It's not just because I got a $1 copy of The Bicycle Thief, either. I'm (somewhat) convinced now that third world pirating is the great cultural equalizer ... and actually makes it possible for art to have an impact on da masses, whoever they are.
Our artist hosts for the day, MM Yu and Poklong Ananding, took us to the Muslim area of Quiapo, near the mosque, to eat Halal chicken (mmmmmm) and we ran into Romeo Lee near the pirate DVD shops. Romeo, a regular there, helped us get some smokin' deals on a surprising selection of classics and experimental films.
Of course, the newest Hollywood crap was there, but so were Discover channel nature docs. In the shop depicted above, we ran into painter Manuel Ocampo, as well as Galleon Trader Christine Wong Yap, who was touristing with her family that day. Apparently, the pirate DVD stores are a scene, and people run into each other there because people hang out there.
The DVD shops we went to sat along a small, relatively untrafficked street (for Quiapo), bookended by the district's mosque. There were a lot of blue interior walls in this section of the city, beautiful, elaborate details in occasional corners (as above), and a sort of sober quietness that I would normally associate with being near a place of worship ... only in the Philippines, no such soberness accrues to the areas around churches (more on that in the Quiapo post). I also saw signs for a Muslim police force and volunteer fire crew (all firefighters are volunteer here, which sounds suicidal until you consider that we're in the tropics.)
Also, brief hijab-and-veil sightings at the Halal chicken restaurant, where a group of women sat upstairs in hijab, eating chicken. I didn't think anything of it (although I took a surreptitious picture) until they had finished. Then they put their veils back on and I felt that I had witnessed something intimate. (That's also why I'm not posting their picture here.)
All in all, though, a quiet section of Quiapo. Quiet, slightly exotic, with DVDs.
Later that day, when accompanying us around on our studio visits, Romeo buttonholed me and told me that the Muslim section of Quiapo used to be so scary he wouldn't go there. Shootings every week, nearly, between Muslims and Christians, tension tension.
Then, the pirated DVDs came in. People started braving the crazy-ethnics section of town to get cheap flicks, but that wasn't the deal. The deal was that everyone in that part of Quiapo suddenly had access to films: Hollywood, art films, kiddie flicks, documentaries. The shop owners watched movies incessantly, as did their neighbors. The cultural savvy of the entire neighborhood leapt upward. Suddenly, upper/middle class artistes like Romeo could talk about the great European masters with Quiapo shop owners because the latter had gotten in a series of BBC artist biopics. Christians and Muslims could argue about camera angles, rather than shoot each other. (Well, not really, but imagine!)
According to Romeo, everyone chilled the fuck out and the district became relatively safe.
"So art really does make the world a better place?" I asked. We laughed at that, but Romeo came back with an earnest "Yes."
Allan Manalo, whom I hung out with last night, concurred. He told me that the indigenous Filipino film and tv industries are outrageously bad and condescending. The level of the entertainments there offered were low, an expression of Philippine media's contempt of the Philippine "masses". The pirated DVDs, Al said, did a run-around the monolithic Philippine media and raised the bar, almost without the media's knowledge. Now the public demand for intelligent, high-production-values media entertainment is rising, along with the sophistication of the audience.
Which is why, clearly, upper class artists and intellectuals hang out around pirate DVD stores, but also why they can stoop to converse with shopkeepers.
The EFF and the like don't think of class war when they protest and sue test cases. American cyber-libertarianism is uniquely upper-middle class, a rebellion of the privileged individual against the corporate juggernaut. And, although its notions of philanthropy have altered since Borsook wrote the linked article a decade ago, not much else has changed.
As a result, lower-class consumers and potential consumers outside of the US are left out of all calculation. I'm sure digital libertarians would be happy to find that their efforts had positively impacted third world downtrodden, but that's not actually on anybody's agenda. This complicates my feelings on the matter because, just as I believe a successfully regulatory and servicing government needs its due, I also believe that private corporate entities providing needed (and/or culturally desirable) goods and services in a way that stimulates economies deserve their due as well. The fact that history has never seen such unmitigatedly benign corporate entities is occasionally beside the point.
The point is, I'm not knee-jerkedly against The Man, whoever he is. Let them get richer, as long as others don't get poorer as a direct result. Boy, that was a detour. Where was my point?
Oh. But then again, Filipino working class will never in their lifetimes be able to afford legit DVDs. Ever. And, of course, no one cares, because no one is worrying about selling to them anyway. So why not pirate? As in the Napster argument, it creates a market, from which everyone benefits ... and that is absolutely true. Also, as in the Starbucks argument,--where Starbucks, once they had gone into cities and set up a store opposite every indie coffeehouse and driven them out of business, then went into towns where there were no coffeehouses and created a market for them, so that indie coffeehouses began springing up opposite the local Starbucks--pirate DVDs create a market for sophisticated artflicks which stimulates local producers--i.e., local artists--to produce, or produce more, or produce in a manner that can supply this new demand.
Completely aside from the whole what-is-good-for-the-corporation-may-sometimes-be-good-for-us argument, pirating arts and entertainment products is good for the arts scene. Obviously.
But that the arts scene can chill out political tensions in a high tension neighborhood? That I hadn't foreseen, and I'm even more optimistic and bleeding heart about the potential of art than most.
(A small, barely related side-note: our student guide at the elite University of Santo Tomas, the president of her student literary society, was named Ayn, as in Ayn Rand. I'm just sayin'.)