It's not surprising that there's relatively few films made about pirate radio, when being collared with illegal broadcasting equipment or running a station can land you in jail, with an unlimited fine, or, in the infamous case of DJ Slimzee, receiving an ASBO banning you from the upper floors of buildings in London. Drowned City, a documentary by UK filmmaker Faith Millin that's been gestating over the past year or so, is an attempt to rectify that situation. From the title I was expecting some apocalyptic, Ballardian essay film – the name, it turns out, comes from a track by Dark Sky – but viewing a selection of rough cuts suggests the opposite. It's a personal, intimate film dealing with those who risk their livelihoods (and lives) keeping the pirates on air. Some of the stories are familiar from urban myth or recycled anecdotes – driving around for places to put aerials, shinning up pylons – but this is one of the first times the pirates speak for themselves, albeit often with hooded faces and under the cover of darkness.
The narrative of Drowned City is the familiar one of people doing it for the love of the music, but it's no less emotionally engaging for that. One pirate recalls picking up secondhand broadcast equipment and messing around with it with mates in the back garden, culling what he needed to know from YouTube and the net. There's footage of pirates shinning up electricity pylons overlooking London and the surrounding counties and accessing power for transmitters by breaking into electricity substations (surely cast iron proof that they're not doing it for self-interest).
Of more direct political import are accounts of pirates getting placed on lengthy periods of bail after arrest, and having their partners questioned for supposedly supporting their activities. From these anecdotes, the behaviour of Ofcom, the quango that regulates radio and telecommunications in the UK, seems odd – they expend serious money and police resources to keep small pirates off the air, with relatively little in the way of explanation. "They disrupt the vital communications of the safety of life services, particularly air traffic control," runs one rather shaky-sounding argument on the Ofcom website – surely air traffic control doesn't rely on the FM band?
The film is apparently still evolving as more figures from the pirate underworld are drawn into the film; as yet all that exists in the public domain are some relatively brief teasers, essentially just standard trailers for the forthcoming film. But judging by the work in progress, Drowned City could turn out to be an important document. The intimate conversations with the pirates show you some of the toil, the dirt under the fingernails, and the scars of those who struggle to keep pirates on the air. "They take from, rather than contribute to, the communities they claim to serve," states the Ofcom website. Drowned City looks like it could offer a positive counter to that argument.
Drowned City teasers: