If Netflix summons up the image of a brick-and-mortar movie theater, it would be the Cineplex in a suburban shopping mall playing the latest Adam Sandler and Bruce Willis movies with a small box of oversalted popcorn sold for $5 at the concession stand. Vyer Films, which also streams movies to your computer, would be more like an art house near a good university featuring a Satyajit Ray revival and serving exquisitely delicious espresso for 50 cents a cup.
As the “about” page at Vyer Films puts it: “Hollywood makes movies for toddlers, tweens, and teenagers. We find and stream films for everyone else.” A-fucking-men.
Before I say something about three representative Vyer films, it struck me that the discussion of the digital revolution in the very fine documentary “Side by Side” missed a very important dimension. Focused as it was on the creators, ranging from Steven Soderbergh to Martin Scorsese, it left those who “consume” their products out of the equation. In the late 50s and early 60s, which for me will always remain the golden age of cinema, the price of entry into the filmmaking universe was pretty damned steep. Except for experimental artists like Ken Jacobs working with a hand-held 8-millimeter camera, most socially and artistically ambitious productions required millions of dollars to mount and then could only be seen in the proverbial brick-and-mortar theater.
With the advent of digital cameras, the cost barriers are removed for the most part. Furthermore, even if an independent film is pretty much forced to debut in a physical theater, Vyer allows them to have a much longer shelf life.
That was what occurred to me immediately when I had the opportunity to sample three Vyer films, one of which was “I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You.” As it turned out this Brazilian film with a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, including mine, made a brief appearance at the Anthology Film Archives in New York in March 2011, a theater that conforms to the espresso-serving image conjured above. If not for Vyer, it would have disappeared into the memory hole. This is what I had to say about it back then:
The final scenes in the film consist of the geologist surveying the town that is about to be inundated with water, a necessary result of Brazil’s relentless modernization. He does not render a political judgment on the changes taking place but you cannot be left without a feeling that the changes—that he is in the vanguard of fomenting—leave him as empty as the love affair that has just ended in failure.
Defying conventional expectations of film-making, the directors have found exactly the right venue to present their work.
Anthology Film Archives was founded in 1969 by Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill, P. Adams Sitney, Peter Kubelka, and Stan Brakhage. The website described this as “An ambitious attempt to define the art of cinema by means of a selection of films which would screen continuously, the Essential Cinema collection was intended to encourage the study of the medium’s masterworks as works of art rather than disposable entertainment, making Anthology the first museum devoted to film as an art form.”
Substitute Vyer for Anthology Film Archives in the paragraph above and you will get an idea of its mission: art rather than disposable entertainment.
As it turns out, all three of the films that Vyer invited me to review revolve around the themes of modernization/globalization versus traditional societies.
That conflict is rendered in the starkest terms through the documentary “7915 Km” directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, whose brilliant examination of agribusiness “Our Daily Bread” I reviewed in 2006. The film’s title refers to the length of the Paris-to-Dakar road rally that is held annually. But you don’t see a single car or motorcycle in the film. Instead Geyrhalter travels the entire length of the route to interview indigenous peoples whose lives have been negatively impacted by both the race and by the broader social and economic forces that allows wealthy Europeans to use a large swath of West Africa as a playground. When Africans are in the position to use Europe in the same fashion–tearing up the roads of France as they rush helter-skelter to their destination–then one might conclude that the world is flat in Thomas Friedman terms.
As someone with Marxist politics and a deep love for Turkish culture, Vyer’s offering of “The Market” was made to order for me. I doubt that I can say anything about this 2008 Turkish film that can top what appears on the Vyer website, so I will go ahead and repeat it:
On its surface, The Market is a comedy. Its humor is absurd, highlighting the nonsense its characters must countenance. This “nonsense” is capitalism in its purest form: men bartering, employing their wits, acting simultaneously as comrades and enemies, and exploiting each others’ weaknesses in the pursuit of goals both noble and malicious. It is in witnessing these men engage each other and the degradation of themselves and those around them that occurs as a result that the notion of The Market actually being comedy comes into question.
