September 2, 2020
By Călin Boto
Notes on Pirates I
I have always called myself a pirate. It would have been strange not to. It always seemed a no-brainer – if you download stuff illegally, you’re a pirate. That is what I called myself in the 2000s, when my friends, always one step ahead of me in everything computers, would give me CDs with movies downloaded from websites with wonderfully all-encompassing names – freemoviedownloads, downloadfreemoviesnow, freeHDmoviesnow, etc. This lasted for a while and was a family “business” – I would bring home Pixar animated films from my friends, while my dad brought in the heavy stuff, like Bridge to Terabithia (d. Gábor Csupó, 2007) and horror movies, and, already in the 2010s, a cousin of mine started fueling my most perverse impulse – that of owning the movies I saw on TV, the teen musicals they would show every weekend on the Disney Channel. Zac Efron was now at my fingertips, on my CD, in my hand, or spinning noisily in my DVD player.
It wasn’t just movies either – there were also video games, antivirus programs, music, anything that seemed necessary for a working-class family that wanted to consume more than it was capable or willing to pay for. Far from us to wonder whether we were entitled to the things in question (regardless of whether they were physical or virtual). We had no questions, and therefore no answers.
Of course, I was not one of the pirates I now admire, those that inspired me to write this text. I would just take and leave, like most other internet users. I fed the large piracy platforms, those that, in spite of their Robin Hood image, were veritable businesses, grown through advertising and fed by droves of anonymous users. This is another facet of piracy, a paradoxical one – neoliberal piracy bringing in profit, lacking personality and community, just an interface and some links.
But two years ago, while studying about the noblesse of the film industry, I received a strange message. A certain Jon, the brains behind (the now defunct) rarefilmm.com, was asking me if I could help him with the contact information of a Ukrainian director I had interviewed not long before. Basically, he was trying to get hold of a movie that the director had made with Isabelle Huppert in the nineties. I couldn’t help him, but that was my first interaction with this type of pirate: the one who, jumping from link to link, finds a contact person to help them obtain some obscure film that they then make available. One year later, Jon tried his luck again: he asked me to check the accuracy of some English subtitles for the Romanian-French film Codin (d. Henri Colpi, 1963). I reluctantly consented, mumbling something about it being a pretty busy period for me and so I wouldn’t be too efficient. Two weeks later, Jon was still pushing it, even though I was trying to get myself out of it. He was pestering me, but I did find charming his commitment to something that, to be honest, would not have brought him anything, apart from the satisfaction of having satiated a cinephile community’s hunger for rare films. Or at least that’s how I saw it back then. Rarefilmm was one of the many platforms driven by enthusiasm and generosity, and Jon is struggling even now to get it back online.
Later I joined an ambiguous network of filmmakers and academics that exchanged movies. It didn’t seem subversive. I was doing it for the benefit of my university papers, the texts I would regularly write, the discussions in various film clubs, etc. I took something from a community to offer something else to a different one, to help it grow. I was a good comrade when it came to research. But this network too seemed dubious to me, as it was based on one’s symbolic capital– the most privileged, hard-working, visible, well-rated, etc. have the greatest chances of receiving those cordial messages, polite comments, and quasi-secret email addresses. I wanted to go straight to the source, to meet the key-people in certain institutions and gain access to those legendary platforms – Karagarga, Cinematik, Cinemageddon. That was where high curatorship took place.
In the end I got an invitation to Cinemageddon. I could use my Facebook friend list to ask questions about a given film and even get an answer back. It all seemed fine, I had more movies than I could watch anyway. But Cinemageddon works on a ration basis, as do Cinematik and Karagarga. Members who do not have subtitles, books, or rare (or rare-format) movies to give will eventually use up their ration and be kicked out. That was the case with me, which made me seriously question this kind of online independent, esoteric platform with its meticulous curatorship (friends tell me, for instance, that on Karagarga you need to list all the technical details of a film file) and exclusivist policies. Do these enlightened minds of cinema, the little internet archivists, and seasoned cinephiles not have access to rarities anyway, with or without these networks? What does this kind of closed community achieve? And, most importantly, for whom?
I had come to seek something utopian, as I repudiated both models of piracy (the business model and the cult model). I was thinking of all of this in the spring of the current year, so the wave of movies made available overnight by filmmakers and institutions really hit me. At the time I was still waiting on the tide like a fool, waiting for one new movie to appear after the last. But this avalanche of movies, generous as it might have been, must be taken for what it was – a maneuver through which institutions and filmmakers sought to keep themselves visible to consumers, not very different from the generosity behind double features in ’30s and ’40s America, critical years for the economy. This does not mean good intentions were not involved, but it does reveal the possibilities the cinema industry rarely takes in favor of more profitable plans – retrospectives, VoD releases, restorations, etc.
