Ask filmmaker Rob Millis why he makes movies and he'll tell you, "I never wanted to be a teacher, but I think people's horizons should always be expanding. It's my childlike wonder more than forcing people to learn." Millis works with a collective of musicians, researchers and travelers known as Sublime Frequencies. The group releases recordings and films from parts of the world that don't typically receive much attention from music journalists — the Middle East, Northern Africa and Southeast Asia.
It's a project famed folklorist Alan Lomax might've pursued if he'd been more of a globe-trotting tramp with a taste for psychedelic music. While Lomax trucked around a carload of recording equipment, the Sublime Frequencies' documentarians often carry it all on their backs. Travelling light leaves Millis and others free to catch rides, take trains and walk trails to track down people and music off the beaten path.
On Sun., March 29, at Eyedrum, Sublime Frequencies screens two films shot throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia, Phi Ta Khon and My Friend Rain. Phi Ta Khon presents a ghost festival from the northern Thailand province of Isan. "I just saw a photo of a mask with hardly any information," Millis explains. The single photo and some research led Millis and Sublime Frequencies co-founder Alan Bishop to Isan's vibrant midsummer festival.
Called Phi Ta Khon or "Ghosts with Human Eyes," the three-day celebration looks something like Mardi Gras or Dia De Los Muertos through a Southeast Asian lens. Almost all participants wear bright, motley costumes, including giant psychedelic masks, while local musicians play a loud and loose style of music known as Molam. The film offers little context, opting instead for a spontaneous and exciting structure — a rough piece of digital verité. "I wanted to have a sense of being in the festival and literally in the middle of all these people. People running around in masks, offering you drinks, and bands jamming. It wasn't an ethnographic document; it's about being in the middle of it."
Phi Ta Khon is paired with My Friend Rain, another collaboration between Millis and Bishop. Rain is a collage of film clips from their travels throughout Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia, as well as an abstract meditation on the monsoon season. While Phi Ta Khon jumps around through the erratic experiences of a street party, Rain moves slowly, alternating and layering images from throughout the long monsoon cycle. The film considers the muddy but vibrant processes of birth and decay, and re-creates the languid mood of lazily observing a seemingly endless rainstorm. By using collage, Millis explains, the film calls attention to the act of viewing. "There's no way to say 'This is Southeast Asia.' That has never been our intention. Collage is our way of piecing together our own experiences."
Viewed together, the two films create a sort of unintentional resonance. The Phi Ta Khon festival has its roots in Buddhist traditions, but also represents the concerns of a farming region, specifically rice. The celebration occurs in summer's arid months, when farmers are preparing and hoping for a successful harvest season. The celebratory offerings and ornate costumes are meant to encourage the spirits in control of the rainy months. Chronologically, Phi Ta Khon's events lead into Rain's monsoon meditations. Together, the films re-create a yearlong cycle for the region, filtered through lens of outsiders.
In between and after the films, Millis will play field recordings and rare records from his personal collection. For years, Millis and Jeffry Taylor, who play together in the band Climax Golden Twins, have released cassettes of 78-RPM records from around the world played on a scratchy Victrola. Last year, Atlanta-based record label Dust-to-Digital released Victrola Favorites, a hardback book and CD set of Millis' and Taylor's rare records. Like the films, it's a rough, collagelike experience full of disorienting, mesmerizing tunes from far-flung locales. Lance Ledbetter, Dust-to-Digital's owner, likens the Victrola recordings to the mythically styled Anthology of American Folk Music. "If Harry Smith were alive today," Ledbetter says, "this is what he'd be doing."
Sublime Frequencies' work presents a coherent artistic vision across mediums. The group's films offer glimpses into different ways of life, using music as the cornerstone. "For me," Millis explains, "My films, my travels, all of this comes back to music."