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Netribution at ten years


Sometimes it takes a good film to put things right. Like when your computer needs to be rebooted to get it working normally, or the benefits of a good night's sleep. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was just that calibration, a tale of doing the right thing, of endurance and redemption, and a reminder that of how important cinema is to me, and how great cinema has far less to do with technology than it does to do with the questions, hopes and problems that face us as a species.

Ten years ago, on the second of Februa

ry 2000, Netribution formally launched, after a month of tests, at Peeping Tom's short film gathering at Global Cafe in Golden Square.

It's hard to recognise myself in the photo from the night - alongside fellow co-founders Wendy Bevan Mogg and the legend that is Tom Fogg - bubbling with passionate naiveté and blind optimism. A more innocent time, before YouTube and torrents and Bush and 9-11, when David Cameron was still head of PR for Carlton TV, and publishing a new issue once a week seemed impressive. Now tweets come every few seconds I miss that space which was forced upon us in the early days by dial-up modems - the gaps between thought, writing, coding and the reader that might have prevented some of my more indulgent rants of later years.

I can't find the launch page of the site anywhere. The first front page I can find is pulled from the Wayback machine and is Issue #24 from May of that year, there's other front pages with broken links from Issue #47 (our 2000 Christmas issue), Issue #56 and Issue #62 which has more of the site intact. The old features page probably gives the best idea of what we were about then.

As I searched my hard drives to find our first issue, I found the first barely coherent business plan from November 99 through to the Netribution 2 presentation from November 04 which reads like a naïve sales brochure for Web 2.0. Even in 99 our plan was filled with talk of 'open source webisodes' that people could remix and add to across the world and a network of indie screening venues and groups across the country for filmmakers to distribute their work to directly.

Now, ten years later, as these ideas are found everywhere I not only feel old before my time, but find myself questioning their basis. The web today seems as much distraction as enabler, the conversation online often descending into a battle of the cynics with a contest to be 'more like everyone else on the planet that anyone else' as the convincing anti-web essay Against the Machine puts it...

It only dawned on me at the Open Video Conference last year that we weren't necessarily seeing a power shift from the copyright industry to the creative brains and talents that have long sustained it, but from the copyright industry to the telecoms and technology industry. It may be more open but it's still big multinational business seeking the bottom line ahead of more human considerations. At it's worst web video is to the household what the the TV set was to communities in the 50s - a destabilisng force that sent people to scramble off alone and stare at an ever glowing screen, always one click away from gratification.

So it felt like there was not much to celebrate with Netribution's decade beyond the brilliant and humbling work of the people who have made it happen. James MacGregor, Laurence Boyce, Suchandrika Chakrabarti, Stephen Applebaum, Andrew Cousins, Eric Dubois and of course, Tom Fogg (not to mention the countless other contributors and commenters). Yet in writing a tribute to these people comes a sense of failure that I've never managed to pay any of them for their work. And that the web evangelising has heralded a world where such brilliant voices are more easily lost amidst endless and addictive chatter.

But then the Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - a lesser-seen companion piece to No Country for Old Men - came just at the right moment to remind me that cinema is essential and worth working to find "in the midst of the inferno, that which is not inferno and make them endure, give them space". Googling the film title I then found Stephen's interview with Tommy Lee Jones published here in 2006, and remembered Netribution's modest place in all that, along with funding help and a platform for the independent voices who were not being heard.

And finally, by way of a tweet of all things, I came to Chris Jones's latest blog, where he leads with a vimeo of JK Rowling's 2008 Harvard graduation address on the importance of failure, which finishes with a quote from Seneca. So I'm ditching the quote I was going to end this editorial with, from the original Netribution industry contacts section ('if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then give up. There's no point being a damned fool about it.' WC Fields), or it's replacement (Cyrill Connolly's '"better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self" expressed even better as a cartoon by And instead, through a thread of new technology - so tempting to dismiss, yet unmatched at closing the gaps of time and space between people and ideas - comes Seneca's 2,000 year old pearl: "As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters".