable locations and keep events going.

In Italy, the new laws are really serious. Free Party organisers can see up to six years in prison. A paedophile can see up to five years. Homicide is twelve years. In the past weeks (April), some street parades have been organised in some Italian cities to protest these strict laws.

Another challenge is the sustainability of the free party scene. Many organisers are volunteers who rely on donations and support from the community to keep events going. With the rising cost of equipment, transportation, and other expenses, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain these events without financial support.

Moreover, there is a need for the free party scene to address the issue of drug use, which has been associated with many free parties. Although drug use is not unique to the free party scene, it is essential to ensure that participants are aware of the risks and have access to harm-reduction resources.

Finally, the free party scene needs to remain relevant to new generations. Many young people are drawn to electronic music and the community aspect of free parties. Still, there is a need to adapt to changing trends and evolving interests to continue to attract new participants.

From serious incidents like the dangerously low temperatures at La Creuse Teknival 2019 to the more light-hearted headlines about attendees changing Davidstow signs to say ‘Ravidstow’. All sorts of negative press coverage follow Freetekno around…

I cannot blame certain people who don’t understand free parties for hating free parties! They’re loud, they’re not safe, there’s a lot of drugs sold like at a street market, and they’re often on private property. I never attended a free party with the arrogance of thinking that “I was right”. I always knew I was doing something that could disturb someone. For me, it’s important to discuss case by case. What I mean is that at the moment that you don’t disturb anyone, you should be free to do whatever you want, but if you throw a party in a city warehouse close to residential houses and you force an 80-year-old granny or just anyone who must wake up at 6am to go to work on the following day to stay awake all night, you’re just an asshole and an asshole if you attend. I did this tons of times before realising it. Media like to focus on this and won’t ever be allowed to cover free parties in a not-negative way.

What do you think keeps free tekno going?

Like most phenomena, the free party is cyclical. There have been moments where it saw enormous growth and others where it became less popular. This cycle will continue, but I don’t think it will ever stop, as “there will always be someone with the courage and energy to carry on”.

Photo credit: Molly Macindoe

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