Anyway, at one point one of my posts was replied to with an invitation for the closed group F.T., followed by one for la loupe. It is around the pirates there that my text will revolve. Before that however, I must make it clear: I am walking on thin ice. The legal implications of publishing an article in which not only do I admit to downloading movies off the internet, but also formulate something like an apology for, if not an outright invitation to, piracy do not interest me in the least. I don’t even know if they exist. As for the others, my collateral victims, them I will protect as best I can. The only piracy networks whose names I will give in full are either open public-access or have already been talked about in the press.
The first is a somewhat more obscure (a little over 900 members), unregulated Anglophone group. Anyone can post/request whatever they like, whatever the film’s status – distributed, undistributed, rare, restored, etc. the basic rules pertain rather to camaraderie and political correctness (no discrimination of any kind, respectful interactions, etc.). Though this is an unwritten rule, the group does not welcome the requesting and uploading of well-known films, and it tackles this through a policy of encouraging members to check accessible torrents before posting. If, for instance, I were looking for the latest Batman movies, I could easily find them on popular websites. Same with, let’s say, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (d. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975) and Jeanne Dielman (d. Chantal Akerman, 1975). But anything pertaining to marginal, underground, undistributed, and unseen cinema, the one that lost the fight against history, belongs on F.T.
On la loupe, which has already enjoyed news coverage, things are a bit different: being much more visible (10,000 members), the Francophone group adheres to certain clear rules. Following some interventions from distributors, la loupe allows only the uploading of rare films. What makes them rare? The lack of French distributors (so it is a territorialized group), regardless of format – DVD, VoD, cinema or festival distribution, etc. As stressful as it might sound, the group finds subterfuges to continue operating. French filmmaker Frank Beauvais, a former moderator and very active member of the group, used to post unofficial links from YouTube channels, ownerless films, so to say. The group emerged in the context of the European quarantine, starting March, as a response to the closing of cinemas, but also as a support group, a place where film lovers around the world could invest time and energy into sleuth work and take their minds off the fear of the unknown.
What unites the two groups is the kind of cinema that unfolds itself through links, stills, original descriptions, or quotes from reviews. It is a land outside the bounds of commercial reasoning, where advertising budgets are just obscure numbers, distributors are castrated, and the 1001 movies you need to see before you die fade into oblivion. The pirates’ erudition is fascinating and intimidating. These are most often faceless individuals, with their Facebook profiles chock full of stills from obscure films, who upload movie after movie, tons of gigabytes stored in transfer links and anonymous drives. Some are formally involved in the movie industry – respectable critics, famous filmmakers, or curators working with festivals, all give out small films left and right. For 15 minutes, these small films become great films, about which dozens, maybe hundreds of people talk at the same time – they are acquired, searched for, requested, and, finally, downloaded. Among the pirates there are no classes or power dynamics. But internal canons do form, though hazy. Carole Roussopoulos, Barbara Hammer, and Guy Gilles are prime currency. Godard and Akerman are as current as ever. John Ford is rediscovered. The Cahiers du Cinéma archive is occasionally sifted through.
Witnesses, thieves, and the bankruptcy of rich images
Of course, there is nothing revolutionary in such cinephilia. Not yet. This is the kind of generic arthouse resistance, a little auteurist, a little feminist, a little queer, cosmopolitan but Eurocentric, leftist, politically correct, etc. But this is only the beginning. Pirates are termites. Furthermore, even in its current state, it has overcome an impasse – this rarefied zone of cinephilia, which I generally referred to as arthouse, always had this problem of cult value. The famous and unseen. The shocking, irreverent, iconoclastic, revolutionary. That’s what some called them. But who had the chance to see Un chant d’amour (d. Jean Genet, 1950) in the first years after its release? How about Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963)? Of course, people knew that Jonas Mekas went to jail for daring to screen both in New York, which automatically made them desirable, and the fact that they could not be seen made them all the more enticing. People knew because it had been written about, and you could buy an issue of the Village Voice from the corner shop, but not a copy of the movie. It was cinema’s nature to circulate very slowly. Things changed with digitization, and the entry of these movies, legally or not, into the online medium is clearly a great leap from analog movie watching. But the transition to the digital was not uniform. And this is the most interesting thing about it. Some movies ended up damaged, pixelated, copies of a copy of a copy. People uploaded unofficial versions of films and double tapes, recorded TV airings and filmed screens in galleries. This is what Hito Steyerl calls “the poor image,” which is “a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances,” “an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image.” In this sense, the online was a loss for a lot of marginal productions, the losing cinema I mentioned earlier: from precariat to lumpenproletariat, from bad to worse. Or not, as this change has bourgeoisified other images, experimental films praised by experts and specialist archive curators. As after any revolution, class structure was upset.
