Having been warned in advance, Montreal-raised Melissa James had a pretty good idea what to expect from Vancouver before moving here four years ago. The codirector of the locally shot documentary No Fun City would quickly find out, however, that perception sometimes differs from reality.
“The only thing that I ever heard was, ”˜Everyone smokes pot, so watch out, because there are hippies everywhere,’ ” James says, interviewed at the Georgia Straight office with the movie’s codirector, Kate Kroll. “So my idea was that I was going to get to Vancouver and there would be hippies smoking pot everywhere. But I actually don’t think I’ve ever seen a hippie here.”
What she did see, however, was a place that often lives up to its unofficial title of No Fun City.
James arrived in Vancouver after stints in New York and London, England. Kroll grew up in Alberta and spent time living in Ontario. Upon arriving in Lotusland, both were amazed at the lack of venues available for the city’s thriving local music scene.
“My parents own two bars in Alberta,” Kroll says. “It was really interesting for me to see how much harder it was [to start a bar] here than in Alberta.”
Rather than sit around and bitch about it—something that’s a favourite regional sport for those who’ve grown up here—they decided to do something to try to change things. With No Fun City, they’ve taken a hard look at the difficulties of trying to run a live-music venue in Vancouver, coming at the issue from a number of sides.
Wendythirteen and the now-defunct Cobalt show how gentrification and real-estate prices have put pressure on bars that were operating long before condo dwellers moved into the neighbourhoods. The now-shuttered Sweatshop and the man who ran it, local promoter Malice, make a good case that playing by the city’s endless list of rules gets you nowhere. The now-closed Emergency Room in Strathcona shows what happens when enterprising music fans decide they are going to operate an underground club without the necessary licences and permits. And a segment on the Downtown Eastside makes a great case for why something in Vancouver needs to give: there’s something seriously wrong when the city will allow open-air crack deals at Hastings and Main but won’t grant a venue like the Rickshaw a permanent liquor licence.
James and Kroll hatched the idea for No Fun City when they were introduced to each other at an Adjective concert at the Sweatshop. Unemployed at the time, the two realized they had plenty in common, including experience in the film industry.
Watch the trailer for No Fun City.
“I started shooting a film on underground venues; I was interested in why they were out there,” James notes. “Kate was at the Sweatshop hanging out, and friends were like, ”˜You should talk to her because she wants to make a film.’ The following week, we met up and we were like, ”˜Let’s work on this seriously.’ It’s funny, because most people think we’ve been best friends for years, but we were, like, more: ”˜Wow. We have the same clothes on; we could really work together.’ ”
And so they did, treating No Fun City as a full-time job—the downside being that it was a job that didn’t pay. Over the course of a year and a half, they discovered that there are plenty of others in Vancouver who wonder why starting up a live-music venue seems like a mission impossible, especially if you’re determined to go through the proper channels.
As word of what they were doing spread, James and Kroll were thrilled to find sympathizers stepping up to the cause, whether it was to donate gear or volunteer time to make the film happen. After the fact, bands such as Nu Sensae and Twin Crystals would allow their music to be included in the film for free. And heavyweights such as D.O.A.’s Joe Keithley and Skinny Puppy’s cEvin Key came onboard to add important contextualizing; they make it clear that, dating right back to the ’80s, the city has always made it difficult for underground musicians in Vancouver.
Still, the young filmmakers readily admit that there were also some too-cool-for-school types who decided they didn’t want to be included in the movie, despite the fact that No Fun City is in many ways also a celebration of Vancouver’s thriving DIY spirit.
“Not everyone wanted to be covered in the film, which is totally cool and we totally respect that,” James says. “But some people think that if you show people your culture that those people will then have a better understanding of that culture.”
Kroll continues: “People like Malice let us follow him around and really cover his life. I think that we were very close to the scene to begin with, so, in that sense, it really helped. Although I do remember meeting wendy for the first time to ask her to be in the film and I was pretty intimidated, which now seems ridiculous, because she’s such a nice, warm, outstanding person.”
If Kroll and James have one wish for Malice, wendythirteen, and, really, almost everyone in No Fun City, it is, not surprisingly, that something changes. As for the likelihood of that happening, neither of them is wagering on it.
Noting that many of the gentrification issues that Vancouver is currently facing seem to be taking place across the continent, including in cities like New York, James makes a suggestion. Although it comes off as a one-liner, it’s actually true.
“Things seem to be tightening up all over the place,” she says. “So, I dunno—I guess you have to fight for your right to party.”
Melissa James and Kate Kroll will attend a DOXA festival screening of No Fun City at the Pacific Cinémathí¨que on Monday (May 10) at 9 p.m.