Reflections on Sonic Reverbs:
Example of an ethical collaborative method for making a queer-migrant documentary
Perhaps combining the concept of grief with relationships isn't something usual
to what we usually saw in big Western European cities or metropolises, where most
activities related to kinship are linked to productivity and consumption.
After many years of living here (intentionally have chosen to stay here and used
my presence as a political tool), the central question in my creative works and
mental wellbeing has always been: can we queer people relate to each other beyond
our gender/race/intersections? How much music (and its theoretical or social
framework) can contribute to the conversations on queer kinship and vulnerability?
How does one make a film not to 'sell' the music or film industry, but to truly
portray the long fragile process of relating, exchanging, and caring? How do we
appreciate each other in a changing and short-lasting transit city? How do we
truly disrupt the mode of documentary from its extractive representation into
something more caring and deep?
This little essay should draw inspiration from my recent (and the first documentary I produced) short film 'Sonic Reverbs' (2022) which evolved out of the Xposed Short Film Fund pitch (a part of Xposed Queer Film Festival's annual competition) I won back in 2020. This first episode forms the introductory part of the so-called 'Berlin Trilogy' I aim to create in the near future. My approach to filmmaking i.e., this documentary is nurtured by a form of ethical collaboration and the content relates to my personal experiences.
I am using the term 'kinship' in its loose meaning; which can also mean a forms of special relationships, especially for queer persons.
Track #1 : Reverberation - What should we listen to
I hate queerness when it's 'just' about LGBTQ+ (and mostly colonial) identities.
I first learned the word 'reverb' via my first attempt at learning Cubase, a sound engineering software that could create electronic tracks back in ca 2008 in Bangkok. Yes, I dreamt of being a music composer/producer/songwriter, something I rarely spoke about in public - and what many people didn't expect of me. Of course, long story short, that dream fell apart due to many factors, but something out of those periods stayed with me until now. How I love film music, sound design, or observing those musical qualities/subjects in cinema gives me such joy. 'Reverbs' can be created easily by clicking that effect box and sliding the size of room tone one wants to have, allowing the (initially cleanly recorded) samples; be it computer-generated violin string or synth chords to last longer than it should, and fade out slower than how they were originally created. It's almost how you make bigger drama out of what was there or hold on so long to something you crave for.
A reverb is different from an echo - it explains the phenomenon where sound keeps
on reflecting, bouncing, and somehow then 'masking' (interfering) with original sound.
An echo, on the other hand, is one particular reflection of original sound that
travels far enough into it becomes its own distinct entity, distinguishing itself
Easily saying (in some curatorial thinking, perhaps), echo is the ideal outcome, according to Louis Chude-Sokei in linking this 'technopoetics' with Black diaspora, of how Black diasporic music is created out of the 'original' Africa. It's when, after all those reverbs and surfaces, something 'clearly distinctive' is born out of something else. While reverbs, on the other hand, might explain the process these echoes are being produced, or in its teenage or early stages; not yet the distinct entity, yet clearly not its original.
As some technicians would explain, it might make the result a bit 'muddled' or
'messy', as it provides such a form of space, or allowing the idea of space
(spatiality) to interfere with the sonic qualities (and I would thematize this
word 'interfere' a bit more). As a researcher with interests in European archives,
many of the recordings or documentations share a similar character: the formal
attempt in having something 'authentic' yet polished, clean, perfectionist record
of its colonies. Most sound recordings didn't involve the so-called 'room tone'
or the echoes of an instrument in its particular context (be it space or time).
What one heard from the colonial exhibition phonograms is the instruments being
played, but not the sounds of bees, forests, ghosts, people's gossips, hummings,
and more. They are all, under European white hands, without such 'interference',
rendered contextless, out of space and time. Yet they have been fixated only on
their origin in specific (European-made) space and time.
Easy example: As someone from Thailand I have been expected to make films about Thailand.
But what on this earth does sound or look like 'Thailand'? Everyone we know about Thailand's oriental heritage is based on the 1970s neo-traditional revivalism, funded by CIA/United States in collaboration with “those people” (can't mention them here due to our constitution law), based on knowledge of Franco-British oriental institutes. All of these, with their own argument of '3000 years heritage', are all modern constructs, as there is no way what is recorded in the 1970s can sound like what was being played in the 15th century, apart from the fact that there has never been 'one' musical heritage (Was Sukhothai ever a part of Siam, then Thailand? Did these people who lived on the mountains ever knew they were living in “Siam”?). To explain this briefly, I would describe this 'interfering room tone' (or the space where sound spreads out and lives in), as something that breaks this traditional (colonial) pattern of music. The fact that musicians from Southeast/Asia (from all ethnic and class backgrounds) try to break away from such a reductive paradigm, is how they allow such 'interference to happen in their sounds.
They reclaim the context, the space and time of where they really stand 'now', and not what is reclaimed to be their ancestors or their 'past'. Perhaps this is what constitutes the potentiality of kinship, I think, as I proceed with the project.
Track #2 : Diaspora Film, Music and Kinship
Conceptualizing for the pitch, I drew the idea from the fact that I, like others,
have been taking some things or some relationships for granted. 'Berlin is such a
transit city. It's where many tourists and expats come, spend some time here,
before they have to leave. [...] Therefore it's so hard to develop a sense of
belonging here” (paraphrased) said Folly Ghost in the film. It is such a position
of privilege, sometimes, realizing we amongst the spectrum of (colonial) LGTBQ+
could do 'whatever we want' in this city - a horizontal form of relating/making
I regretted it, just like others did, as Naari also said 'I wish I had given her something from Berlin, like a gift that reminds her of our times here. And then she's gone'. And out of this regret, I decided my film from now on would be about social practice in queer relationships; it would be about how I appreciate possible things that already happen, but I (and others) lack the reflection to appreciate them. If not just letting them slip through life, like another 5-minutes toilet conversation in a club. Music, and its aspect in queer migrant community here, is picked as the first starting point (or 'Ausgangspunkt' in German) in this Berlin trilogy.
Therefore, I embark on this journey; a first documentary I shall produce (and almost alone). It is a challenge, both to myself (that I have been trained in the underground scene, such as Kinoloop Berlin, as a fictional filmmaker), and to the highly toxic documentary film industry.
After I won the pitch, I met all these musicians (Kei Watanabe, Folly Ghost, Nansea,
Naari) and engaged in long conversations. Nansea, for example, is someone I met
regularly throughout our hedonist queer times in some illegal queer parties,
we always had nice conversations but activities out of those contexts have rarely
been executed. Few years later, we properly had a few drinks and bonded closer.
First they asked me what I expected of them, and secondly they asked what person do
I expect them to write a song for. and I always had to explain: I do not expect
anything, also music-genre-wise I have absolutely no vision, nor ideas. Just do
whatever it makes you (and someone you select) feel good. It seems I have to always
remind others: do whatever makes you and others feel good. Do whatever that would
be the best reflection of the relationships you have with that person.
After a few months of talking and the film's preproduction, I realized this film is less about 'music' in its complexity and industry. Rather it is much more about my curiosity in seeing these relationships between people being expressed in a form of music/sounds and gift-making. How do we appreciate each other more, when no one ever stays too long - both in our lives, and in the city itself?
While we planned everything, I was thinking about the heavy budget it would require to have everyone on board. Few people the musicians want to dedicate the sounds to, are not living in Berlin, rather in another continent. Right after a few fundings rejected this project (such as BKM- which usually tried to sell diversity but failed to fund local independent projections without giving proper feedback). Some music-specific funding units said 'we fund only exclusively music-related projects', which reflects their own racialized idea of how the creative industry works: 'you are only one thing and nothing else'. I faced the project's financial reality that I can't do everything, even it could be the place for everything. I told all musicians this condition, which they accepted and decided to move on, turning our collaboration from its financial exchange form (agreed payment and fixed condition) into somewhat 'moral economy'. I offer my skills and future time, in exchange for their skills and present time. However, this also means I can't bring people from 'far away' to somewhere closer to Berlin.
Hence this aspect of distance, usually found in diaspora, comes into play in this film as well, and strangely added on to its quality. Some characters who are supposed to be there, are not there, or some who are there, are not there, also, anymore. Distance doesn't only describe physical continental distance between two people, but like Kei Watanabe's profound sentence in the film, I paraphrase, 'sometimes you can't drag each other too long, you have to give each other some space to grow. I hope we can reconnect again'. Hence distance also means a space of difference and of possible growth (if anyone could afford), which can't be overcome by flight ticket (overcoming space), but only by time.
So that mentioned 'room' or space, the spatial interference to the original sound, allowing the muddy reverbs to be born, and later 'grow' into the mature echo. istance means, in some strange metropolis profundity, unconditional acceptance;
That I do care for you, when you are not here.
Track #3 : Allowing kinship to speak
We recorded all the songs at House of Music Berlin (Warschauer Strasse),
in the same building with the Music Pool office (thanks Andrea Goetzke for
continuous support of this project). Dr Rey (Uferlos Studios), a great
friend/colleague from the queer hedonist spaces I have always been a part of,
took care of the recording/mastering. I recorded few studio scenes there -
I suddenly remembered the videography jobs I did years before I entered the 'professional' filmmaking scene. Strangely, this project is how I revisited my past, not only my ambition of being a music producer, but also how I earned a few bucks as a nobody-artist in Berlin, recording others' concerts or studios. I added new names like Erik Leuthäuser, or The Otherlab (Sabine Jay & La Paposs), or Kinoloop themselves in the film's credit, even though they have not contributed directly to the film. They regularly gave me some videography gigs and bucks in my first years. Even now I no longer accept too many of those. The experiences of 'being here and now' as translated into videographical material inspired the shape of 'Sonic Reverbs' tremendously.
As the production proceeded, 'be here and now' as a framework of thinking about temporality and its relation to my own documentary making - rather than the usual dramaturgical approach in fiction - allowed me for the first time to enjoy the process. I developed the approach “hang out with Sarnt” throughout the few shooting days we had. With a team of 4-5 people max. and the protagonists, we embarked on a summer-time trip, some done by car to Brandenburg, some on a house-boat (thankfully supported by Nautilus Hausboot). What we see in the film are shots of them (before and after) surprising each other with that music piece, while we wandered around the city in a car, parked/stopped at some corners that might relate to the protagonists, and talked/drunk/shot something. Few spaces (without making them a “thing” like the usual cliche documentaries about Berlin being a place of sexual liberation, freedom in consumption and the colonial rainbow LGBT) such as Hasenheide, Sonnenallee, Selowerstrasse, Volkspark Rehberge, Teufelsberg, Grunewald etc. held uncountable memories for these people. I relived my time in Berlin, as well as they did. Some moments consisted only of sound recordings, because I believe camera could be too invasive and intrusive in extremely vulnerable situations. This exposed them and invited them to very delicate conversations and the act of deep listening; when silence became not just 'having nothing to say' but 'too much to speak about'. Like the siren's song in Greek mythology, those who listen tend to drown in the sea. In the mythology, they lost their lives, while at the same time, destroyed the social hierarchy or political games previously existed (having all the Odysseus' crew consisting only of toxic hungry cismen). It's because trust created in this environment, that 'seduced' or lured them into the sea, hungry for the secret knowledge and wisdom hidden behind this.
The very touching part was also when I approached the bees, which I just associatively brought into the project without claiming any art market-selling 'anthropocene' business. I have been granted access to some bee hives by certain people in Berlin (thanks Silke Meyer and Nadja Wrona), and taught how to slowly approach them. Definitely not an expert, yet I was amazed that I have not been stung by any after spending almost an hour just sitting there, letting the bees know my presence here is not to harm them. The beekeepers explained to me along the way, how they 'danced' or communicated via form of movement, and how the hive mind planned a very specific destiny for all the members.
Perhaps not to compare queer persons to bees in this regard, we do not have hive minds, rather we criticize that whole hive process system. Any norms could end up being like that; how we end up dressing in the same way, or serving specific functions in a place. Yet I realized, opening up that hive is like being vulnerability, for some people.
And they decided to trust each other, and me, without stinging.
And with this form of trust - both in real (human and bees) kinship and in the intimate setting of filmmaking, it allowed me to distance (more or less) from the position as 'the director' 'the artist' and finally sit down on an equal level with them. I found this extremely refreshing and healing. Equally it allowed everyone to give their energy and knowledge/insights consensually, without any particular end-point goal. Whatever comes, whatever mistakes we make, it shall be part of the project. I want to thank Cécile Tollu-Polonowski, a mentor to this project assigned by the Xposed team, who constantly reminded me 'don't be afraid, just do it, whatever comes, will come'. Perhaps it is what I meant by reverbs; it is the tension between repeating and diverging - following scripts and improvising - the musicians ended up producing more than 'just music' or just few tracks to be listened to, they involved their social settings, changing identities and kinship, their mental state in that moment, their position as migrants in fleeting city, and their own vulnerability to be part of such process. This is not a film about music nor about queer identities amongst LGBTQ+ spectrum, but about how they create the sonic landscape for trust, intimacy, openness, secrets, and also possible constructive conflicts. It's just like we queers dancing in some parties together under the same tracklists that some other normative beings don't necessarily vibe with (like saved Britney Spears or Rebecca Black), overcoming our differences while also embracing the fact that we (or I) have always been a bit different.
