Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

How Jaman is changing the world of film

Film festivals online aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Any of us who’ve spent hours trolling through college dorm life on YouTube in search of the truly interesting can testify. To get to really disappointing, however, you’d have had to have seen the glossy flier PBS left in my local video store. “Online film festival!” it read. “Watch dozens of online independent films! Submit your own!”

At last, I thought. Art has been liberated by the internet. No more searching for random masterpieces in the haystack – no more tramping out to film festivals unknown in strange parts of Berkeley and the Mission – no more waiting until the wisdom of my arthouse friends trickles down to me, third-hand and worn. I’m going straight to the source. PBS has a film festival and I’m gonna be there.

The online film festival turned out to last all of one hour. One very unsatisfying hour. One could watch exactly the first five minutes of any of thirty films that had been screened somewhere, some time about a year ago. One could also compete ruthlessly (I imagine) for some incredibly small piece of funding if one wished to make one’s own film, to be deposited into the never-to-be seen closet of PBS. TO be fair, it’s not really PBS’s fault. Unlike the BBC, which has been putting its documentaries from the last thirty years online (Yay public works! Hoorah for intellectual riches!), PBS doesn’t own the rights to its own films; it screens, it doesn’t produce, and it doesn’t own. So no time soon is anything from PBS going into the public realm. Nor has any smarty-pants startup figured out how to let PBS filmmakers opt-in to a wide-release online program.

Not so for the Tribeca Film Festival, which is cutting a swath a river wide in the precedents of the future. Thanks to a new film service called Jaman, which kicks Youtube’s ass in terms of design, Tribeca is live online, for real. You can download the whole of every film playing, and then you have a week to watch them – afterwards you can rent or buy any of the fabulous independent documentaries and movies for $1.99 a week, or buy the download for $5.99 forever. Downloading is quick, efficient, and beautiful. Jaman plays fullscreen with a charming and easily navigated interface, and even promotes Web 2.0 community by allowing users to comment on their favorite films and form up into film-groupie clusters to better discuss their faves.

Tribeca is a festival you may never have heard of, because it’s quite young as film festivals go. Started in 2002 to commemorate the 9/11 bombings, it advertises itself as a festival about community and international community – and isn’t that indeed a praiseworthy way to commemorate and atone for the lives lost in the twin towers. In fact, next time she runs for president, I’m definitely voting for Jane Rosenthal (a.k.a. Ms. Tribeca Film Festival Founder) over George W. Bush, hands down. In the jurors’ selections, these noble ideals pan out in the form of gorgeous footage, hypnotic storytelling, and truly diverse ideas – (I am stunned into squealing ecstasy while writing this by the shadow-puppet, found-footage world of a nineteenth-century Hungarian adventurer searching in Tibet for truth and international community, in Tibor Szemzo’s A Guest of Life) --- because in the world of film (let’s face it), there are still a lot of talented people doing the kind of intelligent, creative shorts that might play once on PBS but then disappear into the never-never land of hard-to-find DVD’s. That is to say, there’s a lot more talent than distribution. The traditional distribution channels, tailored to blockbuster violence-and-sex dramas, aren’t changing any time soon. But new distribution channels, like Jaman, are changing that. They’re opening up a middling realm where semi-educated people (like me) can learn about, ingest, and enjoy the world of independent, spontaneous goodness.

What that might translate into – and here’s the coolest part – is more exposure, more discourse, and more money for those starving filmmakers, our friends, who at the moment compete at obscene rates of thousands to one to win the not-very-lucrative sums of money available from ITVS (PBS’s documentary wing) – or failing that, produce their beautiful works on a next-to-nothing budget. All very creative, to be sure, but imagine what they could do with cash. The so-called free market of traditional Hollywood production and monopoly distribution, ingrained in old ways as they are, has not been kind to them. But on a truly even playing ground, deserving beauty tends to find an audience. Which the Tribeca Films surely will.

So this is something we need more of in the online world: the promotion of new, raw genius to new audiences. And the siphoning back to the producers of that genius of cash. At least small sums of cash. Because who, in this state of love in which I now am, would not want to send five dollars to Mr. Szemzo in Hungry to insure that he produces more such glorious films, and perhaps to buy a spot on his mailing list? If Tribeca and Jaman are promoting international connections and community in this way – not only spreading information and enabling consumption, but also building up sustainable, small-scale economic ties between individuals around the world – they are indeed living up to the ideals upon which the Tribeca Film Festival was founded. Such an effort would indeed be a worthy monument, perhaps the most worthy possible, to the lives of those who have died as a result of global misunderstandings.