In Turkey in the early 1990s, Mihram is a skilled and earnest black marketeer, looking to buy his way into the burgeoning, lucrative, and legitimate, telecom business. A boon appears when he receives a request to illicitly procure medicine for a local hospital. With a commission too significant to refuse, Mihram accepts and finds himself transformed into a folk hero, using his questionable talents for good. His journey, though, will systematically disabuse him of that notion, as the crush of reality comes down upon every step of his quest.
In many ways, The Market exemplifies why we watch foreign films. The cultural distance ironically brings us closer to the characters. As a Muslim, Mihram’s fondness for an evening beer is shameful to those around him, yet we see little harm and easily identify with his assertion of “nobody being perfect.” Turkey’s brutally competitive black market bears little similarity to our own daily forms of commerce, but the unjust havoc it wreaks on its participants is wholly identifiable and resonates with us. The truths of our existence are surprisingly identifiable when viewed through the lens of an alternate reality.
What are these truths of existence The Market throws into relief? With Mihram haggling over pennies while giant corporations lay the infrastructure for creating the wealthiest men in Turkey’s history, there is a temptation to view the film as prescient to the current global economic situation. This film, though, is interested in telling a larger story than the cycles of the capitalism. It truly is about the absurd, about the situations that persist indefinitely, and how the people within them simply endure.
A scene from “The Market”:
I would only add one thing to these insightful comments. As I was watching “The Market”, I laughed harder perhaps than most since it captured with a great deal of affection the idiosyncrasies of the Turkish man and woman that I have become familiar with as the result of being married to a Turk for over ten years and having visits from my in-laws numerous occasions (something that I rather look forward to, as opposed to what most people experience). The telling gesture, the raised eyebrow, the “tsk-tsk” of a character in a comic scene was something that made me feel right at home. As a fervent fan of Turkish comedy, I can state that “The Market” is about as funny as anything I have seen.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that the director and screenwriter is Ben Hopkins, a Briton. In an interview with the British Film Institute, Hopkins pays tribute to Yılmaz Güney, the Kurdish director of Yol, whose films about common people was an obvious model for “The Market”. The interview reveals the spirit of collaboration that made the “Turkishness” of the film possible. Hopkins wrote the screenplay in English and had it translated into Turkish by Taylan Halıcı, a Turk living in London. After the screenplay was translated, the cast added Turkish dialect and wisecracks to lend verisimilitude.
With his love of Turkish culture and his respect for the Turks he was working with, Ben Hopkins represents the polar opposite of the forced modernization/globalization model that has created al-Qaeda and other forms of violent resistance—often justified—to a Western imperialism that not only robs people of their livelihoods as documented in “7915 Km” but their culture as well.
One of the great things about Vyer is that it makes it possible to create a “flat” world but not in Thomas Friedman’s terms. With electronic technologies such as twitter, Skype and Youtube, activists in the West have been able to offer solidarity and material aid to those fighting for democracy and social justice in the Middle East. In its own fashion, the streaming technology of Vyer allows us to hear the voices of what Franz Fanon called the wretched of the earth and help sustain innovative film-making across the planet.
On a more mundane note, let me conclude with the nuts and bolts of joining Vyer. Unlike Netflix, there is no need to pay for a subscription but simply for the films that you want to see. Once again, from Vyer’s “about” page:
Vyer Films premieres one new, previously undistributed movie every other week.
The first 15 minutes of any Vyer Film is available for free.
The full film is available for a $7 rental. The rental lasts as long as you need to view the film in its entirety. If you don’t have time to watch a film in one sitting, you can revisit it days, weeks, or months after renting and continue where you left off. Once you’ve watched the film in its entirety, you have an additional week to rewatch it as many times as you like.
You can’t beat that with a stick. You can obviously watch the film on your computer but I strongly suggest that you look into getting a flat-screen TV with HDMI input, just as I did after deciding to watch Netflix movies streamed to my computer. You plug your computer into your TV and then you are good to go.