Capturing ‘The Shambhala Experience’ on film: In conversation with documentary filmmaker Kevan McGovern

Saturday 25th, July 2015 / 20:22
By Jordan Simpson

CALGARY — Have you been to Shambhala Music Festival? No?

Well, you’ve probably heard of it by now. You’ve probably listened, intently or not, to someone who’s gone before (here’s BeatRoute’s 2012 survival guide in case you’re wanting to check it out).

And how they speak of this happening is a bit like they’ve been gripped by a religious experience. Just with a shit ton more bass. And untold amounts of kindness. And of a river that turned bright green once. And of six stages in a mystical river valley that becomes a 15,000-strong self-sufficient human settlement and experiment in rave culture that seeks to smash stereotypes.

Every summer for the past 17 years, the ranch outside Salmo, B.C. (population 1,139) undergoes a metamorphosis from cattle ranch to Canada’s largest and best-known electronic music festival.

Over the course of just under a week, thousands make their annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of the electronic scene up here in Canuckistan with some seriously big names and some seriously local ones too.

Never been? Filmmaker and festival veteran Kevan McGovern wants to take you there.

McGovern’s short documentary The Shambhala Experience is his aspiration to showcase some of the fascinating qualities of electronic music festival culture with an eye to the festival. After almost 20 years, and thousands of festival goers later, it’s become firmly embedded in psyche of every attendee worth their salt (or mushrooms).

The short documentary will eventually be incorporated in the upcoming feature film Input/Output (I/O): An Electronic Music Documentary.

We spoke with Kevan about his film with us before the upcoming July 28th screening at The Plaza Theatre.

BeatRoute: Take me back when you first got the idea for the project.

Kevan McGovern: I wanted to do some kind of video piece showcasing the local scene in Vancouver. I was just going to make something short and put it online and that was going to be it. But I started interviewing people and getting all sorts of feedback, and grew and involved from there. The concept in the very beginning was very different than what it is now.

Kevan McGovern Photo: Courtesy of OctoberDay Photography

Kevan McGovern
Photo: Courtesy of OctoberDay Photography

BR: What was your intent behind it?

KM: To share my passion for the electronic music scene with the world. I just did my screening in Kelowna, which is very special screening because my whole family lives there. First and foremost, it’s me wanting to make a film about this scene, but it’s also been about “how can I explain this to my grandmother.”

I’ve been going to Shambhala over 10 years and you can’t really put it into words, trying to explain it to somebody. That was my mission: “I’m going to make Nana understand.”

Last Wednesday I got to finally explain it to her. And she understands now. She wants to go to Shambhala now. She’s 86 and ready to go. I gave her earplugs and during the screening and she was like, “I don’t need them.”

BR: Whoa. What do you think resonated with her?

KM: Probably the same thing that touched my dad. The culture and how beautiful the culture is. The way people act towards one another. For someone like my grandma, she’s outside the culture, she’s not really into the music and for a lot of people it’s a dividing point – Half of them saying it’s the music and the other half say it’s the people. For my dad going when I brought him, what stood out immediately to him was that he was accepted. He got there and everyone treated him the same as they would treat anyone else.

BR: So your dad came?

KM: He was bugging me to go to Shambhala for 10 years. And I forbade him to go. Then finally when I was doing the documentary I was like, “You can come, you can be my sound guy.” He’s a drummer and comes from rock music, so I thought it was really interesting inserting a baby boomer from rock and putting them into Shambhala. It wasn’t planned for him to be in the film, it just kind of happened. We were doing interviews because he was my sound man. He had a conversation with one of the interviewees and we turned the camera on him.

He brings this other perspective. I’ve had a couple of screenings with older people over 50 and for them they’re kind of waiting for a character like my dad to show up in a film like this to ask the types of questions they might ask.

BR: What did you discover about the people who attend?

KM: How awesome people can be and how passionate people can be. I got to see a lot of amazing testimonials from people with similar kinds of experiences. We got really into talking about quitting jobs and having people really open up to exactly why they’re there. It’s almost like the music’s a secondary thing.

I think for the most part, the human beings there are really high-calibre. It’s really stellar people. I think most of them are there for the right reasons – to have a good time and celebrate each other. And the other half are there to get messed up. Which you’re going to have a little bit of everything. But there’s also only one death on record after 18 years. I think that’s something to take into account.

