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Permit Me This

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Over at indieWIRE this morning, Agnes Varnum contributed a fine story about the Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting's proposed regulations to govern permit and insurance requirements for filmmakers and photographers in New York. The period of public comment about the regulations ends Aug. 3, and Picture New York, the advocacy organization founded to combat their legislation, has gathered more than 10,000 signatures of individuals opposing the new rules, which, per the MOFTB, will require permitted approval for:

--Filming, photography, production, television or radio remotes occurring on City property ... involving an interaction among two or more people at a single site for thirty or more minutes, including all set-up and breakdown time in connection with such activities;
--Filming, photography, production, television or radio remotes occurring on City property ... involving an interaction among five or more people at a single site and the use of a single tripod for ten or more minutes, including all set-up and breakdown time in connection with such activities.
According to the same document, permits are not required for "filming or photography of a parade, rally, protest, or demonstration except when using vehicles or equipment other than a handheld device or single tripod."

Then there's insurance:

By accepting a permit, a permittee agrees to protect all persons and property from damage, loss or injury arising from any of the operations performed by or on behalf of the permittee, and to indemnify and hold harmless the City, to the fullest extent permitted by law, from all claims, losses and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, that may result therefrom. ...
Every permittee that requires the use of equipment or vehicles shall maintain, during the entire course of its operations, liability insurance with a limit of at least one million dollars ($1,000,000) per occurrence. Such insurance shall include a policy endorsement naming the City of New York as an additional insured ... MOFTB shall have the authority to waive the insurance required ... where the applicant is able to demonstrate that such insurance cannot be obtained without imposing an unreasonable hardship on the applicant.

A rally last Friday organized by Picture NY drew 450 protesters to Union Square, from which The New York Times and WNBC relayed a few high-profile glimpses of what filmmakers classified as a defense of their First Amendment rights. Varnum also notes that IFP boss Michelle Byrd last week organized a meeting between filmmakers Jem Cohen and Astra Taylor and city film commissioner Katherine Oliver (among others); grievances were made, air was moved, if not quite cleared.

There is no doubt that these regulations, if adopted as law and followed to the letter, would make independent filmmaking in New York harder and more expensive. Additionally, it's pretty clear that when the MOFTB snuck the regulations into the public sphere under the media radar the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, it committed a political act for which it is now justifiably suffering the consequences. Oliver's office made more enemies than it had to, particularly when you consider that some of its proposed guidelines -- the first such rules in the office's 40-year history -- are not really all that unreasonable.

I don't want to get into a major philosophical tussle here; I'm neither a lawyer nor a filmmaker, so I can't speak to the relative magnitudes of these impositions. What I can guess as a dispassionate observer is that the city would be within its rights and best interests to require insurance for a permitted production. Which is all it's asking: If you have a project serious enough to require a permit, then you need to cover your ass. If you can't afford to cover your ass, the city has a waiver for you that covers its own. That seems perfectly fair, hardly a free-speech incursion as much as the cost of doing business in New York.

The bad news for the city is that said ass-covering doesn't explain the standards behind the permit guidelines. For the record, the 10 minutes here, 30 minutes there, tripod/handheld qualifications are totally arbitrary and ridiculous; the New York Civil Liberties Union has threatened to sue if they are enacted as law, and why not? What's the difference between banning all unpermitted street photography and filmmaking outright and forcing a cameraman, a sound man, a director and two actors to move their set-up 100 feet every 10 minutes? It absolutely curtails expression; moreover, it's not even enforceable. The measures' opponents have latched on to this fact as well, predicting that selective enforcement will target political documentarians and filmmakers of color. (Indeed, Varnum writes, the new statutes grew out of the settlement of a suit the NYCLU filed on behalf of Indian filmmaker Rakesh Sharma, who "was arrested by police for filming without a permit in May 2005 and subsequently denied a permit to film without written explanation.")

The frustrating thing for someone like me, who generally approves of the MOFTB's mission and knows how supportive and accommodating its staff has recently been of microbudget indie locals like Ramin Bahrani, Georgia Lee, Dito Montiel and others, is that it attempted to solve a legitimate problem in bad faith. The Memorial Day magic was sloppy enough; the disingenuous, on-your-marks-get-set-go permit strictures are an insult to pretty much anyone sentient enough to turn on a camera in the first place. Worse yet, it never bothered to consult even the tiniest delegation of filmmakers about its plans to basically codify DIY productions.

But almost as bad are the oversimplifications on view among the opposition, from the smugly sincere (Beka Economopoulos telling WNBC's Pei-Sze Cheng, "I already have a permit for my camera; it's called the First Amendment") to the eye-rollingly misrepresentative (the protest rap that landed today in The Times' City Room blog: "Make no mistake these rules are heartless / Everyone knows they just target artists / The video bloggaz at protest marches / And kidz making vids for the YouTube contests!"). I wouldn't be so literal-minded about it if the stakes weren't purported to be as high as they are, but again, the MOFTB proposal specifically exempts camerapeople -- with or without tripods, shooting any duration of time -- from regulation at protests, rallies and demonstrations. Does it protect them from being hassled by police? Of course not, but that's a different problem. There's a big and, one would hope, obvious difference between sabatoging expression and bureacratizing it to death.

I avoided writing about this issue at first because in the end it's not really a film story. It's a political saga, a seemingly all-or-nothing drama that peaked (or bottomed out, choose one) at the 2004 Republican National Convention and carries on with a smoky chemistry of good intentions and poisonous distrust. No one can argue that Picture NY doesn't have a case; I once went out shooting with Cohen, and as he recently, accurately reminded me, our hours of uninsured, unpermitted filming under the Manhattan Bridge would have been illegal under the terms of the new code. Cops on York Street did doubletake as they drove by. (That was the least of his problems; earlier that year he had a reel of film confiscated while shooting out the window on an Amtrak trip from New York to Washington, D.C.)

By the same token, the MOFTB has the thankless role of nexus between the good old days (cf. Clayton Patterson, whose amazing footage of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots coincidentally screens Aug. 5 at the Pioneer Theater), the exploding local film industry and the realities of post-9/11 civic initiative. Media and their striving ambition are everywhere, and in the cases where they overlap with the closely held interests of the city, it's inevitable that compromise must follow. It's a shame it couldn't occur more organically and honestly, like the burgeoning street cinema that fuels it. But that's show business for you.

Posted at July 31, 2007 8:53 PM

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