Hot Docs 2013, Day One: Terms and Conditions May Apply

April 27, 2013 | By

The 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival also happens to be its 20th anniversary, and I’ve uploaded the first of several reviews – but we’ll get to that shortly.

When I was a kid, exposure to docs were fairly minimal, and most films were seen within a pedagogical environment to give a lesson a multimedia feel. Teachers would drag out a cart and show a 16mm film, or maybe shove a VHS tape or a fat U-matic tape into a 70 pound VCR.

On TV, docs were sometimes featured as filler material – when a show was pre-empted or delayed, besides airing reruns or alternate shows, a station could insert in a doc and switch away as soon as the main show was ready to begin.

I don’t recall much prime time given to docs, which probably meant PBS and Ontario’s TVO were the main sources for documentary films of various lengths. The CBC also aired docs, but certainly in the 70s and 80s, they were showing several top U.S. shows to keep their annual budgets solvent. (Pressure to air more CanCon caused a reassessment of the CBC’s mandate – ‘Why are taxpayer funds going towards the purchase of U.S. product?’ – but the immediate result was the lost of a major revenue source.)

There was also the NFB, and while some product was available on tape, one could argue the stigma against docs – boring, grainy, crude productions, often running non-standard lengths – kept them away from the limelight, and a wide audience.

The big shift may have come from several factors, which include specialty channels mandating a high volume of original CanCon product; reduced production costs; and perhaps a gradual acclimatization among audiences who, when suddenly faced with a greater array of channels, found multimedia expansions of topics they were already attracted to via the news, newspapers, magazines, and books.

Documentarians also benefitted from cheaper gear that offered higher production values, and the flipside: filmmakers in commercials, videos, TV, and movies were mashing up narrative style with grainy visuals, jump-cuts, and fragmented sound.

Documentarians also have more venues to sell their product, and there’s the inherent need to make a compelling drama due to the genre’s popularity, and competition for attention. Just as the old axiom of ‘there’s four other screenwriters working on the same story as you’ holds true (hence the occasional release of similar storied films), there are waves when contemporary topics beg multiple albeit specific analyses, and happen to reach the market simultaneously.

For example, this year at Hot Docs we have two films on North Korea – The Defector: Escape from North Korea, and The Great North Korean Picture Show – and three on the internet – TPB: The Pirate Bay Away from the Keyboard, Downloaded, and Terms and Conditions May Apply – although each film deals with specific cases or aspects under their respective topical umbrella.

These films will ultimately compete on big and small screens, but they also maintain a spotlight on topics that are relevant, contemporary, and familiar – aspects that will ensure a recognition factor and viewer interest when they arrive on video or via digital distribution.

Terms and Conditions May Apply [M] is a very prescient film on the loss of privacy because director Cullen Hoback provides a how-did-we-get-into-this-mess chronology, but tech savvy folks will undoubtedly find nothing wholly shocking – and that’s perhaps part of Hoback’s point: it is accepted that whatever you do online is being read, screened, archived, retrieved, analyzed, categorized, sorted, and flagged for caution, exploitation, sale, or just done out of an overwhelming need to control.

What’s disturbing is the existing relationships between corporations offering free ‘community building’ software (Facebook being the doc’s prime target) and secretive government agencies; and how it’s too late to roll back the laws, and ensure privacy survives through some guaranteed safeguards.

There’s also a discrete lesson that’s not addressed in the doc, but one private citizens may find mandatory: establish a consistent online presence to ensure you are who you are in the event of some horrific fubar. The doc singles out some nightmare cases that are absurd and shocking, and with privacy advocates clearly struggling to maintain existing privacy laws, maybe it’s the least costly solution, if not the simplest safeguard.

The rally for action is clear, but like any organization – governmental, commercial, or to some extent non-profit  – your name will become part of a database, and you may find yourself courted by others presuming that if you like pizza, vintage Volkswagens, MP3 players, Paris, stuffed bunnies, and free speech… you might also like lasagna recipes, free oil change offers, air travel specials, stuffed goats, and the latest campaign against office bullying.

The moral lines and the methods with which organizations use commercial venues and products to advance their positions aren’t exactly black & white, and maybe that’s a greater problem: ultimately no one will leave you alone.

Coming next: soundtrack reviews.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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