Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ebertfest Report #4: Free Art Sold Here

One of the greatest features of the Roger Ebert Film Festival are the unsigned movies he invites each year. You can go to just about any film festival and see some movies that have yet to find distribution, but that can be a crapshoot. You never know what you’re going to get. But with Ebertfest those films that still lack distribution are going to be some of the best films you’re going to see each year. The greatest disappointment of these films is realizing that you won’t be able to talk about them with anybody outside of Ebertfest until they do find distribution. The truly shocking thing is that often times these movies never do.

This year there were two such movies invited to Ebertfest. Unfortunately, they are both fairly unpopular genres here in the United States. One is a documentary, the other a cartoon, and we’re not talkin’ Disney animals on parade.

“Begging Naked” is a fascinating doc about a New York City artist named Elise Hill. During Ebert’s introduction to the film he said it would be easy to describe the film’s subject in negative terms. She has been a drug addict, a prostitute, a stripper, and even suffers from mental illness. But that would be missing the vibrant, talented and exuberant person that lies underneath those pales descriptions of her activities in a life that would’ve been an unbearable struggle for most.

Hill’s best and now possibly only friend Karen Gehres directed the film over a nine-year period. Gehres described the making of the film as one unexpected development after another. She was a filmmaker looking to practice with video when Hill volunteered as a subject, then Hill’s life went off the deep end. Although she had been in the sex trade as a young runaway and her heroine days were behind her, the real hurdles of her life had yet to be set. She would soon find herself evicted from her converted airshaft apartment, struggling against severe paranoia, and homeless in Central Park. Through it all she continued to make her artwork, which is remarkable in its own right.

After the screening Gehres revealed much of the struggles of the filmmaking that went along with Hill’s personal strife, including being stuck on another job on the day of the eviction (her boyfriend filmed that sequence), and finding an editing team that shared her vision over the long process of shooting the picture. She admitted the most unexpected event that occurred with this film was the day Ebert called her to invite the movie to the festival.


OK. To call “Sita Sings the Blues” undistributed is a bit on an incorrect statement. In fact, it may be one of the most widely distributed films ever. Even if you’ve never seen it, or even heard of it, it’s quite possible someday you will. Its creator Nina Paley released “Sita Sings the Blues” on the Internet as a publically shared intellectual property. You can go to to view or download the movie or even order a special DVD edition to be released soon. But you can also Google it and find it in hundreds of other locations and formats on the Internet. However you find it, do it now. It is that good that you should see it now.

Perhaps I will review the movie eventually, but I like to take this opportunity to discuss Paley’s crusade for intellectual property sharing. It’s something that it seems corporate America has done a pretty good job of convincing people not to do. According to Paley, Copyright laws were developed in this country to encourage a continued output of new material from artists, however through retroactive extensions of such copyrights they’ve developed into a tool of corporations to create an ongoing monetary flow for artistic properties long after an artist has ceased to produce any sort of new work, usually because they have passed on from this world. At that point there’s really not much chance of encourage said dead artist to continue to produce intellectual properties.

There was a time in this country when artists were more willing to share their output of work. Paley pointed out that in the scientific community this type of work sharing is seen as a benefit to the community as a whole. With art it’s seen as “stealing”. But there is a good deal of artistic output that is squelched because of these overbearing copyright laws. Certainly at Ebertfest we’ve seen this affect more than one film. Often a film’s budget can double, or in the case of independents worse, when it comes time to pay for the music rights.

In the case of “Site Sings the Blues” Paley said she had to pay $50,000 for the use of recordings by Annette Hanshaw that should have become public domain some twenty years ago, but through retroactive copyright extensions ended up costing as much as if they were recorded ten years ago. The worst thing about this case is that these recordings aren’t being heard by anybody because of these ridiculous copyright laws, and may eventually be lost because nobody has the rights to use them anymore.

Movie piracy has become a great concern for the movie studios, and my thoughts here by no means condone such practices. In the recent high profile case of the “Wolverine” downloads, not only had the studio not released the property in any form yet, but the movie wasn’t even finished. And I do believe an artist or other owner of a property has the right to make money off of their work. They should make money. But these retroactive copyright laws are really pissing in the pool. My theater company can’t do plays that should’ve become public domain by now, and much art is just disappearing. Do you really think anybody is going to watch “Wolverine” fifty years from now if they have to pay to see it? I suppose that remains to be seen, but I suspect that once movie is released next week, people will understand what I mean by that.

This is an area where the Internet is destined to force a change. Already software engineers are leading the way by allowing public free access to software, and they’re still making a good deal of money with that software. Unsigned musicians also have a better grasp on the spoils that can be found by allowing free access to their material online. And for the past ten years or so people have been clamoring for movie studios and music labels to get with the Internet game, while the corporations have been whining about loss of profits instead of finding a solution to make it work. It seems that software developers have it figured out. It’s time for the corporations behind other art forms to catch up with the times.

No comments: