Quemaditos and Youtube Nostalgia: The Conditions of the Poor Image in Venezuela [Excerpt]

Over the past year I have been working on research about the circulation of poor images in Venezuelan film economy. This is an excerpt from the most recent version of my paper devoted to the subject. An earlier version will be published by the end of this year in the journal Comunicación (Universidad Católica Andrés Bello).  I am in Venezuela  hoping to complete more interviews and some much needed ethnographic and netnographic research, moving towards an even more extensive essay. I will probably post more about this subject here in the future.

 

The Conditions of The Poor Image

A digital moving image travels fast across platforms and devices. It can be streamed, ripped, downloaded and re-uploaded, appropriated, modified, and corrupted. Adaptability is perhaps the most important distinction from its analog counterpart. But these processes of transmission/adaptation/retransmission take their toll on digital files: their journeys through formats eventually bring about loss of data, resulting in the degraded, precarious images that Hito Steyerl calls “poor images.”[1] A poor image belongs at the bottom of the contemporary hierarchy of images in which resolution constitutes a class position of privilege; a low-resolution image is the “debris of audiovisual production, the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores… [It testifies] to the violent dislocations, transferals, and displacements of images —their acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism”.[2] A copy that deteriorates as it circulates, a poor image is a marginal product of the film distribution industry that upholds high resolution as its maximum value.[3]

The economy of poor images is a departure from the way mainstream film is traditionally accessed. Steyerl explains that the commercialization of cinema and the establishment of monopolies at local and global levels —about thirty to twenty years ago— pushed independent filmmaking underground, and it was individuals circulating copies within small groups who kept experimental, militant, and essayistic cinema alive. But more recently, with the appearance of online streaming services, these images have begun to resurface on open platforms like UbuWeb and YouTube.[4] The possibility of P2P sharing and free downloads has also made files widely available, as now they can be saved, edited, and redistributed individually. Steyerl argues that the networks thus created by poor image circulation are global and anonymous, and that they contribute to reconnect dispersed worldwide audiences.[5] In short, file-sharing platforms enable the ‘resurrection’ of content marginalized by the mainstream in the form of poor images, and facilitate its circulation well beyond the limits of a group of interested individuals.

It is clear that, today, someone in a small town in South America with a working Internet connection can legally or illegally stream and download an experimental film created by an artist in Europe several decades ago, but poor image circulation is not only about its own ability to surpass geographical and political borders (just as it is not only about the dissemination of marginalized content, as will be discussed later). Although Steyerl emphasizes that the poor image creates a “shared history” as it travels across the globe,[6] it is also true that it impacts and contributes to shared histories in much more reduced contexts. In the case of Venezuelan film economy, the poor image is a key agent that critically influences how national cinema is produced and distributed. For example, it empowers illegal commercial networks and generates problems that directly impact the subsistence of local filmmakers; on the other hand, it gives way to solutions to problems of access, and configures communities within Venezuelan audiences that harness its properties to rescue an unprotected film legacy.

Venezuelan Film Economies and The Poor Image

The ‘resurrection’ of marginalized films as poor images has implications beyond appearance or content. The fact that they are only available outside the mainstream reveals “the conditions of their marginalization, the constellation of social forces leading to their online circulation as poor images.”[7] As they surface, they raise questions about how they got to be degraded. Steyerl upholds the idea that the poor image is resistant insofar as it continues to circulate in spite of its degradation, refusing to submit to the conditions of exclusion being imposed on it.[8]

001ec949faf114b58a7d0b
Source: lapatilla.com

Hito Steyerl argues that the privatization of media production has gradually become more important than state-sponsored media production, and this has given way to poor image circulation since privatization of intellectual content enables piracy.[9] What is most puzzling about Venezuelan film economies is that, at first glance, they seem to work the other way around. Rodrigo Llamozas, founder of Cameo Marketing Audiovisual and former Distribution Director at the multiplex chain Cines Unidos, argues that almost all of the national films that are shown in the country are produced and/or distributed theatrically with some kind of sponsorship from the state.[10] The state operates through the distribution company Amazonia Films, and supports productions with various funding programs through the CNAC.[11] Additionally, state sponsorship is available to help makers finance transfers to 35mm and physically distribute their films across the country.[12] Therefore, it would be erroneous to assert that the state has preferred to privatize film production in Venezuela; its support simply does not extend to making films available to the public after their theater run.

