“What is Steampunk?” If you’re an aficionado of goggles, gears and gaslight, this is probably a question you get asked a lot. But it’s not a question with an easy answer. Is Steampunk a clothing style? A maker movement? A musical style? Defining this subculture in a way that people outside of it can understand is, like with most subcultures, a surprisingly difficult task. But if you need to sit your parents down and explain your sudden propensity of corsets and ray guns, maybe the best way to do it is a new film called Vintage Tomorrows. Check out the trailer:
Directed by Byrd Mcdonald, Vintage Tomorrows is a new documentary that attempts to explain Steampunk from an insider perspective. The film follows luminaries in the movement, including Obtanium Works, Girl Genius, China Meiville, William Gibson and Abney Park, as they take us through the basics of the culture and what it means to them. If you are a die hard fan of steampunk, the film may not tell you much in the way of new information, but it is so useful as a way to show newbies like myself how amazing this subculture can be.
That was the point, according to McDonald, as he was an outsider himself. He was brought on to the project by futurist Bryan David Johnson, a futurist who was writing a book about Steampunk. (It’s also called Vintage Tomorrows, and you can find it here.) Johnson was putting together a special dinner, where he could sit with writers, makers, artists, clothing designers and more to learn what Steampunk really meant to the people in the movement itself. The conversation was so fascinating to McDonald that he asked to follow Johnson on the rest of his research and make a documentary.
“More than any thing I’ve ever made, this film found me, as opposed to me finding it,” McDonald said, speaking with us Monday. Before being invited to the dinner, he had never even heard the word “Steampunk” before. “I went into that dinner party expecting – I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t ready for what I was about to hear…It hit upon so many ideas and so many thoughts that were racing through my head in 2011, when we shot that scene…It was the most riveting two hour conversation.”
I asked him what about the Steampunk community had so inspired him on that fateful night. “It was a group of people who were passionately celebrating this, and also getting together and making this a social aspect for themselves…Anybody who gets so enthusiastic about something that they want to make stuff, and create stuff – I think the enthusiasm of that was just really fun to be around.”
Once he had convinced his friend to let him turn this one night of research into a full film, McDonald set out on a Steampunk journey of his own. Starting from a basement steampunk sale called The Time Traveler’s Swap Meet in Seattle, he found contacts that led him to steampunk authors, makers, and even the opportunity to present at several conventions while he was in the process of making the film. Everywhere he turned, he was greeted by fans ecstatic to share their love for this subculture, including an invite to a steampunk wedding that features in the film.
This enthusiasm and love seeps through the film’s very pores, and you can tell McDonald fell in love with this subculture even as he was figuring out what made it tick. The film teaches you about every aspect of this brave new (old) world, from its origins to its music and the major breakout moments its had, including a tiny snippet of video from a steampunk Justin Bieber music video. (Yes, that is a real thing. We checked. The movie fails to mention that it’s from his Christmas Album. I’m so confused.) The film has no narrator, instead using its interview subjects to create an oral history of the movement and what it means.
The film also, thankfully, doesn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of the movement. Steampunk is based, in part, in glorifying a very colonialist, racist, and misogynist period in world history, as Britain stomped along the globe, subjugating anyone in her path. Neither the film or its subjects shy away from this, and one whole section of the film is dedicated to diving into that side of the movement. Interview subjects never completely dismiss the problems inherit there, and responses range from feeling like they’re not part of the movement, to brushing it aside because Steampunk aims to build a different, better version of history. There’s a lot of unpack there, and the film presents it honestly and openly. “I just found it very provocative,” McDonald said, “As an outsider, that’s something that you kind of have to work your way through, because it’s a little bit murky…90% of the people I met in Steampunk were really happy to have that debate.”
Steampunk is fascinating because, like any good subculture, it is so many things to so many people. There’s no easy way to define what, exactly, this movement is. But Vintage Tomorrows does something better with its opportunity as a documentary. It doesn’t try to nail this movement down, it doesn’t try to define it, or hold up an example and say “THIS is Steampunk.” Instead, it shows you a group of incredibly smart and talented designers, artists, writers, creators and thinkers having the time of their lives imagining what might have been. In the end, you’ll leave Vintage Tomorrows not only knowing more about this movement, but wanting to be a part of it.
You can listen to our entire chat with Byrd McDonald here: