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At Your Own Risk
By Ron Steinman


Recently three DVDs landed on my desk. Two producers solicited our site after I asked for submissions, and we said “yes, send your work.” One sent his DVD on his own. I looked at all three and my first reaction was to write the following line: The best thing I can say about these films is to say nothing. Then I thought “that is unfair.” Though I thought each in its way was not very good, I felt I owed it to these fledging producers and directors to say, if I could, something constructive. I also knew that I did not want to make screening everyone’s self-made project a habit. Without being arrogant, there is simply not enough time in the day to screen people’s work and then review it.

When I used the word submissions in my note of intent, I meant written submissions, articles for The Digital Filmmaker, not amateur films usually constructed with home video cameras and edited on home video systems. Because inexpensive equipment is readily available and basic editing is not difficult to learn, a new wave of hopeful filmmakers is on the rise. This does not mean many will succeed. That is how it should be. But if these films are any indication of quality, then we are all in for a long and arduous journey.

Now, strap in and prepare for a bumpy ride. Remember, those of you who submitted these films, you wanted The Digital Filmmaker to review your work.

One of the films. And I use that word advisedly, was amateurish, poorly produced, directed and written, a ham-handed attempt at science fiction. The humor was juvenile, the acting third-rate, and the photography as if done by a child. There were a few inferior special effects, but with the new equipment available to everyone today, these are usually a part of the editing package and not difficult to create. I cannot, nor will I, applaud this as a first effort and therefore excuse its lack of talent. I will spare you the name of the director and the name of the film. It is too long by half and a candidate for the award of worst film I have seen this year. My advice to the budding filmmaker is simple. Learn your craft first and then try something new. Call this a failed experiment and toss it into the shredder where it will do no further harm to our senses. Thankfully, it lasted only 33 minutes.

Another short film running 23 minutes, A Sense of Place by Paul Emile Helzer, who I assume is a first time director, is much better, though pretentious. It has a documentary feel, with mostly beautiful photography, decent editing, but whose story eludes me. Is it a documentary? Is it an attempt at a visual tone poem? Watching it, I wondered if Mr. Helzer somewhere over-dosed on avant-garde films or maybe even watched some work of the German impressionists from the early part of the last century. His vague and esoteric take on place and, probably, his personal role in it dominates his vision and makes it difficult for me to understand his film. However, ideas are at work here and though they do not emerge clearly, the attempt to say something may bode well for the future.

The next set of DVDs I received are universally a mess. Released by World Traveler Adventures, the publicity says these films document “The European and Middle Eastern Techno-Traveler Movement.” I did not know there was such a movement, but after looking at some 150 minutes of the six films, 23 Minute Warning, Storming Sarajevo, Mission to India, African Expedisound and Reclaim the Streets, the theme often repeated throughout in various ways, is this quote from one of the travelers: “The message is in the music.” I realize I was not missing very much. Each of these videos is essentially the same in style and execution. In each, grungy disc jockeys pack their equipment onto trucks, get their equally grungy hangers-on to journey with them as they go off to conquer what they consider to be the embattled parts of the world. They do this with what they call “techno” music. They generate their sound at raves, wherever they park their trucks. Raves, for the uninitiated, are uninhibited underground dance parties, often fueled by drugs and are in defiance of authority. The music has a heavy, sometime infectious and cascading beat that we in America call “house” music. These travelers, many of whom are older than one would think, liken themselves to new hippies. Not quite slackers because they do travel around the world and they do have their own definition of ambition, there is very little to recommend how they live.

Good intentions do make good films. The interviews are often shot on the run -- except in 23 Minute Warning -- and the accents notwithstanding, because the sound was poor, I could not understand a word the interviewee said. Add that most of the characters were not very interesting and the value of the films as even entertainment weakens. Continuous traveling shots do not make a travelogue. And the occasional remark about the place they are visiting, where Sarajevo or Africa, as an attempt at context, also fails. Often shot in available light, and out of focus, then edited sometimes in disconcertingly heavy contrast, sometimes to the beat of the music, made watching these films more difficult than it should have been.

Looking at these videos, which may be the longest set of home videos in history, one needs dedication, time, few interruptions, and maybe even enough chemicals to get you through their pervasive tediousness. All we have is a common theme that the music that accompanies the rave in symbiotic relationship will change the world. No character emerges in any of the pieces with which we are emotionally involved. I know the filmmakers will say that their themes that dance music and raves will take over and change the world, is enough. They are wrong. They surely will do little to change the world. The people involved may have had a good time on their adventure, but is not enough to produce a compelling set of films.

In the future, if anyone wants to send me a screener, here is my warning. Feel free. I will try to look at what you submit. If you send anything to me, you must send a detailed note describing your film, the equipment you used, and the time it took to make your film. If I look at anything and I find it beneath the quality I believe it should have, I will not review it. Other films may end up in a pile at the side of my desk and never get a look. Either way, it is a risk budding filmmakers must learn to take.

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.


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