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The 'Dark Fibre' Files: Interview with Jamie King and Peter Mann

Film-makers Jamie King (producer/director of the 'Steal This Film' series) and Peter Mann, in conversation with Siddharth Chadha, on 'Dark Fibre', their latest production, being filmed in Bangalore

'Dark Fibre' is a documentary/fiction hybrid by J. J. King, producer/director of the 'Steal This Film' series, which has already reached over six million people online and is working towards achieving international television distribution, and Peter Mann, a British film-maker whose most recent work is titled 'Sargy Mann'.

'Dark Fibre' is set amongst the cablewallahs of Bangalore, and uses the device of cabling to traverse different aspects of informational life in the city. It follows the lives of real cablewallahs and examines the political status of their activities.The fictional elements arrive in the form of a young apprentice cablewallah who attempts to unite the disparate home-brew networks in the city into a grassroots, horizontal 'people's network'. Some support the activity and some vehemently oppose it -- but what no one expects is the emergence of a seditious, unlicensed and anonymous new channel which begins to transform people's imaginations in the city. Our young cable apprentice is tasked with tracking down the channel, as powerful political forces array themselves against it. Not only the 'security' of the city, but his own wellbeing depend on whether he finds it, and whether it proves possible to stop its distribution. Meanwhile, mysterious elements from outside India -- possibly emissaries of a still-greater power -- are appearing on the scene. This quest for the unknown channel is reminiscent of a modern-day 'Moby Dick', with the city of Bangalore as the high seas and our cable apprentice a reluctant Ahab. The action is a combination of verite, improvisation and scripted action.

In conversation with Jamie and Peter in Bangalore

Q: How did you get the idea to make Dark Fibre, a fiction film?

Peter:

We first met through BritDoc--British Documentary--and they run Channel 4 which is a Film Foundation. They have been good to us. They funded both Steal This Film and 'Sargy Mann'--a film on my father who is a blind man. They organised a meeting of all the directors they had funded and we met there. We were both thinking about what to do next and felt frustrated because we were making documentaries but really wanted to make fiction. We both shared the same ideas, with regard to shooting something completely as it is but presenting it in a fictional context.

Jamie:

And furthermore, we agreed that documentaries are not really real life. Because at the end of the day, I will keep only what I like, make you look at the way I want you to, I would cut you out of the picture if I don't agree with you. This happens even with the most worthy of the films. And you can be more truthful in fiction because its always a subjective truth. Fiction allows things to remain more real. I don't need an argument in the film. If I can just say, here is one guy's story and this is his story, then you can see the city with no bullshit. The story would allow you to look at things as they are; it's partly that idea behind Dark Fibre.

Peter:

This is in some way related to the concept of the artistic truth. You use all the tools at your disposal to tell a story, not just literal facts. This is about presenting things within an atmosphere, presenting things in a context. This then adds up to someone understanding something about the world, and I think fiction serves that better than documentary.

Q: What brings you to India to make Dark Fibre? 

Jamie:

I think the cablewallah networks are unique. I have never seen anything like this anywhere else myself. India is also in a very, very interesting time and place. The idea of information as a commodity is alive here as it isn't in many other places. The value of information is very high here. There is a western imaginary of Bangalore which is immediately fascinating. It's the place where our information is processed. This is where our credit card and our phone data goes. And it enters a weird black market that we don't understand. This is the cliché. We already have cliché films about Bombay and call centers. We do not want to put a call center into the film because that is already the imagined cliché vision of Bangalore. It is obviously far more sophisticated than that. And in some ways it is far patchier than that. Who are these information workers? What are they doing and at which level are they doing it? Are they the street workers putting cables into walls or is it the guy at Infosys who is hiring people and teaching them to fake English accents? Which is the real information worker? That variegation of information life in Bangalore is interesting, not just to us, but, I think, to everybody. Information dexterity is perceived as the signature of Northern dominance. The ability to manipulate information, to move intellectual property, to transform an idea into a product, to transform someone else's idea into your property. That kind of dexterity is seen as the keynote of western dominance. And watching a developing country transform into an information dextrous economy, seeing information dextrous people is amazing. And then there is the patchiness of it--who gets left behind? Who gets included? Whats missed out and what is added in that vision? How is it manipulated in favor of big businesses? And all of this is fascinating not only from an orientalist's point of view but from a general economic-socio-political point of view.

Q: What is the underlying concept that brought about Dark Fibre?

Jamie:

 
While making 'Steal This Film' we spent a year on a 36 minute film trying to make an argument that would be staunch, impactful, and radical. What we learned is that it's very difficult to set out to argue your way to the truth. It's relatively easier to let the world itself speak and in the meanwhile observe it in detail. The kind of issues we are engaging with in Dark Fibre are around people's relationships with information and their relationship with freedom. These are very, very hard to nail down and speak about in a radical way. These are things left to the Intellectual Property lawyers, it's already happening, it's already cliché. All the arguments are already written. And even after a year of Steal This Film, it's shown in liberal universities – Wait! Liberal universities? I was supposed to be an anarchist! We want to go further. We want to tell people things through an image.

