Seen at the Sydney Underground Film Festival
There’s an old truism that “If you remember the 70s then you weren’t there”. This has also been applied to the 60s, largely because of Woodstock, but it can also apply to the 70s when everyone was just doing endless amounts of drugs… like, enough drugs that anyone who was around in the 60s or 70s isn’t allowed to ever talk shit about what drugs the youth of today do. Anyway, this era led to a lot of memorable big festivals where a lot of people did a lot of drugs. Today’s Sydney Underground Film Festival entry is about one of the lesser-known drug-filled festivals, but also one of the strangest.
Sleeze Lake: Vanlife at its Lowest and Best tells the story of the subculture of vanners, people who drive around the country in customised vans (think Nomadland but a lot less mundane). In 1977 a group of these vanners ended up making their own little town by the edge of a lake, a town where 6,000 vans filled with 20,000 people would not only indulge in a free love kind of lifestyle but would create their own strange town, a town that included a disco (because 70s), an X-rated movie theatre (because 70s), a maze (because 70s and also drugs) and a barbershop (because 70s). Throughout the documentary, we learn from those who lived through this strange and fun little period of history just what it was like living on Sleeze Lake.
Sleeze Lake is possibly one of the leanest documentaries I’ve seen, which is stunning because for only an hour-long they cram a lot of great stories into that time frame. Starting sensibly by explaining where the subculture of vanners began, the film slowly builds up to the creation of Sleeze Lake and from there it’s just story after story of some truly weird and wild events told by a group of people who clearly had the best time that anyone has ever had with a van.
Told through a combination of interviews and archive footage, Sleeze Lake manages to be effective and fun in the short time it has to tell its story. There isn’t a second wasted with any extraneous information, there are enough wonderfully fun and cheeky stories to make for a great hour-long watch and it almost feels like any extra time spent would be overdoing it. Sure, there’s a part of me that would love to have more information about what went on there but I’m also confident that most of the more insane memories are either legally risky or just embarrassing (there’s even a phone call captured where someone flat out says that they had fun but don’t wanna talk about it)
What’s kind of lovely is how everyone involved still has fond memories of the whole event, the film goes to great lengths to make sure the audience knows that everyone had fun and doesn’t regret a thing, it was all good clean fun that was also incredibly dirty and fueled by a lot of drugs. Over the course of a fascinating hour, Sleeze Lake is turned mythical, up there with big events like Woodstock and the like.
The fun and playfulness of Sleeze Lake are captured wonderfully, along with that sense of anything could happen. Gloriously strange events are distilled into 30 seconds and then moved on from so quickly you wonder if you heard them properly, The amazing thing is how much of this is backed up with photo or video evidence because some of the events are so wild that unless someone caught proof on film it’d be hard to believe them. By the time we got to about the half-hour mark, they could’ve told me that the Sleeze Lake community launched a rocket into space and I would’ve bought it.
Sleeze Lake: Vanlife at its Lowest and Best is a brilliant time capsule of a seemingly lesser-known event that made the 70s sound so special. Its loving reverence just makes everything seem wholesome, even while learning about the orgies and porn theatres and mazes where you had to take poppers before you went in… somehow, it’s all just so charming and fun. Even at just an hour-long, there is enough here to fascinate just about anyone.