Due to this approach in constantly meeting each other, engaging in each other's
other projects and events, everyone created/continued a series of their
political-artistic works. After the film, Naari ended up forming another
collective Decolonoize with other great colleagues in supporting the migrant
BIPOC musicians in punk/rock scenes), we ended up being closer friends, or not
just colleagues. With Folly Ghost, we ended up being part of the team of annual
Celestial Festival (Yeoja Magazine, Rae Mee-jin Tilly), who focuses on Asian*
performance, music, designs and arts in Berlin. Kei Watanabe joined me as
composer in my new film (by 2023) 'I don't want to be just a memory', the second
part of this trilogy - which has its own complexity. 'Sonic Reverbs', as well as
other local productions in Berlin, I would say, truly capture the part of growing
up, forming identities and collectives, and possible beautiful kinship in this city.
Even some of those kinship unfortunately can't last too long.
Track #4 : Sonic traces of lasting kinship
The most challenging part is rather in its editing. After the shooting ended,
I edited the film (with help of Cecile, Ygor Gama, some feedback from Kit Hung
and others), and asked all the protagonists' content to use this (finally selected)
footage. But it wasn't only that.
As I went through the harsh process of getting my resident permit in Germany, at
the same time, my long-term relationship came to an abrupt unexpectable end. I no
longer could walk around and advocate for 'kinship' 'unconditional love', when I
suddenly had to arrive home facing all the emptiness, the lack of such, by myself.
Same with some protagonists in this film, their kinship/friendship also didn't last
too long, or at least doesn't have the 'harmony' as what we tend to generalize about
relationships. All have ups and downs, or even “cuts” that are necessary in growing.
I found myself crying over these footages I shot about kinship and music. The project, initially created out of my curiosity and the need to reconnect with these queers, took an unusual turn. The friendships/kinship I made with these people, ended up being the relationship that saved me; their sounds and wisdom ended up accompanying me, teaching me, holding me through the lonely times. Almost destiny-like they taught me how to nature, nourish, and let go of these things, and how to creatively grieve, as I never felt myself so connected with any of my own films before.
Almost like a prediction, it was Folly Ghost who said 'what we end up producing will also end up being something that resonates with others, who might share something in common with us, be it identities or stages of life'. What they initially created to appreciate each other (without me as a part of it), ended up being the lesson that teaches me how to appreciate what I have (remaining) in life as well. It allowed maybe another meta-layer of filmmaking to inferere, another room tone to make more mess out of this; that finally “I” am a part of my own projects.
That the eyes that cried ended up being the eyes that edited the film.
The fact that the film has rarely been accepted and shown in bigger industrial-oriented film festivals, is exactly because I never made this film for them anyway. I never cared if any distributor or sales would be interested, I never thought if any television would find this relevant, or any film critics would pinpoint the word 'autoethnography' or 'experimental documentary' on this. Or some music-related festivals always said 'we unfortunately considered the film to be less about the music' - which I truly disagree. In all Q&As I had, I always say those festivals only care about the projects in their market form; ready to be sold, cataloged, screened, awarded. They never care about the people behind them, especially the consent/content, the ethics, the mental wellbeing, and the artists' agency in negotiating for these basic human conditions. While many filmmakers 'crave' for the stamps from Berlinale, IFFR, IDFA, HotDogs, SXSW, or Tribecca etc. while knowing these festivals have constantly been extracting submission fees from all local independent (queer and BIPOC) filmmakers without giving back the same in return. Worse, the festivals hunt down for something like 'oh this year we have a film made by nonbinary / Black / Asian / indigenous filmmaker,'' but what does that really mean? I wonder. And I say this from my other position as film curator/programmer for some festivals myself: I want to advocate, fight for, and reclaim the aspect of 'care' in this market. This would be a hard battle I'm ready for - because my life doesn't consist of marketable relationships, but truly blessed ones based on trust that I tried to care for.
I wish we all know that the expression or language of love/care - in 'Sonic Reverbs' act of making music - comes in different forms and shapes. One can appreciate and love a person, even if they are no longer part of their life, gladly, rightfully. It is here exactly that such distance - filled with unconditional 'love' - becomes the last blessing/gift to all relationships that last.
And the space for growth; the space for reverbs to mature into echoes. Or as Nansea said (again, paraphrase) 'for me it's all about recognizing one's own value, before giving it to the world [as a form of gift]''. Music, for me and for us, will always be the expression of kinship and values, if not more. And so, I end the film with a short sentence I have wrote back in 2019:
'Dedicated to all the fragile souls and the journeys they undertake
Let all your sounds and presence be heard and reverberated'
Sarnt Utamachote is a Southeast Asian nonbinary filmmaker and curator based in Berlin. They are a co-founder of collective un.thai.tled, and curated many many film events and research-based exhibitions regarding postcolonial histories and Southeast Asian diaspora. They produced short films about queer mental health and kinship and currently work for Xposed Queer Film Festival Berlin and Short Film Festival Hamburg.