BR: Some people think that the festival has grown too large and now attracts more unsavoury types, while others may argue its growth and higher profile has ultimately been for the better. What’s your take?

KM: Like any other event it needs to evolve to stay relevant and I think it’s only improved. I think that special energy is still very much alive. A couple of years ago, a lot of people stopped going because of the people who were there that weren’t there before. It was too much for some people. They kind of kept to their smaller festivals after that. I saw a bit of it too. But I don’t even see that anymore.

I actually think that a lot of those people that didn’t get it a couple of years ago are getting it now. You think about some people in this world we would call terrible and they go to a festival like that and you can actually imagine what it would take to change them and reach into their deep programming and start doing things differently. That has to be a really profound experience. I think Shambhala and other festivals provide that experience.

There’s a scene in the film where there’s a bunch of people sitting in the water being interviewed. And I went after them because of how they looked. I wanted to have a diverse demographic for who I was interviewing and it’s really easy to look at someone and judge them. I think a lot of people are going see them in the film before they say anything and make the same judgement. And then to start hearing what they’re actually saying and then realize these people totally get it. That was a lesson learned for me.

Photo: Courtesy of Brian McGovern

Photo: Courtesy of Brian McGovern

BR: What were some challenges of filming in a festival environment?

KM: The sound was the number one challenge. Trying to do a documentary at a music festival, lots of filmmakers think you’re crazy. There’s so much noise and sound coming from every angle and ideally you want no background noise at all. Otherwise you very much limit the interview when you’re editing the film. A lot of the times you’re in a situation where you won’t get the interview if you don’t interview the person right here in this place. You’re waiting for this interview, maybe a DJ, you’ve waiting for a long time, you only have five minutes. They’re not willing to walk with you a mile away, just to get away from the sound. They’re going to hang out in the talent area and do the interview anyway. And you’re just going to have to do deal with it.

BR: It seems that drug-associated deaths at festivals are a hot topic. Shambhala’s harm reduction policies and ANKORS’ work have an impressive track record (one death) in the festival’s 18 years. What do you say to those who are still resistant to harm reduction policies?

KM: I look at the work model for other festivals, ignoring the fact that drug use happens: shedding any responsibility when it comes to that versus keeping people informed about what they’re doing. They’re going to do it anyway, you can’t stop what’s going on. You may as well try to help people be as informed as possible. The evidence is right in front of you. I think they’re just choosing to ignore it.

You take any kind of event that’s got massive numbers of people, stuff goes down. What I like to concentrate on is how that event handles the stuff that goes down and what’s their approach to that.

BR: What do you want people to take away from your work?

KM: One of my goals from the start was recreating this experience and trying to put it into the film medium. I want to show them what it’s like, without them going. Which is impossible but I can try. It’s my first attempt. It’s really all positive. It’s a feel-good film.

In Input/Output it’s going to be different. I’m going to get into the darkness. Because there is a dark part of this culture like there is any culture and it can’t be ignored. It’s not all rainbows and lollipops. The number one thing is drug use. I want to get really deep into that and I want to know why people use so many drugs at raves. We definitely excess. Shambhala is no exception.

BR: In your upcoming project Input/Output you examine how electronic music influences the human psyche, technology and cultural anthropology. Specifically how the artificial and manufactured sounds of the music seems to have a great impact on many very human aspects. What did you discover about that relationship while filming The Shambhala Experience?

KM: I think the sound we’re creating today, because their sounds we couldn’t create in the past, they’re activating us in different ways. Some people can say that history just kind of repeating itself, and in a way it is, but I think it’s completely new terrain. When you’re on that dance floor and you hear that bass line in a certain way, it does things to me. I can’t really compare it anything else because it’s a physical experience. But it becomes a physical experience not just because the bass is so powerful and loud, but also the frequency and how you’re interpreting them. Emotionally and physically. I think that’s totally new.

The Shambhala Experience screens Tuesday July 28 at The Plaza Theatre at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets are $12 (cash only) at the door or can bought in advance online at footwerk.simpletix.ca.

For more information on “I/O: An Electronic Music Documentary” visit inputoutputfilm.com

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