Some of the biggest global dramas of recent times—the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Burma, the China earthquake, suicide bombers in Israel, the hanging of Sadaam Hussein—all were filmed on cell phones, snippets of strife seen and shared by people all over the world, thanks to digital video.
But there also is creativity in these ephemeral, on-the-fly images of our accelerated times—and a new artistic medium for both filmmakers and social advocates looking to change the world, ever-less expensively. “People are making films now on whatever is available—video cameras, cell phones, point-and-shoot cameras, Webcams, and what-have-you,” says Carlton Evans, a San Francisco film-maker working in the medium. "They're cutting these films and are starting to make some really incredible little pieces.”
Inspired, Evans and creative partner Eric Slatkin earlier this year founded the Disposable Film Festival, a selection of hyper-short digital videos from around the world by people testing the artistic limits and possibilities of social media for storytelling. It Never Rains in Los Angeles, for example, a short film by Ishai Setton, was shot entirely on a Nokia NSeries cell phone. "It's the first-ever cellphone film noir,” Evans says (see below), an intriguing example of this new medium's possibilities.
Other examples include the work of Red Bucket Films , a Brooklyn-based collective of young filmmakers who work almost entirely in disposable media, preferring the hand-held, grainy images they offer to convey the simple beauty (and, at times, the savage humor) in the rhythms of everyday life. The authentic feel of many of these films is derived, in part, from the technical limitations of the devices. Webcams, says DFF’s Evans, offer an in-your-face intimacy; videos shot on cell phones tend to generate a more voyeuristic tone and feel, while point-and-shoot cameras can conjure up richer, more evocative colors and light.
Check out Red Bucket’s Buttons project, a collection of 60-second, nonfiction vignettes, a kind of moving photo album consisting of hyper-short portraits of New York City that include some intimate observations of subway musicians, children having temper tantrums in Central Park, and a series of Weegee-like shots of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. One short film, shot with a cell phone from an apartment window high above the parade, offers an aerial view of a gigantic, Sponge Bob Square Pants balloon hovering almost menacingly over dwarfed bystanders as it is tugged down Manhattan’s tree-lined Central Park West parade route. Cofounder Alex Kalman says the Buttons project started when he and his 20-something colleagues began carrying small digital cameras around with them to capture images on the fly as they moved around the city.
There is poetry to be found here—and a new medium for persuasion. “We originally conceived this [festival] as a vehicle for social action,” says Evans. “We’re pushing the idea that, for a very small budget, you could, for example, give people living on both sides of a dangerous border—in the West Bank or on the Mexican-American border, say—a chance to shoot their surroundings and then make a film. You could assemble a collection of video dialogues that could redress political situations. It seems infinitely scaleable. It seems like there is tremendous potential there.”
This month, Evans and Slatkin have been working with 826 Valencia , the San Francisco arm of writer Dave Eggers' national nonprofit to help kids ages 6-18 develop their creative writing skills. The pair is helping the group with a project that uses cell phone videos and other forms of disposable media to teach children ages 10-14 a new way to document their lives. At the first workshop, held last week, Evans says, “we saw kids expressing themselves through film in ways that were utterly impossible a year ago.” Look for a limited screening of those films in San Francisco later this year in partnership with KQED, the local PBS affiliate.
For more examples of the emotional power of these films, see this DFF selection, How Memory Works (below), a film by Jason File, about regret.
My personal favorite is My Balloon Can Go Higher, by Red Bucket cofounders Kalman and Josh Safdie, about a man who visits the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan with his own balloon. (You can find this one only by going to Red Bucket’s home page, clicking on “Films” tab, and forward-clicking your way through the collective’s home-album-looking pages of movie listings. This particular one appears on the seventh page, top-center.) Shot in my Upper West Side neighborhood, the piece perfectly captures the parade’s weird magic—to be conjured up again (live) on Thursday.
This year, I'm definitely taking my cell phone.
Labels: 826Valencia.org, Carlton Evans, cause docs, cause videos, cellphone video, Dave Eggers, Disposable Film Festival, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Nokia NSeries, red bucket films, social media, Webcams