But not as much as should have been the case. The internet quickly went from utopia to new marketplace. VoD distribution quickly countered film piracy, attempting to amputate cinema, to reduce it to a few thousand titles. I have written about Netflix algorithms in the past, though those are just the easiest opponent for what can be a more ample debate. I would not show the same nonchalance with other platforms, like MUBI or DAfilms, but some of my arguments still stand:
“Watching movies will never be the same, that much is clear, and this is not because the old habit of going to the cinema will be lost in favor of home viewing – television and, later, VHS tapes and DVDs proposed basically the same thing. The problem is different and more serious – Netflix offers more movies than anyone can watch, adding new ones every day. All this content needs to be sorted, which it does by user preference. And who does the sorting? An algorithm that gathers data – what genres you like, what directors, how long the movies you watch are, etc. So far so good. You log onto Netflix, watch one movie, then another, then another, and so on. But what is it you’re watching?
Variations on what you saw earlier, again and again the same cinema you find comfortable. If you watched three 90-minute films starring Jennifer Aniston, you can bet you will watch a few more. A lot of what used to be so delightful about spontaneous cinephilia is lost here; whether by walking into a cinema by chance, changing the channels, or digging through the media library, you would eventually come face to face with a movie that did not promise to validate your preexisting ideas or tastes.”
Of course, I tend to idealize the pre-VoD industry. This kind of comfortable, lukewarm, commercial curating, designed to appeal and never surprise, did not appear with Netflix. This is an old battle, with its ups and downs, with various knowledgeable individuals who called out distributors for their Americo- and Eurocentrism, commercial obedience, etc. And not just the likes of Jonas Mekas, or, later, Jonathan Rosenbaum, but as early as the ’20s, with a Bolshevik visionary, Dziga Vertov, who, when talking about Soviet film production, found movie theaters an obstacle in the way of producing educational films, as he referred to documentaries, more precisely newsreels and scientific films. Vertov’s logic was simple: if you don’t have distribution – and therefore people can’t access films – then there will be no demand, and without demand there will be no production. Vertov proposed mixed programs, bundles that would contain documentaries, animation, scientific, and fictional films.
“Against this chart:
Artistic cinema………………………………………..95% [sic]
Scientific, educational film, travelogues……..…5%
we’ve got to promote this chart:
Kino-eye (everyday life)…………………………..…45%
Just as telling is an answer given by French filmmaker (who lived a large part of his life in Germany) Jean Marie Straub during a discussion which took place in Rome in 1970. His political-modernist comrades Miklos Janscó (Hungary), Glauber Rocha (Brazil), avant-garde filmmaker Pierre Clémenti (France), and Simon Hartog, founding member of independent film cooperative London Film-Makers’ Co-op, also took part in the discussion. As the conversation goes on, they reach a consensus regarding Straub’s answer (Janscó would call commercial distribution a petty-bourgeois dictatorship, while Rocha would denounce the standards that arthouse distribution looks for in films, accusing it too of being a closed system).
“Hartog: Today the cinema has become in a certain sense a minority art form. Does this disturb you or not? Do you think it’s true?
Straub: I don’t know what a minority is … Lenin answered this question anyway, when he said that the minority of today would be the majority of tomorrow. So it’s meaningless … But then we can’t know … If the films which are accused of being made for a minority were given the same facilities of distribution and publicity as the films for the so-called mass market, the problem wouldn’t exist. But they’re not.”
The commercial nature (nature being a misnomer, as it is in fact a construct) that defines a film since pre-production follows that film everywhere, even in its internet afterlife. As Steyerl notes, the state in which an image is posted online does not just depend on luck, but also on the image’s origins, on the politics behind its context. Antonioni’s great films do not reach the internet in a single 360p version. Let’s also look at something Romanian, something close to the scientific films, educational films, and travelogues for which Vertov advocated. The films of Sahia Studio, recovered in the 1990s and 2000s through various film education shows, may only reach the new generation in TVrip format, on the YouTube channels of passionate people or inheritors. Watching the poor image, one finds it easy to decrypt not just the nature of the film, but also the recording devices, which testify to a particular time and place. And, as any testimony, the poor image is not perfect – it is subjective, fragmented, distorted, profoundly altered by the witness’s abilities.
