Interview: Warp Speed Syndicate on filming ‘Planet Nimbin’ & ‘Alien Alibi’
‘The truth is that if contact with an extraterrestrial life form does eventuate in the future … our understanding of ourselves in the universe will radically change. Planet Nimbin is a precursor discussion to this potential event.’ – Simon Georgeff from WSS in interview with Maren Smith
Iconic hippie town Nimbin’s lighter side, a rainbow of opinions on alien life, and seedy underside of violence and insanity are on display in short documentaries by Warp Speed Syndicate, both in the Official Selection at Byron Bay International Film Festival 2013. Warp Speed Syndicate, made up of Simon Georgeff and Sarah Pickering, have produced these gripping and very entertaining twin documentaries; the good twin is ‘Planet Nimbin’, and the evil twin, ‘Alien Alibi’.
‘Planet Nimbin’ is a rolling train of eclectic locals with wild and curious theories about life on earth, extra-terrestrial life, parallel universes, government conspiracy and spirits. Produced and shot over a two year period, ‘Planet Nimbin’ invites us to see the world from the myriad of perspectives of the locals of Australia’s icon of hippie culture, rainforests, drugs and alternative lifestyle, with a particular focus on stories of aliens, UFOs and the people with whom they’ve already, apparently, had contact.
Where ‘Planet Nimbin’ is a smorgasbord of curiosities, entertaining, warm and fun, ‘Alien Alibi’ is a darker and tenser piece entirely. Shot in just three days, after stumbling across a strange and dangerous story just as it was unfolding, Elijah’s story begins with a court case to prove his insanity, thus excusing him from a crime- a stroke of luck that his belief in angels aliens and the spirit world should work legally in his favour which he refers to as ‘divine intervention’. The documentary follows Elijah as he justifies and denies his insanity, defends himself from violent attacks by local gangs, vehemently tells his dubious explanation of the violence and recounts the tale his abduction by extraterrestrials.
‘There is a truth and genuineness in each of the characters because they speak in defense of their own reality, or even possible realities … The point of our films is not to tell, but to question; what is truth.’ Sarah Pickering from WSS
The films are controversial in their representation of Nimbin’s culture and locals, innovative in their deconstruction of the documentary form, the slipperiness of reality almost parodying the trope of talking heads through the rhetoric of conspiracy theorists. More than that, they are fascinating insights into the mind and the nature of belief. ‘Alien Alibi’ divulges the loopholes and limits of the law, and the tension as an intelligent mind debates its own sanity, while ‘Planet Nimbin’ is a joyous celebration of the unique Australian hub of alternative lifestyles and, as Pickering put it, ‘another way to see life on this planet that’s not mortgage, marriage and money’.
Simon Georgeff and Sarah Pickering from Warp Speed Syndicate, in exclusive interview, answer a few of Maren’s questions about the process of making ‘Planet Nimbin’ and ‘Alien Alibi’, their opinions on Nimbin and alien life, and the deconstruction of the documentary form below.
Maren: Nimbin’s an icon of Australian drug and hippie culture, with a reputation for being a nirvana of unconventional lifestyles and weird and wonderful people, and it’s really exciting to see you’ve taken up the challenge of capturing it on film. Did you go out to Nimbin with a plan in mind?
Simon: I’d been working on a scrap metal yard with a mate Conor, about ten Kms out of Nimbin for a few months before we had the idea to make a documentary. We didn’t have any idea what the doco would be about, except that it was about ‘Nimbin’, so we filmed everything and anyone, which made the locals paranoid until finally they thought we were ASIO spying on them. Every time people asked what the doco was about, we’d just say “we don’t know”. We enjoyed people thinking we were ASIO so bought matching dark sunglasses and walkie-talkies to heighten the paranoia. We played on this for a while till the allegations got serious with threats of violence if we didn’t leave.
Sarah: Its true Nimbin is a fascinating place. It has the highest number of PHD’s in Australia and greatest number of high people in Australia, so, a lot of paranoid intellectuals. There’s a story around every corner whether you like it or not and you can be pulled into an intense hour-long talk about mono-peds without an exit. So I’m glad these conversations could be turned into a film or at least a condensed version.
Maren: Did Nimbin live up to your expectations, once you started filming?
Simon: I didn’t really go up there with any preconceptions about the town except that I once had a dream about it when I was a lot younger which turned out to be quite accurate, except in my dream people lived in high rises, whereas in Nimbin they live in tree houses.
