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The revolution, now playing: one of San Francisco panels

The revolution may not be televised by the major networks or covered by the mainstream press, but it’s certainly playing on screens large and small somewhere near you. On Saturday afternoon at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Susan Gerhard, the editor/bureau chief of the newly launched web film magazine SF360 (www.SF360.org), moderated a panel tagged “The Revolution Now Playing: Film as a Tool for Social and Political Change.”

Activist filmmakers Jeff Zimbalist (FAVELA RISING) and Ian Inaba (AMERICAN BLACKOUT), Ironweed Film Club founder Adam Werbach and columnist Annalee Newitz (www.techsploitation.com) discussed how new digital technologies enable dramatic changes in film funding, production and distribution models.

Extremely articulate and passionate about their work, the panelists represented a wide spectrum of political activism. Jeff Zimbalist co-directed the compelling Oscar-nominated documentary about a Brazilian favela, an illegal squatter settlement on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, where police massacred 21 innocent people. Instead of reacting to his brother’s death with more bullets and bloodshed, former drug-trafficker Anderson Sá founded a vibrant AfroReggae movement to counter the crime-and-violence cycle through music.

“We gave cameras to the community and encouraged them to shoot their own footage,” said Zimbalist. “They wanted to have some control of the edit and decided to collaborate with us to reach an international audience.”

Numerous investors approached Zimbalist after this year’s Tribeca Film Festival named him Best New Director. But he has steadfast principles: Investors must show their commitment to the cause by channeling proceeds back to the favelas and must be free of “bad ethical issues.” Reebok and Rockstar Games? No, thank you. Their objectionable labor practices and video game content, respectively, gave cause for rejection. THINKfilm and HBO/Cinemax Films will release FAVELA RISING (www.favelarising.com).

Zimbalist insisted that the three-day filmmaking workshops and two-day screenings that he and co-filmmaker Matt Mochary have brought to more than 20 communities through Ford Foundation support are not enough. His goal is to create sustainable relationships, customized to the needs of a community and partnered with a local organization that can build momentum.

Self-proclaimed truth seeker Ian Inaba co-founded the Guerrilla News Network (GNN at www.guerillanews.com) to “look at stories that go underreported by the mainstream press.” Observing the “mass amounts of misinformation and disinformation” disseminated by the Bush administration, Inaba and GNN released True Lies, a book investigating such stories ignored by the corporate media as the unanswered questions of 9/11 and the political fate of Cynthia McKinney, an outspoken member of Congress (D-Georgia). Two months before the 2004 presidential election, Inaba raced to complete Eminem’s MOSH, a music video designed to turn out the youth vote. Bristling with cinematic energy and Eminem’s rousing, rhythmic prose, MOSH was released one week before the polls opened and rightfully earned a place in media history. But neither MOSH nor Michael Moore could turn up the Fahrenheit enough to Bushwack the race.

“I want to tell young people who have been disenfranchised and question the values of this system that the only reason they’re trying to take your vote from you is because it is powerful,” Inaba stated.

With AMERICAN BLACKOUT, Inaba looks beyond the hanging chads that helped put then-Governor George W. Bush into the White House, winning Florida by a scant 537 votes in the 2000 election. The Berkeley director digs into the systematic disempowerment of the African-American vote. Interviews and news footage reinforce McKinney’s salient questioning of everything from the unverified felony list that misidentified and prohibited thousands from voting to the media smear campaign that labeled her “Jihad Cindy” and negatively affected her reelection after five consecutive terms in Congress.

Adam Werbach hopes to reshape American culture and politics through Ironweed (www.ironweedfilms.com), a progressive DVD-of-the-month club that encourages members to attend or host screening parties in homes and nontraditional venues. On April 17, Ironweed and the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) held the first SF360 San Francisco Movie Night. SFFS executive director Graham Leggat envisioned the pre-Festival presentation of Marshall Curry’s Academy Award-nominated STREET FIGHT as “an exploded cinema” that would unite the city on a single night with the same film playing “on a sheet in a backyard in the Mission to the nave of Grace Cathedral.”

When asked about Ironweed selections, Werbach responded, “We basically reject didactic political films. We look first and foremost for films that are entertaining.”

Werbach quickly ran through a history of theoretical frameworks, noting that social scientists have found social modeling or cultivation theory most effective: “Show me a situation or put me there.”

Although Werbach wants to “make people assume identities,”he intends to explore effective filmmaking strategies for social change with local media organizations and documentarians. Good idea. Reception theory in film studies often equates spectator identification with Hollywood blockbusters and first-person shooter games. On the other hand, self-reflexive techniques tend to encourage critical thinking.

All panelists agreed that some individuals in the mainstream media are also waging a battle for meaningful social and political change. Annalee Newitz voiced the need for a powerful counter narrative and expressed concern over draconian copyright laws that restrict documentary filmmakers due to expensive licensing fees. Inaba concurred that current copyright practices amount to a form of censorship, noting that C-SPAN refuses to license any clip critical of the Bush administration for fear of future denial of access. Werbach worried about a two-tiered Internet in the United States with corporations charging for “high road” access.

Newitz foresees a downside to the democratization of the media, as low-to-no budget projects proliferate and gatekeepers vanish. She bluntly warned, “When you lower the cost of making and distributing films, other costs come into play. There’s an attention economy and a social economy. How willing are people to look at your shit?”

If every generation needs a new revolution, then every revolution needs new leaders. These savvy panelists combine creative vision with can-do spirit. Let’s hope the whole world is watching.

Susan Tavernetti

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Chatelin Bruno
(Filmfestivals.com)

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