The first box containing a restored version of Alain Resnais’s masterpiece Night and Fog by Argos Film cites the unpopular position that the French filmmaker had about restoration. “”As digital projection and restoration rapidly invaded the film world, Alain Resnais lamented that the same respect awarded old books — despite their battered covers and worn-out pages — was painfully missing when it came to aging film prints and negatives.” Of course, by saying this, Resnais is not playing the same card as Steyerl. He is not denouncing image class as being another tentacle of neoliberalism. What seems to bother him is that the status of an image is not as permanent as that of a person – why should an old money image be converted to the standards of a new money one? But there is one more side to what Resnais is saying, one which brings his statement closer to Steyerl’s. Both advocate for a new kind of enjoyment, that of seeing scratches, stains, and dead pixels, of positioning oneself on the temporal axis of an image, asking us to stop demanding that it always be fresh and pristine. Because this demand brings film dangerously close to a commodity – just as we don’t want to pay money for stained clothes, we don’t want to pay for stained, used images either.
I don’t mean to suggest that poor images are the only thing circulating on la loupe and F.T. That’s not even remotely the case. On the contrary, they are among high-res films, recent restorations taken from Vimeo, and DVDrips. Their place is still on the periphery. The pirates have not abandoned the hierarchy of images. We still pursue those 1080, 2k, 4k; 720 is reasonable; 480 is exotic.
But some really do want rags. They don’t mind, they’re used to them. And not only do they want them, they seek them, find them, and share them amongst themselves. These then get patched up, ripped, tightened, whatever the new wearer decides. This is the creative aspect of piracy. In the same essay, Steyerl notes that the internet is a platform where pirates become “the editors, critics, translators, and (co-)authors of poor images.” An industry in itself, with all its advantages and imminent threats.
Among the first films I requested on F.T. were those of photographer Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) and I’ll Be Your Mirror (1996). Done and done. But a friend immediately pointed out to me that that The Ballad… does not have the original soundtrack. I didn’t really mind, even though, to be fair, Goldin’s movie is a slideshow, a collection of photographs extracted from her eponymous series. So, from a movie made up of photos and music, I had lost the music. But a surprise came recently – what I had was not in fact Goldin’s film, but a slideshow with photos from the same series put together as visual accompaniment to a song by British band The Tiger Lillies, which, in its turn, was, indeed, created to accompany Goldin’s series. Right. The fact that the film itself has a performative element made me unable to locate the original – MUBI says it is 43 minutes long, Edit Film Culture! says it’s 49 minutes, so 41 minutes, the length of The Tiger Lillies’ song and that of the unofficial video I had seen, didn’t necessarily seem suspicious. In this sense, The Ballad… becomes a puzzle. Anyone can make their own version using the photo series and the approximate duration. And, most likely, each would be singular, different from what came before and what will come after, to the point where the artistic quality would not just be in Goldin’s hands, but in those of the pirates as well. The real or speculative examples could go on forever.
Parenthesis – Make Way for Tomorrow
Morgan Pokée, a sélectionner for the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Cannes), also an influential member of the la loupe groupe, stated that he planned to materialize the group’s activities through his own curated programs. This is something the movie industry desperately needs, hard as it might be to admit. Film festivals have so far acted as a good alternative, a form that candid cinephilia, well-informed and eager, adopted in mass after film distribution became barren and commercial. But now that festivals have become normalized under the commercial pressures of distributors, competitive film festivals release pictures that everyone else then takes and passes on. Everyone is waiting with baited breath for the Dardenne brothers’ new movie, an absolute premiere time after time. This is big money, money you don’t mess with. This dying system could perhaps be saved if it took from the verve with which pirates share and discover films. Of course, this would snuff out an avant-garde movement, pirates would become public servants. But that is the destiny of every avant-garde movement.
 Hito Steyerl, “În apărarea imaginii sărace,” Dincolo de reprezentare, Idea Design Print, Cluj, 2017, trad. Andrei Anăstăsescu, p. 11. English quote from: Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux journal #10, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/.
 Călin Boto, Film magazine, no. 1/2020, pp. 8-9, in English by the translator.
 Dziga Vertov, “Kinopravda & Radiopravda,” in Annette Michelson (ed.), Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, University of California Press, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London, 1984, translated by Kevin O’Brien, pp. 52-56.
 The catalogue of the Berlin film festival Edit Film Culture! (July 2018), p. 53.
Translated by Rareș Grozea
Călin Boto is the editor-in-chief of the cinema magazine Film Menu and the coordinator of its weekly film club. As a freelancer, he collaborates with several publications and film festivals, includin...