Peter:

Our idea of relationships is exploring the parallel physical communications networks and the virtual networks. In a city like Bangalore you see it. The traffic here is chaotic but it works. How? There is no answer to that. But it provokes questions. Through Dark Fibre, we are trying to say that there is a potential network in the city (cablewallahs) which is currently being unused and asking what it would take to unlock that potential and where would it take us if that really happens.

Q: Why the cablewallahs? What is so fascinating about them?
 
Jamie:
 
Yes, we are interested in the cablewallah network and I think it's quite perverse that it makes people from around here laugh. You see cablewallahs as a fact of life, probably a mundane fact of life. Westerners, Europeans, who are used to orderly deployments of information technology are completely blown away when you tell them that this is how it works in India. Ad hoc, grassroots, messy, out of control.


Peter:

To the West, it is just unthinkable that the government would allow something like these networks, which supply 24 hours television. To not have these under government control is unthinkable.

Jamie:

So, obviously, we are at a point of transition where it's unthinkable to the Global North and it would become unthinkable here too. We are in the middle of that shift and thats one of the things we are trying to document; the network form, which is horizontal, ad hoc and on the street, becomes not only regulated but seditious.

Q: Why would you call it seditious?

Jamie:

Because it begins to be seen as almost dangerous. As the regulators move in, they take Direct to Home control of all the deployments of their intellectual properties. The older networks start to look not only like intellectual property right infringements, but their disorder is also seen to be terrorist.

Q: What is the film trying to propose through linking these cablewallah networks? 

 

Jamie:

Our proposal in this film is - "What if instead of just dying peacefully, someone had the idea of transforming these networks that used to deliver international and local content, by connecting them together, and turning them in to massive local media networks which are used for media sharing, file sharing, your own local channel?" There is a potential because the network is already there.

Peter:

In a way, if you think about the microcosm idea of the Internet as a whole, that essentially is what our plot is. On a certain level you would say that it's just a network but then the internet is the most important driving force of the world today.

Jamie:

The point is that once this idea is out, we can create the infrastructure to connect the entire city, infrastructure we can all use. Everyone starts to have a stake in it, be it the newspapers, TV channels, pirate markets (they will say, "No one is buying our shit anymore because they can share it over the network"), the computer manufacturers, the importer of Chinese routers, a gangster who thinks he can advertise on the network, the intellectual property lawyer... different people start getting the idea that they might have something to do with this network. Basically this is a chaos scenario, from which arises the plot. It is a fictional scenario but is set in the reality of information sharing here today.

Q: What is the technique you use to make the plot hybrid fictional?
 
Jamie:

The main character is played by an actor and he will be an embedded actor, working with the real cablewallah. Parts of it will be documentary, seeing how the cablewallah works and the viewer, through watching this actor, will understand how the network works. We have already spoken to some cablewallahs. And they have been very happy about all this. We see this as sort of embedded journalism, where the embedded actor takes the place of an interviewer. The film is not going to be historical. The characters will have a background and the film is going to have a background, but what we are trying to do is show the 'now'. We want to make it speak about the past and speak about the future. About our future.

Q: 'Steal This Film' was a critique of the international intellectual property regimes. Would this film also be similarly advocative?
 
Jamie:

We are going to the next level from 'Steal This Film', and this is more of my argument than Peter's -- that the conversation about Intellectual Propery is over or the film is the last word at all. But I personally need to go somewhere else to say more. I am interested in information in general. And how information affects what we can think, what we can dream, what we can be, how it forms all of us -- that is what we are working on in 'Dark Fibre' and the question of intellectual property is a subset of that question. We spend a lot of time talking about ideas and that's one of the things that connects us. We want to articulate a lot of the philosophical, abstract ideas in this film. And we will see if we can manage to do it in a new context. 'Steal This Film' interested a few people and this will be the next point of departure for discussion.

Q: Peter, do you share Jamie's passion for Intellectual Property?
 
Peter:

Not in the same way. I am very interested in the subject. Anybody who creates work is interested in it. In my last film, there is a constant commentary of a test match going on and as a result of it, it is almost impossible to sell it to television; people who own the rights to the cricket say that we have to pay them thousands of pounds! I am interested in documenting the world as it is and not what is cleaned up for TV. I am interested in the specifics. If you get on a bus in London, the ringtone everyone has on a mobile phone is not a ringtone but a particular song. But you can't put that on film because Mick Jagger, or whoever the artiste is, will want ten thousand pounds for it. The frustration that I face is that it is impossible to put the world that I see in front of me on film. I used to work with TV commercials and you would never see anything in commercials that is not the product being sold. I was once working on a Coca Cola commercial in New York and there was a person who was appointed by Coca Cola to go around the whole set to ensure that no one is drinking anything that is not made by Coca Cola, whether that is water or juice. Anything. And I think all that is about creating a creased world that we don't live in. I am interested in the world, through documentaries or fiction, that we live in. And it is bits of music, it is referenced films, we reference music, we reference sport. Just because people have rights over these, you never see them on film. That is my main area of interest, more than what is happening on the legal front.

stf                                                   steal this film

 

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