‘Stay Sailing’ – Pirate Radio Documentary / Michael Chandler

An incredible documentary directorial debut from Michael Chandler, Stay Sailing is an achievement in short film-making. There’s been a load typed on it – especially when it was originally bombed up online for only 30 days – so I’ll let the experts give the run down.

via Wilderness Pictures
‘Stay Sailing’ looks at pirate radio, warts and all, providing a unique insight into this underworld phenomena. The film features exclusive interviews with DJs and managers from stations across the UK, from Passion, Rinse, Origin, Kiss, Itch and many more – as well as some of the pirate scene’s biggest names, such as DJ MK (now on Kiss) and Flight (previously on BBC’s 1Xtra). The film also gained exclusive access to some of the studios, locations and rooftops as pirates scaled a West London tower block at night to put up their rigs.

Pirate radio stations are a very British phenomena, pioneering new music, setting trends and building on British culture for the last 40 years. At any one point London had at least 80 stations. Pirate wars had people shooting each other for airwave space – but most are a dedicated bunch of music lovers – setting up their decks wherever someone is brave enough to offer them a room. Sometimes nice, sometimes a crack den.

Pirates have been integral to the UK’s music scene, but also provide a hub for communities, opportunities for the excluded, and something positive for street youth to do – but they are illegal. They regularly fight the law, and keep coming back. This is the story of Pirates as they face their toughest challenge yet – the digital age. Will it kill FM? Will pirates be able to keep sailing the airwaves, or are they dead in the water?

Directed by Michael Chandler, an ex-pirate DJ himself for over 10 years, which enabled him to get the exclusive access throughout the film. This is the second film by Michael Chandler, after the festival success of his first film, the short fantasy ‘The Fall’.

‘Stay Sailing’ also features a soundtrack of new music from some of the UK scene’s up-and-coming artists. 

Stay Sailing is even better than it reads. It differs from most documentations on pirate radio for two main reasons. Firstly the in-depth examination and testimonials about the importance of this sub-culture to London’s cultural makeup and youth development. Secondly, a film on this topic could not have been made to the same quality by anyone but Michael Chandler. His own history in pirate and BBC radio opened up shots and guests that almost all other film makers would’ve found frustratingly inaccessible.
Check the film below.

As it turns out not only is Chandler set to be the future of UK film-making, but he’s also a good guy making moves for the rights reason. I fired off some questions to find out a little more about his background and making the documentary.

Awkward Movements: Your background? 
Michael Chandler: Started out as a hip-hop and drum’n’bass DJ, as The Furious, on a few pirate and internet stations – interFACE, Raw Flex, then an 8 year stint on the UK’s only hiphop pirate Itch FM. I also did a brief stint on BBC’s 1Xtra, which gave me insight into the ‘mainstream’ world. Been involved in film on and off over the last five years, supporting productions at Wilderness Films, and it was something I’d always wanted to get into, though more drama/fiction than documentary (my other film, The Fall, is just that). As an aside also being involved in charity film and music projects – I ran a project in east London for homeless kids for Shelter and set up my own charity, WAYout, providing film and music projects to kids in Sierra Leone (www.wayoutarts.org).

AM: Why do the film?
MC: Pirates have done a huge amount to shape the music and youth culture (and subsequently, popular culture) of this country (and pirate radio has also been really influential politically in a lot of other countries as well). Pirates rarely get the recognition they deserve, and in fact the opposite, are seen as criminals., which is not the aim for most pirates, and was not my experience. Also, towards the end of 2007 there was a real concern about the future of pirates, with the government pushing the digital radio agenda and it looked like by 2015 they were aiming to switch off FM. So, I wanted to set out to get a representation of pirates across the UK – different cities, different genres – show pirates for what they really are, what they really are aiming to do, and what they have to go through to do it, rather than the media portrayal they occasionally get, popping up on the news when they’ve caused apparent intereference to emergency services – as well as ask them what they feel would happen for musicians, communities etc, if they disappeared.

There are now doubts over what’s going to happen re; DAB and the digital switchover, and what will happen to FM, as the DAB take-up has not been as successful as the government has hoped – but its still the government’s intention to have a substantial shift by 2015. Jury’s out on the future. We did also ask OFCOM to comment, to get their perspective on pirates and the future, but they declined!

AM: No commercial release – how was it funded? 
MC: Self-funded, over a long period of time! It took a while to complete simply because of trying to fit it round the day jobs etc, but the main costs, such as travel and tapes either came out of our own pocket, and we had our own camera and editing facilities. Everything else, from the pirate’s time to the music, was kindly donated.

AM: Any issues about releasing sensitive material? 
MC: Most pirates were really cool about that really – several of the pirates from Itch were no longer on air when it came to completion (Itch went off air in 2008); and one other pirate wan ted to review what he’d said just in case it could get him or his station in trouble, which was fair enough – but otherwise, they were really cool and proud of what they did. Obviously, when visiting the studios or going on the rooftop we made sure the locations were not identifiable, and the rooftop particularly I had to act very low-key – no lights or anything up there, so no-one could see us from below – that’s why that part of the film is so dark. But, it was really cool for them to allow me up there with them, they took a risk, and all the others were just very cool about it.

AM: A more than impressive directorial debut. What’ve you got next?
MC: Thanks, thats very kind – and yeah, it took a while, but I’m pretty chuffed with it, given its my first documentary. Its ‘technically’ my second completed film – I started it in 2008, and completed it earlier this year, but shot and completed another film in between, in 2009 – my first short fiction, ‘The Fall’, which has done well – it got to London Short Film Festival, East End Film Festival, a few international film festivals, and was nominated for best short at the Black Independent Film Festival 2010. Trailer’s here.

Otherwise, for the future, funding is always an issue particuarly these days, but yeh, one documentary in the pipeline, set in east London; three short drama scripts I’m getting off the ground; and I’ve just finished the first draft of a feature film script, so I’m excited about that too! So, in short answer to your question ‘are we going to be seeing more from you?’ – I certainly hope so!