Hot!media: Breaking Through the Glass Eye

With limited funds and little access to mainstream outlets, progressive video producers go digital to spread their message.

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In 1994 President Clinton wanted Haitian military dictator — and avid CNN viewer — Raoul Cedras to step down. Enter CNN journalist Jamie McIntyre, who produces — with curious access to secret U.S. military strategy — a story elaborating in threatening detail U.S. invasion plans a week before they would occur. After the program aired, Cedras agreed to cede power to president-elect Bertrand Aristide before any invasion transpired. Recognizing the power of video, the U.S. has used it to implement countless military and political objectives. Campaign commercials are just another example of influential video. The now infamous 1964 “Daisy” commercial juxtaposed nuclear war with childhood innocence. (Remember Lyndon Johnson, in his lilting Texas drawl? “We must either love each other, or we must die.”) And who can forget the revolutionary ramifications of the grainy and shaky street-lit image of Rodney King engulfed by blows directed at him by white L.A. police officers. Political organizations like the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network (CBN) recognize the impact of video and use it to their advantage.

Video activism has more than reached the Web world, it proliferates there. Some organizations such as Greenpeace and Free Speech TV transmit video on their Web sites, offering up short streamed video documentaries and news packages. Free Speech TV in conjunction with ACT UP and DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activists) broke new ground on November 27th by broadcasting a “how-to” civil disobedience program over the Net. To view it all you need is the free VDOLive and RealAudio players. With the cost of computer and video equipment going down and the growing push towards universal access to the Internet, almost anybody can produce and distribute video these days.

Unfortunately, video on the Net requires some hefty band width, clogging the info pipes and, slowing down reception. Even so, Web videos are plagued with poor resolution and choppy images, and the screen is so tiny you couldn’t tell Mao Tse-tung from Marge Simpson. With all the promises of new viewing programs, video conferencing, and asynchronous transfer mode switches (ATMs), the Net is still not the best place to watch video. But it is a great place to make a first world netizen aware of what’s being produced. The key word here is distribution, not exhibition.

Paper Tiger Television, a producer and distributor of independent programming dedicated to “smashing the myths of the information industry,” is currently promoting its newest release on the Net. “No Carrier: Accessing the Telecommunications Act of 1996” is a great introduction to the complicated legislation and ramifications of the act. PTTV remains uncensored because it exists outside the mainstream networks, depending largely on satellite downloads and public access channels to broadcast its programs. The Web is much more efficient — and a whole lot cheaper — way to promote, distribute and sell their new releases.

The Empowerment Project , an Academy Award-winning producer of documentary films, also uses the Internet as a distribution channel. You can view clips of their controversial movies, “The Panama Deception” and “Coverup: Behind the Iran Contra Affair,” neither of which have been broadcast nationally by any of the networks, including PBS. According to Barbara Trent, the films’ director, Cinemax has been the only national outlet to run “The Panama Deception,” which scored an Oscar. Anyone can buy the videos from their Web site, allowing EP to circumvent the gatekeepers. (Note: The Independent Film Channel is showing EP’s flicks throughout the month of December.)

Another alternative video distribution model is the CD-ROM. Amnesty International, in collaboration with Voyager, a publisher of interactive media, produced an extensive CD-ROM called Amnesty Interactive. The CD includes detailed testimonials from political prisoners, an itemization of human rights abuses from 100 countries, and a “What You Can Do” section for taking action — and it’s narrated by the always stellar Leonard Nimoy.


For a more comprehensive understanding of video activism, see Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices (Minnesota Press), a new collection of theoretical essays, edited by Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, that seeks to position video within our political and social landscape. One of the few collections that examines video production and theory, Resolutions covers such topics as community television projects, access to production facilities, and how video is used to create a more accurate representation of reality. This consummate collection of critical essays invokes what is perhaps the clearest perspective on video as a power, as a technology, and as a practice.

Currently the big entertainment companies and tech-savvy ad agencies see the Web as the latest and greatest way to show off their wares and get you to buy their goods. (The next time you turn on the tube try counting the number of URLs flashed during commercial breaks.) And of course, the future of all new media depends on its ability to turn a profit. So, as usual, those putting out the politically packed alternative to the mainstream are forced to produce and distribute for next to nothing. Right now the Web is becoming a real solution, playing the role of the rock in David’s sling that the Goliaths should keep an eye on.

Scott McStay is an intern at the MoJo Wire where he patiently seeks spiritual enlightenment in the form of a paying job.


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