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From Free Film Movement to Cluetrain: the importance of personal filmmaking

Streamers by PixieTart from Flikr CC"As filmmakers we believe that no film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.”

"For every entry in the encyclopedia, there is now a Web site. For any idea you can imagine — and some you can't — there are thousands of articles and images electronically swirling around the globe. But that's not the real story. That's not the big news. The word that's going around, the word that's finally getting out, is something much larger, far more fundamental. The word that's passing like a spark from keyboard to screen, from heart to mind, is the permission we're giving ourselves and each other: to be human and to speak as humans."

Looking again at James MacGregor's guide to the Free Film Movement this morning, I was struck by how similar its founding statement is to some of the central ideas of Cluetrain. For those who haven't heard of it (which until a few months back included me), The Cluetrain Manifesto is an essay published by Rick Levine, Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger in 1999 looking at how business and communication was evolving on the Internet. Unlike the typical corporate sponsored report of that period, Cluetrain recognised a massive sea change in nature of business transactions, shifting from heavy top down systems (we will tell you what to buy) to loose non-heirarchical structures like eBay, and tranposing this shift to communication and the media saw a revolution brewing. At its heart is the idea that only by becoming more personal - as personal as is humanly possible - would an organisation or individual be able to stand out on the web where there are billions of pages and products competing for attention.

What's remarkable about the essay is that, with the explosion of blogs, vlogs, and sites like Flickr, MySpace, Digg, DeviantArt and is how true this has proven to be, especially in the creative world. Like Hakim Bay's Pirate Utopias and the Temporary Autonomous Zone, it has been one of those defining texts that in retrospect look almost prophetic.

"From another perspective, the news is not good at all. Everybody's miserable. Everybody's had about enough. People are sick to death of being valued only as potential buyers, as monetary grist for some modern-day satanic mill.

They're sick of working for organizations that treat them as if they didn't exist, then attempt to sell them the very stuff they themselves produced. Why is a medium that holds such promise — to connect, to inspire, to awaken, to enlist, to change — being used by companies as a conduit for the kind of tired lies that have characterized fifty years of television? Business has made a ventriloquist's trick of the humanity we take for granted. The sham is ludicrous. The corporation pretends to speak, but its voice is that of a third-rate actor in a fourth-rate play, uttering lines no one believes in a manner no one respects.

Oh well. That's OK. We'll get by. We've got each other.

I have to laugh as I write that. The Internet audience is a strange crew, to be sure. But we're not talking about some Woodstock lovefest here. We don't all need to drop acid and get naked. We don't need to pledge our undying troth to each other, or to the Revolution, or to the bloody Cluetrain Manifesto for that matter. And neither does business.

All we need to do is what most of us who've discovered this medium are already doing: using it to connect with each other, not as representatives of corporations or market segments, but simply as who we are... Tell us some good stories and capture our interest. Don't talk to us as if you've forgotten how to speak. Don't make us feel small. Remind us to be larger. Get a little of that human touch. "

But how does this apply to filmmaking in the web age? One of the most common criticisms of indie British cinema in the last decade is how how derrivative and similar much of it is - somewhere between a Working Title rom-com, a low grade horror and a gangster flic. These aren't the films you see leading on YouTube's most popular page. There you see - most often - human beings doing something (creating, dancing, scoring a goal, juggling, falling over, singing, playing the trumpet, impersonating, rapping) which is unique. The technical quality seems irrelevent. The interest seems to be something personal, uniquely and unapologetically human.

Admittedly much of YouTube's most popular stuff is glorified party tricks aimed at short attention span teenagers - the real treats are layers deeper in the dozens of millions of films hosted there. But the same patterns seem else where, after watching dozens of video blogs, it's the tender sensitivity of something like 29fragiledays that stands out. In the inventive 7 Maps project, which has been running this week, Vlogger Daniel at PouringDown.TV has challenged his viewers to challenge him by setting instructions of where to travel to and what to film each day for a seven day period complete with technical restrictions and a Wiki to collaboratively decide what his mission should be. [He also managed to raise over $2000 in funding for the project from small donations from his viewers via group fundraising site].  But amidst these seven films, (of which I have only seen the first six) it was the one that focussed on something quite human and personal, as opposed to those which were clever or even the most attractive to look at that best caught my attention - and judging by the comments I wasn't alone.

It makes sense. There are potentially billions of filmmakers now with digi cameras, camcorders and mobile phones who can make films which mimic on some level that which we've already seen in a cinema or on TV, and the web provides a free global platform for all of them. But coming back round, via the ideas of ClueTrain, to the British Free Film Movement - the 1956 no-budget 16mm British movement that predated Dogme and Cinema Verite, there is some hope for those of us who will never see a big budget and want to express something beyond that which commercial TV and cinema currently offers. For amidst the countless pages of the web, what is left then to stand out, but our own story, our experience and perception of the world?

“With a 16mm camera, and minimal resources, and no payment for your technicians, you cannot achieve very much in commercial film terms. You cannot make a feature film and your possibilities of experimenting are extremely limited. But you can use your eyes and your ears. You can give indications. You can make poetry.”
Lorenza Mazzetti, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reiz, Tony Richardson - The Free Film Movement

read - the Cluetrain Manifesto

James MacGregor's Groundbreakers, The Free Film Movement in British Cinema