“There have been moments in history when those who believe in, create and understand the power of film culture have been asked to stand up against censorship and political oppression. These moments require that filmmakers evolve rapidly to meet the challenges before them, and question their relationship to the whole. This is such a time— Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof are critically important film directors whose contemporary contribution to Iranian and world culture is immeasurable. They have been deprived of liberty for the expression of their souls, and the world is poorer for their imprisonment. It cannot be ignored. Human rights cannot be ignored. Because now is a time of enormous change, and clear voices must be heard. The world turns”.
Quoted above is Tobias Elijah Morgan (born London, 1974), independent filmmaker, producer, human rights activist, and co-founder of Cine Foundation International, an organization hoping “to empower open consciousness through cinema”. The foundation is a humanitarian cinema organization, a non-profit film production company and a human rights NGO. CFI is involved in the production of films, and takes direct actions in the protection and promotion of humanitarian causes, typically surrounding poverty, exploitation, conflict or imprisonment. Tobias, along with Blue Un Sok Kim & co-founder of the Remodernist Film Movement, Jesse Richards, launched CFI on December 10th, 2010 (Human Rights Day). Below is an exchange between myself & Tobias Morgan that took place on January 27th, 2011.
What inspired you to co-found Cine Foundation International?
A synchronicity of different events, and a long cold brewing frustration and sometimes anger at what we all collectively feel to be a global indifference to human rights. In the months leading up to it, I was deeply involved in pushing the idea of micro-budget filmmaking at panels on the festival circuit, encouraging people to embrace the new digital revolution and form independent film collectives — to take control of the means of production and distribution, to think practically about the economies of scale. But I was always working under other people’s ideological or financial umbrellas— for organizations like the Documentary Masterclass in Berlin, and before that as producer of the MUBI Garage— and I couldn’t just break out and say exactly what I wanted. It began to weigh in on me, heavily. Compromise can feel like suffocation. You get faced time and again with the same kind of pitches, the same kind of narrative-derivative filmmaking. The language seems dead— repetitive to the point of being conveyor belt, factory-processed. The way to expand the language of film is to film new things, things that haven’t been touched by the camera before.
I’d been an active filmmaker for a few years, but there was no context for the kind of films I like to make (alt-documentary pieces, improvised work, socially-conscious conceptions, impressionist snapshots) and absolutely no hope of any mainstream distribution. At the same time I was also always working in human rights, mostly concerned with street children and those imprisoned or killed by agents of regimes, and it all just came to a point of coalescence. Jesse Richards and I had been talking for months about many many ideas, and what we felt to be glaring absences of humanitarian and political expression in contemporary film production. There was a lot of discussion around ideas proposed by Tarkovsky, Chris Marker, Paolo Cherchi-Usai, and especially the events of May ‘68 in Paris. I don’t know, maybe it’s in the blood in the end. Some people sleep easily in their beds at night, and don’t feel the burden of wider human misery. But we are not that kind of people. And then we met Blue Un Sok Kim, who has a near-encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of film history, and a trinity was formed: producer, filmmaker, curator. I don’t remember now who first broached the idea of a Foundation— I just remember the moment immediately after: like an electric shock running through all of us. Within hours we had emptied our bank accounts to a collective fund, declared the objective and registered the headquarters in London. And here we are.
What do you hope to achieve through the organization and what actions are being taken?
A global platform for human rights film— to produce and create films that increase agency for people who are voiceless within a culture, community or location.
We create campaigns raising awareness of social or political injustice, and undertake reportage and broadcast actions that aid in conflict resolution. At some level, this will always involve the development of contemporary video and broadcast technologies, of which the White Meadows app is a good example.
A key part of our goals involves the creation of temporary and autonomous spaces for film arts regeneration and emergency broadcast, potentially in economically devastated, war-torn or environmentally threatened regions globally— including where necessary ‘flash screenings’ of audio-visual materials outlawed or censored by the mainstream media or government.
And finally, we will train filmmakers to accompany human rights defenders whose lives are at risk and provide opportunities for individuals and groups to relay back audio-visual documents and interviews, including live broadcast and trans-media: the camera not simply operating as an eye, but as witness.
The objective is always to empower open consciousness through film. ‘Open consciousness’ is a nebulous term, but we mean it as that which expands or encourages open communication between people, and awakens individual human beings to their highest potential.