hermano-cartel
Source: labutaca.net

Hermano by Marcel Rasquin was the domestic box-office hit of 2010. It played internationally, it is available in DVD format in Spain and the United States, and it streams on Netflix and Hulu, yet it was never officially distributed in Venezuela after its successful theater run. According to Rasquin himself, CNAC was interested in releasing a DVD, but the plans never materialized. He was also in conversation with private companies to release DVDs through alternative channels: one option was to sell them in the Farmatodo chain of drugstores, and another was to include it in issues of El Nacional newspaper.[13] Neither possibility came to be, and only pirate copies were (and are) finally available, which Rasquin laments: “What upset me most about the pirate Hermano was not only its low quality, but that it was an offline version –without color correction or credits, and with referential music —which included no less than The Rolling Stones.”[14] Ultimately, Rasquin thinks that those failed plans for distribution represented a moral obligation, rather than an actual ‘good business’ opportunity, and adds: “Movies that do well at the box office are cannibalized incredibly fast in the pirate market, and the truth is that the pirate market has enveloped everything. Legal DVD sales do not exist, and the state is not in conditions to battle piracy. It doesn’t have the time or the interest, either”.[15]

In “In Defense of the Poor Image,” Steyerl mentions the restructuring processes of disintegrating nation-states that leave some national film archives orphaned. She cites writer and artist Kodwo Eshun’s assertion that “poor images circulate partly by the void left by state cinema organizations who find it too difficult to operate a 16/35 mm archive or to maintain any kind of distribution infrastructure in the contemporary era.”[16] In light of the importance of archives in preserving, disseminating, and articulating national film legacies, I consulted the 48th Anniversary Program at the National Cinematheque of Venezuela (corresponding to April 2015) to confirm whether local production was being honored in any way during the celebration. Any expectation of catching a classical Venezuelan film vanished with a look at the schedule: less than half the films were national productions —of those, none was made before 2008—, and all were to be screened from DVD copies. The Cinematheque’s website[17] contained no information about preservation programs underway or past.

When asked about the state’s efforts to make Venezuelan films available on DVD, Marcel Rasquin and Rodrigo Llamozas agreed that CNAC has released some DVD compilations of classic national movies, but in small numbers and with limited distribution[18] (Llamozas claims to own several; I was unable to find catalogues of these releases online). This resonates with Kodwo Eshun’s observation: Poor images circulate when state organizations do not maintain the distribution infrastructure. Without formal access, consumers are left to deal with other structures, most importantly the pirate market. But are the poor images circulating there progressive agents of resistance? Can they be commodified and subversive at the same time?

pirateria
Source: miledjalisco.com.mx

Quemaditos (pirate DVDs or Blu-Rays) are the principal mode of circulation of poor images in Venezuela. They are the protagonists of what Ramón Lobato has named “shadow economies”. In his book Shadow Economies of Cinema, he describes such economies as the “informal sphere in which goods and people are traded off the books,”[19] beneath the global system of regulated trade: “(We can) speak of a formal film economy of studios, sales agents and festivals, shadowed by a vast, unmeasured and unevenly governed zone of informal commerce.”[20] These two types of economy have their own regulation mechanisms and organizational dynamics. Lobato characterizes formal distribution as governed by states and corporations, and having a “revenue-sharing business model, complex systems of statistical enumeration and windowing releasing pattern driven by theatrical premieres”;[21] in contrast, informal distribution is usually non-theatrical, and some of its most relevant aspects are “handshake deals, flat-fee sales, and piracy.”[22] Lobato stresses that in spite of being off the books, video, disc-based, and online informal distribution is actually the driving force behind global film distribution: “Informal film commerce is, in a very important sense, a global norm rather than an exception or deviation. The international pirate economy exceeds the legal film industry in size, scale and reach; so one can reasonably argue that the ‘shadow’ economies are in fact integral to the traffic in images and sounds that supplies the world with its daily diet of entertainment.”[23]

Piracy is undeniably the norm and not the deviation in Venezuelan economy. According to the National Institute of Statistics, approximately 5.074.262 Venezuelans (39,0% of the working population) participate in the country’s informal economy;[24] unregulated activities are part of the day-to-day of consumers and film economy is no exception. Even if a legal supply of national DVDs existed, it is uncertain whether at this point the habits of consumers would readjust to the costs of formally distributed goods; in fact, most Venezuelans prefer to buy pirate movies than even go to the theater. In a 2006 interview, Abdel Guerere, President of the Venezuelan Association of Film Exhibitors, claimed that because of piracy only three distribution companies were left in Venezuela, whereas in 1999 there were twelve in operation[25].

