The politics of image control
By Ben Stevens H P Stevens, on 3 July 2013
The Open City Docs Fest did not restrict itself only to film screenings, it also boasted a number of compelling panel discussions. A prime example was the ‘Copyright, Copyleft, Copywrong?’ event, chaired by Roly Keating (Chief Executive of the British Library), explored the thorny issue of copyright law in an age when creativity is increasingly about quotation and juxtaposition.
Paul Gerhardt (Archives for Creativity and Film and Sound Think Tank, JISC) argued that artists make new work of artistic merit even from existing material and cited the example of The Clock by Christian Marclay, a 24-hour audio-visual piece that is entirely composed of clips from Hollywood films that show the time on a clock or a watch.
Even though Marclay did not contact all the studios for permission, when the Tate bought The Clock, its lawyers came to the same conclusion as Gerhardt and advised that no permission was needed.
Lilian Edwards, Professor of Internet Law at Strathclyde University, explained that copyright is a bargain between creators and users, but could also be seen as a monopoly over knowledge, which is why it’s limited over a term and includes fair use exclusions.
In a similar vein, John Archer, producer of the mammoth Channel 4 documentary series, The Story of Film, explained that it was never practical to clear all the rights for the clips used, so he decided to make the series under the fair use exclusion.
The production team received no comeback from the film studios and Archer’s position was always that the documentary’s comment and review aspect enhanced each film that was discussed and that each one was appropriately attributed anyway.
The final film that I saw was Our Nixon, a brilliant, ironic documentary constructed predominantly using Super 8 footage shot by three of Richard Nixon’s top White House aides and confiscated by the FBI during the Watergate investigation.
It opens breezily with footage from the very earliest days of the administration, overlaid with jaunty music and the caption: “Starring Richard Nixon, H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin”.
The upbeat tone reflects the optimism that the three men felt when they entered the White House as thrusting young men keen to transform government and quickly becoming close friends.
However, director Penny Lane subtly undercuts this with a comment from Haldeman in an early interview : “I have no doubt he’ll be judged as one of the great presidents.”
And for all the footage we see of their young families mixed with triumphs such as the moon landing and Nixon’s world-changing trip to China, the tone soon begins to change as each man comments on the growing pressure of the job: “Unremitting pace… A machine.”
Nixon’s public façade is neatly undermined by some particularly inexplicable comments he makes on the Nixon White House tapes in reference to a TV sitcom that portrayed a gay man in a sympathetic light: “Homosexuality destroyed the Greeks… Aristotle was a homo.” On the other end of the line, Ehlichman murmurs obsequiously about “fatal liberality”.
No honour among thieves
When Watergate hits, it’s telling how quickly the three men hang each other out to dry – a process that is completed by Nixon himself when he eventually does the same to his eternally loyal lieutenant Haldeman.
Ehlichman, ultimately, comes out of the film with some dignity by displaying a degree of honesty and regret in a rare interview: “A lot of people had their lives ruined”. At one point, he recalls being on Air Force One during the height of the scandal and seriously contemplating crashing the plane.
He also provides a fitting epitaph for Nixon’s benighted, contradictory administration: “He [Nixon] could persuade himself of almost anything.”