In terms of the projects we have running now, the most significant at this time is the one that has been dubbed ‘For Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof’.
On the 20th of December 2010 Jafar Panahi, internationally acclaimed film director and outspoken supporter of the Green Movement in Iran, was sentenced to six years in prison with a twenty-year ban on making or directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media, or leaving the country. Mohammad Rasoulof, director of the film ‘The White Meadows’, received the same sentence.
Cine Foundation International has launched a campaign of protest films calling for the release of the two filmmakers, to highlight human rights in Iran, and to raise awareness of parallel situations elsewhere in the world. The campaign is spearheaded by 6 commissioned feature-length films and 20 short films— one film for each year of the absurd sentence and ban against the filmmakers. The themes are broad, to allow for maximum creative expression: all participants have been asked to make work examining ideas of nation, self, other, identity, spiritual culture, imprisonment, censorship, regime, protest and human rights. Any one film must concern itself with at least two of these themes.
We’ve also this week launched a new protest video mechanism, which we call WHITE MEADOWS, which will allow anyone in the world to record a short video statement in support of Panahi and Rasoulof. The video statements are recorded as mp4s, giving them maximum transmedia capacity (essentially making them broadcast-able via any device that can show video). Although the application was named in honour of the film they both worked on, the wider purpose of the device is to allow people to make statements in defense of all human rights, and to protest other abuses in the future. The WHITE MEADOWS smartphone app is in development and will be launched in the coming weeks. we believe it to be unique, a positive use of contemporary technology, much needed in this world.
Other projects about to deploy include the ‘street cinema’ project, which involves the distribution of micro-format digital cameras to homeless children in slums and ghettos in different countries across the world: CFI filmmakers will work on the ground with the children to create both films (narrative and documentary) and ‘safe-house’ spaces for the projection of those films, without manipulating or interfering with the true voices of those children. It is the intention to facilitate a new form of cinema, one which blends socially-conscious realism with the intuitive and raw impressionism of a child’s eyes.
We are also deeply concerned with projects that promote and highlight the plight of marginalized women globally, and the investigation of new cinematic structures to be explored in relationship to this. To this end we are currently developing a project in Africa that will empower women who have been victims of genital mutilation to express their stories through film.
Bela Tarr is a member of the Board of Directors, how did he get involved?
Bela? We wrote to him. We pulled no punches. We believe in what we are doing and there’s no need to perfume the acrid truth. So we told him: people we know in Iran are under threat of imprisonment and hanging for picking up cameras and doing their job as filmmakers, which is to express truth. The world is a mess and we think the potential of cinema is being deliberately steered off-course— in the West, this is typically achieved by transparent and pervasive conglomerate media agendas. He replied within an hour and since then he’s been a key player in guiding the Foundation in its development. He knows Jafar personally, so in terms of the Iran campaigns, he understands what is at stake. Also, we didn’t need to do that ‘explain everything we think cinema can and perhaps ought to be’ banter that unfortunately is the major stumbling block with many people. You’d be surprised how many established names in the field stare blankly at us when we talk to them: and there’s that horrible chilling moment when you realise that this individual before you, often resting on laurels of critical acclaim, has never really considered that cinema could be anything more than raw, visceral mass-entertainment, that it is also an effective way to express philosophical, political or spiritual ideas— and that might be its equal, perhaps more important purpose. This is also why we set CFI up as a non-profit film production company. Take the ‘I can make millions’ aspect out, and the field of players narrows considerably. The budgets don’t really change that much: people still get paid a wage for their work. The key difference is that Cine Foundation International does not distribute surplus funds to owners or a group of shareholders— instead, all money is re-invested in new projects, funding the next work.
Will more people be involved?
Many! Lav Diaz joined immediately we spoke with him, and he will be shooting a film for the campaign early Spring. Lav is an incredible filmmaker, and a deeply committed humanitarian, and his influence on the Foundation is fundamental to the shape it is taking now. Mathieu Saura (aka Vincent Moon) is a friend, and we share common philosophies about filmmaking, so that was an easy call. Nina Menkes pledged her next feature film —Heatstroke, which is set in Afghanistan just before the events of 9/11 and has Gus Van Sant attached as executive producer— to the campaign instantly. Bill Mousoulis (founder of Senses of Cinema) joined the Advisory Board in the blink of an eye. Ericson deJesus and Cole and Aubrey from Particle, who developed and deployed the White Meadows app, volunteered their time and skills without question, and are visionary, awesome souls— we have some amazing, cutting-edge apps and video mechanisms we want to develop with them as soon as we have enough money to go forward. There are also several filmmakers, human rights workers, producers and film artists involved who have requested anonymity at this exact juncture as they live and work in countries where censorship and oppression is direct and fierce— not just Iran. Bearing in mind that the Foundation only really galvanized on the 1st of January, and was started with barely any money and no real resources beyond the skills, passion and time of its primary founders, its evolution and momentum is phenomenal.
What can someone reading this do to help?
Ah, well… We are actively seeking volunteers and interns to coordinate and run the viral networking, and aggregate news stories on human rights and cinema in the countries in which we are working. We need film writers, journalists, critics, distributors and curators to join Blue’s team developing the grassroots cinematheques and safe-house screening houses globally. We’d like to start publishing a series of ‘field operations manuals’ for Cine Foundation filmmakers as soon as possible, as education is an essential dimension of our goals— so we’re looking for professionals willing to help draft practical cinematography and broadcast technology documents, especially those willing to research the use and development of minimal to zero carbon debt technologies, and those who know how to modify and recycle abandoned equipment. As we move closer to sending filmmakers out into the field to begin working directly with communities, we need to develop our political history and human rights law team, as right now that falls to those few with legal training on the board, and we’re overworked as it is. We need translators fluent in many tongues. And finally, after yesterday’s devastating hacker attack on our database which brought down our social network capacity, we need coders and those with experience in online security and encryption to help protect us from prying eyes looking to uncover the identities of those most at risk. Ideally I’d like to develop the site as an advanced mediawiki now, but we shall see. There are a number of directions we could go in.
For anyone interested in making a film for the Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof campaign, we are about to open a project channel on the MUBI Garage. All the short films for the campaign will be hosted there. 10 of these films have been directly commissioned. The other 10 will be selected by the CFI board from an open-source call for submissions. In other words, you are encouraged to pick up a camera, make a short film in defense of human rights, to speak out for those who have no liberty, and upload it. It’s purity of intention that’s the key here, and innovation.
And obviously, we are a non-profit foundation: we always need funds. Donations are essential, and gratefully received.
What role can cinema play in the pursuit of freedom?
I can’t speak for all of CFI here— I can only speak for myself. But let me put it like this: it is my intention always to get under the surface of an ideology, and to express a truth about the lives of the people I encounter. I used to make films out of what I’d call a ‘subjective’ impulse, from a need to express something originating only inside me, and then try to justify that by finding a context for it in the wider world. But honestly, now I’m getting older, I’m less concerned or driven by these impulses. Now, I wait until I am asked to make a film— either these calls come from people who are marginalized, people without agency, or they present themselves absolutely in front of me, and to turn my eyes from the moment would be reprehensible on deeper human levels— and by doing things this way, I am less working in the old-school ‘auteur’ model and more like a witness, a documentarian.
I got into filmmaking and production because really I wanted to be a war photographer. I went entirely backwards to avoid that instinct, because, frankly… I was scared of it. So I studied directing— I got very deep into the relationship between director and actor— but it doesn’t excite me that much anymore, that exactitude-style filmmaking. And then, recently, after years of doing the wrong thing (for me), I finally asked someone with some experience: How do you become a war photographer? The answer shocked me: You just turn up in a war zone, and register. There’s no precondition to it: it’s your own life, you choose what you want to do with it. There’s no safety net, no second unit— and there’s never anytime you can call ‘cut’. I’m not there yet— time will tell. But you see, in the end, freedom, cinema: the meaning of a film is not determined only by the ideas within it, but by the reciprocity between the film and the society (and by extension, the literal space, the projection space) that surrounds it. You might end up making a film that has very limited audience, that won’t fit the system and won’t play festivals. But I believe that in time future the significance of humanitarian film actions we make now will be far greater than that of a hundred thousand Hollywood studio films. I have to believe that, obviously. As long as the film exists, it has value, and as long as it was made with a pure, conscious intention, it’s an utterance in the language of freedom.
A large expression of gratitude to my friend for sparing time to do this in spite of hectic conditions.
For more information, please visit www.cinefoundation.org