Copyright and other rights determine which films are available. Not only for journalists, but also for film lovers in general. Where is the Library of Alexandria for cinema? Did it collapse before it was even built? ask Jan Pieter Ekker and Dana Linssen, curators of the 2016 Critics’ Choice WHOSE CINEMA.
Xavier Dolan, really, I mean... early January he got himself in the news on social media again, this time because Netflix was supposedly offering his film Mommy in the wrong aspect ratio. Extra unfortunate because Mommy actually did something very special with the frame format: most of the film it is square, and at a crucial moment, it slides open as a cinema curtain. So you don’t want people to tinker with it in order to ensure the screen gets filled on the TV or other screen formats.
It turned out to be a storm in a teacup. “A minor technical hitch,” according to the video-on-demand company. Before the Internet could explode with indignation, it was solved. Yet Netflix wasn’t doing anything unusual. For years, most films on television were offered using the pan-and-scan method. A classic example of the misunderstandings that can yield: in the cinema, the shark in Jaws could be seen seconds earlier than in the pan-and-scan version. Gone was the suspense.
Dolan asked in an open letter to the streaming giant “whose film” Mommy really was, and he did have a point. It’s just a question that isn’t so easy to answer. Our gut feeling says that Dolan, as maker of the film, has the final say about what happens to his film. But someone who has bought the exploitation rights of the film will probably think differently about that. So who does a film belong to? To the makers? Or to the copyright holders who think that the one who pays decides?
WHOSE CINEMA is also the umbrella theme of the second edition of the Critics’ Choice that we have compiled. It is a question that arose out of last year’s selection and practice of appropriating images for video essays and the practical, legal and ethical problems we encountered. So, just like last year, it’s again a programme with films and video essays, introductions and debates after the screenings. Unlike last year, the programme has been composed much more in consultation with the people doing the introductions. It was a question of making the right match between theme, film and introducer. So no critics and their favourite films, no missed chances from other festivals; the programme is made up of the four elements of films, critics, video essays and this cahier with additional texts and contemplations and this all will be a meeting place for questions and observations relevant to filmmakers, critics and film lovers.
It’s possible to think up more answers to the question WHOSE CINEMA than the two given above. It’s a question that – with a tip of the hat to André Bazin’s Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? – emerges directly from (The Return of the) Critics’ Choice of last year, in which we introduced to a larger festival audience the video essay as a new form of film criticism. Video essays are a relatively new form of film criticism in which critics do not only analyse a film with words, but also with images. Video essays are not only a way to counter the much lamented crisis – the demise of authority and a professional basis for printed film criticism – but by showing then on a large screen in a cinema, we brought film criticism back to where it once started: in the cinema auditorium, among the audience.
You think that the digital revolution would make it easier than ever to get hold of material for those essays, but nothing could be further from the truth. In a traditional review, you can describe a film shot or a scene unhindered and at any length in words, but when using visual material increasingly you are limited by copyright questions and regulations. Fear of piracy results in new films hardly being available at all for critical and analytical purposes. The South Korean director Hong Sang-soo was generous enough to give Kevin B. Lee an editable file of his film Right Now, Wrong Then so that Lee could make the video essay with which he introduces the film in this year’s Critics’ Choice. But the producers of Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made on the other hand freely admitted they felt rather “uncomfortable” about the idea of sending a full copy of their film via WeTransfer. And then we’re talking about people who themselves put together a complete remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark by Steven Spielberg.
And if you have managed to acquire the visual material, other questions emerge. Is it acceptable? To cut up a film and make your own story, even if it’s about that film? Does an artwork have its own integrity? Is the critic bound by ethics? Do you not destroy a work of art if you deconstruct it for analysis? Or does this manner of “material thinking”, as video essayist Catherine Grant calls it, but which could maybe better be referred to as “re-mediated thinking”, bring you closer to the meanings of a film? How large exactly is that grey area between copyright and other intellectual rights and the artistic and intellectual freedom of the video essayist to appropriate images and thoughts?
We shouldn’t forget that the so-called collage film or found-footage film has a long tradition in film history. Even though the Belgian collective Leo Gabin does take a step further, with their “filming” of Harmony Korine’s collage novel Crackup at the Race Riots that consists entirely of web films. The visual artist Paula Albuquerque graduated in January on the use of webcams as a new cinematographic medium and made an apt video essay with Crackup: Live Streaming US.
Copyright and other rights determine which film images are available. Not only for journalists, but also for film lovers in general. Most films disappear when the distribution rights have lapsed, then most films disappear from the public domain. Where is the Library of Alexandria for cinema? Did it collapse before it was even built?
In our quest for the answer to the question WHOSE CINEMA we found an amalgam of answers. While the mainstream film world worries about pirates and sharing data, thanks to digitalisation all kinds of creative forms of remix and fan culture are blossoming and audio-visual film criticism is getting a foothold in the academic world. In the films we selected and the critics we invited to introduce our film selection with a video essay, we found many answers, some complex and some conflicting. For us the question WHOSE CINEMA is essential to a vital and free exchange of thoughts, ideas and dreams that keeps every film culture alive.