Sarah: We actually did a lot of editing in the tree houses up there. I’d already been editing the Planet Nimbin cast a few months prior to arriving so I had some idea. My first day at Oasis café had one man theatrically sliding acid under his tongue, another calling out to his child named Aragon, and another asking me if I knew about the Military Industrial Complex with no less than a ‘hello’ before it. It certainly trumped my expectations.
Maren: I feel like there’s a tension made visible in your films between a culture shaped by alternative ideologies and viewpoints and a culture overwhelmed by substance use; is that something you sought out to show, or did it reveal itself?
Simon: The reason dope has such a strong presence in the community is because when the hippies first started living in and around Nimbin, many of them couldn’t afford alcohol and planting dope was free and the plants grew very well in the rainforest conditions. I guess dope and different viewpoints on the world go hand in hand. I really see the rainforest itself as the most defining character in Nimbin’s counter-culture. The rainforest is a very tough environment for people to live in. There is a constant struggle to exist amongst leaches, spiders, snakes, rats, constant rain and dampness. Many houses don’t have electricity. When it gets dark all you have is candles, not nice when a snake slithers under the bed. It takes you far out of your comfort zone and changes you. The saying “gone troppo” applies here. The rainforest can make people a little mad, the dope and ideologies further intensify an already intense situation.
Sarah: The town also has a very dualistic mentality. Positive thinking and community values are the mast of their pride. It’s a really beautiful place, like none other, but I think it’s also a perfect example of one community’s right to freedom, battled with their promotion of marijuana use, which turned into a tourist and drug economy. Some of the free-love children of the hippies in the 80’s were left to acclimatize to a chemical-drug economy as their lawless jungle inheritance. That said, they’re still front-running some of the strongest eco campaigns in the nation, so it’s a very eclectic place, hard to pin down to one thing.
Maren: You were there for quite a while right? How long did you spend shooting the film, and how did your opinions on Nimbin change over that time? Did you consider yourself a local?
Simon: I lived there for over two years and shot for about a year. Chasing down people who had anything to say about aliens became a focus and I really started to question the possible reality of an alien presence engaging with us. I went down the rabbit hole for a while and coming back from Nimbin to Melbourne was quite hard. Lots of friends thought I’d lost it. It took a while to come back and the film helped with that process. No, I never considered myself a local, always a film maker/ journo.
Sarah: I spend just six months in the rainforest up there and you do end up becoming fairly well known but they say you’re not a local in Nimbin until you’ve been there for 10 years. As far as my opinions changing, it can go from magical to menacing from one day to the next, so you really have to just take it as it goes. Some days driving into town, we’d turn right back around again and go to a waterfall. It’s not nice when 400 people don’t get their weed.
Maren: What was it like to film there, were people welcoming or keen to be filmed? Did you clash with anyone once they saw you had a camera out?
Simon: It was a lot of fun shooting in Nimbin, sometimes it got a little tense with locals (like with the ‘gang’ in Alien Alibi) but that meant we were doing things right. To be on the scene when there’s drama going on is part of the job. I really don’t film anyone that doesn’t want to be filmed. There are enough people who want to be on camera.
Maren: Tell us about Elijah, how did you come across him?
Simon: I met Elijah the night before we shot the court case, the next day I interviewed him in his caravan, and the day after that the bomb went over his fence. He was gone the next morning and I never heard from him again. I don’t think he liked me very much, he kept saying Conor, my filming buddy, was the real artist and that one day I’d find what I was good at (even though I was the one holding the camera and interviewing). After we’d film one of his rants he’d ask; “Was that like that revolutionary guy with the hat?” “You mean Che?” “Yeah him!” I’d tell him it definitely was. He also said that we were guaranteed of making 10 million dollars when the film was released.
Maren: One of the most incredible shots in ‘Alien Alibi’, in my opinion, was the one where Elijah tells the story about his abduction and the spider. I could see the scene playing out so vividly, it was terrifyingly real. Did you find yourself getting swept up in his reality? Did you, or do you, believe him?
Simon: I never believed Elijah, I just thought he was fucking crazy; when he pulled out the blade I was ready to jump out the caravan door and not look back. I never really wanted to have anything to do with him but Conor thought he was great and for a while believed him that he was Lucifer (we didn’t put this chapter in the film).
Sarah: As well as Elijah’s showmanship, most of the credit has to go to our sound engineer Keith Thomas. He really made the spider story come alive, transforming essentially a long-winded talking head shot, into a cavernous alien abduction basement. Magic.
Maren: The border between reality and fiction is so elastic in both Alien Alibi’s open portrayal of Elijah’s circumstances and visions, and in Planet Nimbin such a variety of charismatic local characters roll past us divulging their opinions on extraterrestrial life, government conspiracy, spirits and parallel universes. Were your own senses of reality changed from being in these conversations? Do you think all your interviewees believed their own stories?
Sarah: It was definitely refreshing for me to hear a thousand new viewpoints on humanity and our place in the universe. I really enjoyed entertaining some of their ideas. Most of the interviewees truly believed their convictions and experiences. I certainly believe there’s interesting stuff occurring all the time and it would be arrogant to think we’ve figured it all out already. This is where I tip my hat to them. That said, it’s also a community where you’re encouraged to have a mandate or at least name like Space, Angel or Aragon so it’s an expression of another way to see life on this planet that’s not mortgage, marriage and money.
Simon: Yeah, I still think there are some truths in what they’re going on about. I think as far as Planet Nimbin goes, everyone in the film is sincere and strongly believe what they say. They were quite brave in speaking out and I think they have a lot of cool ideas about the world and universe. A few weeks before we left Nimbin to return to Melbourne, Conor, Joni Ganja and I all saw two huge UFOs. I didn’t have the camera on me, which I still regret. We had snuck onto an air force base but if that was their technology then it had capabilities like nothing the public knows about.
Maren: In both films, but especially in Planet Nimbin, there are very few reliable voices, almost to the point of a deconstruction of the documentary form. Do you think there’s truth to be found in either of your films, and if so, where?
Sarah: Yeah, definitely. The current definition of documentary is fairly askew in my opinion. We set out to purely document the many forms of reality that exist in humanity. There is a truth and genuineness in each of the characters because they speak in defense of their own reality, or even possible realities, even though it may not be in popular opinion or experienced by anyone else. The point of our films is not to tell, but to question; what is truth.
Simon: The films present world/universe views that are so counter to mainstream ideas of reality that they seem like nonsense. Documentaries often assume a kind of authority on the truth of a situation, and always take the moral high ground, which I’m not against, but it was more fun to play with, and as you say, deconstruct, this kind of narrative by letting a more mad version of events have authority. The truth is that if contact with an extraterrestrial life form does eventuate in the future, whether on a cellular level or via mothership, our understanding of ourselves in the universe will radically change. Planet Nimbin is a precursor discussion to this potential event. Mad as it may seem today.
Maren: I find the tone you’ve taken with Nimbin to be quite interesting, you’ve not got rose coloured glasses on by any means, yet you’ve steered clear of demonising anyone. Did you deliberately toe a line, or what was your approach?
Simon: I really wanted to treat everyone with respect. I tried to make the tone of the films the same as if I was telling friends a story about a good time I had with people I like. At the same time, it’s boring to hear how fantastic and wonderful someone is, often we want to hear the good goss about peoples failings, mishaps and eccentricities. Documentary is a tough art form because you’re dealing with real people as your medium and there is permanence to their image when presented on the screen. They don’t have a chance to respond to how they’re presented. I’m very aware of this and don’t want to make good drama for the screen at the expense of hurting the people who trusted me in presenting their story. Saying this, I’ve just been told that I might be sued by Nimbin locals for portraying the town in a negative light. You can’t please everyone.
Sarah: I could tell from the footage Simon accumulated that he had a genuine interest in each person’s viewpoint, and with some wild ideas it’s not hard for someone to take advantage of such openness. It was really important in the edit to let each one have their say, lending their own humour to it. Planet Nimbin took the most time in its arrangement because of this. Sometimes you can get a really kooky mix, and some things just had to go.
Maren: Did you make many friends while making the films, and have you stayed in touch? Did you get any of their reactions to the film?
Simon: I made a few good friends there. I consider Joni Ganja [who sings ‘Ape Man’ at the beginning of Planet Nimbin] as one of my greatest friends of all time. It was so good seeing him again during the Byron Bay film festival. We have plans to travel to the Cocos Islands after I help him win a legal case involving a tourism company using his image on billboards without his consent.
Sarah: Yeah, Joni loved the screening and received applaud of his very own. Other friends of ours are currently dealing with the local response which, granted, is a divided reaction. They’ve been good to defend us against such an opinionated lot.
Maren: Did you ever hear from Elijah again? (Please say yes, the suspense is killing me!)
Simon: Sorry. . . . no.
Sarah: I’ve never met Elijah. Though, I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time with the guy in the edit. In some ways I hope I never do, but as it seems stranger things have happened.
Maren: So, the films were originally going to be just one longer film. How much footage did you have and how was the editing process or finding the story (or stories) amongst all that material?
Simon: Its crazy to think how long we spent on the edit and how many people contributed ideas, only to disappear from the project. We went through three different post studios. I learnt a lot from this edit and will approach future films a lot differently because of it. Sarah came in at a point of editorial breakdown. Conor and I were ready to kill each other. I’ll let her tell you about it.
Sarah: Haha, it’s true. A few months in I wanted to kill Simon too. Their hard drive referred to as ‘The Library of Chaos’ was a Pandora’s box housing a hundred edits of the craziest film I’d ever seen. Archival news footage of Nimbin violence was mixed with George Bush’s involvement with astral travel and some crazy video effects. The wealth and complexity of ideas were endless and the entire project was almost abandoned due to the intellectual whirlpool and personal tension it created. As well as the Elijah story, Simon had shot about 60 hours of interviews with many vibrant characters and stories. Conspiracy theory culture has it’s own language, and if you’re not versed in it, it sounds a lot like psychobabble. We wanted to focus on the language of the culture and bring the ideas out without censoring how the people really talk in Nimbin. A Clockwork Orange was a reference point for us in that this film had its own dialect. Planet Nimbin is a world of its own with it’s own coherent psychobabble.
Maren: I felt like there was an intersection in your films between drugs, politics and individuals states of mental health. Was there anyone you filmed whose opinions were too extreme, or whose mental health was too dubious, for you to include them in the final cut?
Simon: Yeah, there were people who I decided were too fragile mentally, that it wouldn’t be fair or necessary to put them in a film. Maybe it would be too confronting for them. I mean, it would probably all be fine but I don’t want to take that risk. Other people had extreme views on Zionism and other darker conspiracy beliefs, which I didn’t want to promote. I like the people in my films and want to represent a good side of them. In documentary, you normally have to take a side, or have an angle on a situation, and really there are many ways to perceive the same situation. Alien Alibi has upset a lot of people in Nimbin because they don’t believe it is a fair portrayal of their town. We have even been accused of hoaxing the events in the film. I didn’t set out to tell this story; it unfolded in front of the camera as it did. I was actually surprised at the angry reaction because Nimbin locals see a lot of crazy stuff and I thought they’d think it was kind of funny to have caught the events on film. It’s a very strange film and there’s no real good guy or bad guy and its difficult for audiences to read. There are very different reactions to Elijah. Some people feel sorry for him, some people hate him, some people think he’s funny, others think he’s scary. He’s definitely the most extreme and unhinged of everyone in the films.
Sarah: I’ll add here too, that even bits of Elijah were censored for being too extreme. There was some really borderline stuff that was far too cringy and needed damage control.
Maren: How was the reaction at Byron Bay International Film Festival? Warm, or was it a little too close to home?
Simon: Planet Nimbin was well received. Alien Alibi was a divided audience, half the audience was clapping, others were yelling angrily and wanted their money back.
Sarah: We created a response and that’s what’s exciting. I think it’s pretty hard for a community to see a condensed representation of itself. It was certainly good gossip at the film festival, they all congratulated us, and the PR woman from Nimbin said, “Well at least it will keep the yuppies out from developing the area”
Maren: Where to now with Alien Alibi and Planet Nimbin?
Simon: Hopefully we’ll get in more film festivals and also we’d like to have a greater online audience. We’re interested in learning how to promote film online and these films are a first attempt at this.
Maren: Have you got any other projects in the works? What can we expect to see from Warp Speed Syndicate in the future?
Sarah: I’m editing another Nimbin short about the early stories from 1973, and Simon’s year of filming in Detroit, called ‘The Lost Tapes’, is in post-production now. Our next big project is set for the middle of the year so it’s pretty exciting to be back on a shoot.
Simon: Yep. We are traveling to England in June to chase crop circles.
You can follow Warp Speed Syndicate on facebook.
Both Planet Nimbin and Alien Alibi are viewable on vimeo under the following links:
Planet Nimbin – http://vimeo.com/60429940
Alien Alibi – http://vimeo.com/60411963
Maren’s interview with Simon & Sarah from Warp Speed Syndicate is brought to you by Something Else, 6pm Thursday nights on Eastside 89.7FM.