Natalie Van Dungen can vaguely remember the first time she set foot on the venerable sticky carpet of Collingwood's Tote Hotel. "It was sometime in the late 1990s," Van Dungen recalls. "I went to see my older brother's band on a Tuesday night. I hadn't been to that sort of pub before, but I wasn't immediately gobsmacked. Then I went back a few years later, and I was right in the middle of the band room for a sold-out show, and I thought 'holy fuck!'"
After a two-year stint living and working in Sydney, Van Dungen returned to Melbourne just as The Tote was celebrating its 21st anniversary. Van Dungen had already taken note of Melbourne's vibrant live music scene, and hatched an idea to document various live music venues in their natural, thriving state. "Initially I thought it might be good to do a documentary on the Rainbow, which I used to go to, and which was threatening to close because of noise complaints," Van Dungen says. "Then the next day I was going through the street press and realised it was The Tote's 21st anniversary, so I thought I'd seize the moment and do some filming in The Tote."
Van Dungen approached then-licensee Richie Ramone to film a Magic Dirt gig. "Richie said it was fine, as long as the venue didn't have to do anything to set up," Van Dungen says. Van Dungen gradually realised that, rather than a collage of Melbourne venues, she should concentrate on the legendary Tote. "I did a lot of research on The Tote, and started shooting bands and interviewing people," Van Dungen says.
The original concept - a long-form documentary celebrating The Tote in all its festering rock 'n' roll glory - took a sharp turn when Bruce Milne announced that the venue would be forced to close in the face of Milne's escalating debts. Van Dungen took her camera into The Tote to witness The Tote staff, past and present, come together to provide a suitable send-off. As a former Tote staff member herself, filming the last days and hours was a particularly emotional activity. "It was hard because I was pointing a camera at the staff as they went through it," Van Dungen says. "It was hard watching the grief that went through the community. But I was hoping it would re-open, because there was so much grief going on, and it seemed wrong that The Tote was being taken away from this community," she says.
But as the local music community grappled with the shock of The Tote's impending closure, a rear guard action - in the form of the Save Live Australia's Music (SLAM) community action movement - was being conceived. Van Dungen took her cameras to the SLAM Rally in January 2010, an outpouring of support for live music that took the state government by surprise. Having previously been given a distribution deal and the use of an edit suite by Madman, Van Dungen approached the ABC for funding support to finalise the documentary, now recalibrated to narrate the events leading up to, and immediately following The Tote's closure.
The final product, Persecution Blues - named after the Powder Monkeys song featured on the wall of The Tote as a poetic tribute - premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival last month. "At the first screening I was looking out into the crowd and seeing all these familiar faces," Van Dungen says. "Having spent seven years making it, it was tremendous to be able to share it - but it was also quite nerve-wracking!" she laughs.
Persecution Blues has now secured a feature run at the Cinema Nova in Carlton, with a DVD release slated for early 2012, shortly after the film is shown on ABC. "With the DVD I'd like to use as much footage as we can that didn't appear on the final documentary," Van Dungen says. "It's pretty hard to cram 400 hours of film into 57 minutes, so there's still a lot more to show."
Persecution Blues will screen from Thursday August 25 at Cinema Nova, Carlton.