Variety in the informal shop will always be broader than the theater’s, and clients might be able to buy movies that have not yet premiered. Because the minimum salary is of 11,577.81 Bolivars by March 2016 (roughly $10)[26], watching films at home is cheaper than going out. Customers usually get to know the nearest piracy stores and become regular clients, depending on the diversity and the quality of each.[27] A seller in Puerto La Cruz explained to El Tiempo journalist Andrés Ascudillo that he offered his clients the best quality because his copies were “not pirated”: “Before the movies make it to Venezuela, we have people in the USA and Mexico who acquire them. That way we reproduce them and we get what we call a backup of the original format.[28] This seller associated ‘pirated’ with a quality (low resolution, noise) rather than with an activity, to indicate that his copies were “high class”. Also, as is the case of the majority of pirate film businesses, his supply consisted mostly of North American films[29].

In 2012, journalist Indira Rojas interviewed the owner of a pirate Blu-Ray store located in an upscale mall in Caracas. When she asked him why he sold pirate copies, he replied that his previous businesses had gone bankrupt, and the economic circumstances in the country had driven him to open the new store —implying that selling piracy was a safer bet this time.[30] Rojas explains that the owner rented his premises just like any other business in the mall, paid taxes, kept all his paperwork up to date, and did not need special permission to sell piracy.[31] This flawless assimilation of the commercialization of illegal goods into the fiscal system shows the degree to which informality is in fact the normal economy. Through this process of “formalization” the poor image might be slowly losing any political meaning within Venezuelan culture, and I believe it could eventually designate an aesthetic rather than an activity tied to illegality.

References:

[1] Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux Journal 10 (11/2009), 1.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, 6.
[4] Ibid, 4.
[5] Ibid, 8.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 6.
[8] Ibid, 4.
[9] Ibid, 6.
[10] Rodrigo Llamozas in interview with the author, May 2015.
[11] CNAC: Centro Nacional Autónomo de Cinematografía.
[12] Llamozas, interview.
[13] Marcel Rasquin in interview with the author, May 2015.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” 6.
[17] Under maintenance as of March, 2016.
[18] Llamozas, interview;
   Rasquin, interview.
[19] Ramón Lobato, Shadow Economies of Cinema (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 4.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Encuesta de Hogares por Muestreo: Situación en la fuerza de trabajo, Venezuela. Informe Mensual, (Caracas, Venezuela, 2014), 9,
http://www.ine.gov.ve/documentos/Social/FuerzadeTrabajo/pdf/informemensual.pdf (accessed March 11, 2016).
[25] Associated Press, “Copiado ilegal socava negocio del cine en Venezuela,” NEWSOK, October 8, 2006, accessed March 10, 2016, http://newsok.com/copiado-ilegal-socava-negocio-del-cine-en-venezuela/article/2953072;
The situation seems to not have changed much in 2016, although I was unable to find official numbers.
[26]Based on the type of exchange rate most Venezuelans can access, which is through the black market: as of March 12, 2016, 1211.54 Bolivares was equivalent to 1 US Dollar.
[27] Andrés Ascudillo, “Venezuela en la lista negra de piratería: Entre la crisis y el DVD ‘quemao’,” El Tiempo, June 6, 2012, accessed March 5, 2016, http://eltiempo.com.ve/locales/puertocruz/cine/venezuela-en-la-lista-negra-de-pirateria-entre-la-crisis-y-el-dvd-quemao/55859
[28] Ibid.;
My italics.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Indira Rojas,“El país pirata,” Realidades de Indira, August 16, 2012, https://realidadesindira.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/el-pais-pirata/.
[31] Ibid.

 

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