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You can't film here
In this week's blog, Slarek reflects on the problems facing independent and low-budget filmmakers created by the rise of pseudo-public spaces, and recalls a couple of times he fell foul of this phenomenon.
8 October 2017

Just recently, I was required to knock together a promotional video in a fraction of the time usually allowed or even required for such a thing, which resulted in a string of creative compromises that were further aggravated by the grim quality of the some of the material I was given to work with. One section was woefully short of either video or photographic material (and there are only so many ways you can animate photos without getting visually silly), and as it involved an apprenticeship partnership with local two fast-food restaurants, I figured I could at least go out and shoot a bit of footage of the exteriors of both establishments. I'd have far preferred to go inside and film the apprentices at work, but written permission to do so was required, time was running out, and the apprentices weren't working during this holiday week, so I was forced to grab whatever I could.

It should have been easy. The company for whom I was making the video had been working with both restaurants for some months, and the eateries are located almost next door to each other in the same open-air shopping centre. All that was required was an easy two-mile cycle ride, followed by a hobble of a few hundred yards on my still injured foot. I could then quickly grab a few shots on my Panasonic GH4 and I'd be back at home base, cutting the material with the single brief shot I already had of an apprentice at work in one of the kitchens.

I thus made my way there, sat on a wall to give my sore foot a rest and grabbed a couple of shots of the front of the first restaurant. Seconds later, my viewfinder was blocked by the black uniforms of two beefy security officers. "Are you taking pictures?" they sternly asked. I was actually shooting video, but figured that stills would be considered the lesser of two artistic evils, so admitted that I was. "Do you have permission?" Well, yes, in a way, since a colleague of mine had been talking to the managers of both restaurants for the past week about this very project and had already filmed inside and even shot a couple of stills of the shop-fronts that were too blurry for my use. I explained all this, but they were having none of it. Despite this being a public space and us having already secured agreement from the vendors to include footage or stills of their establishments in the video, taking pictures of storefronts or anything else in the vicinity was apparently forbidden. I needed that footage, so chose to play the nice guy and hobbled the considerable distance to the security office and had an amenable conversation with the centre's head of security, gave them all of my details, signed the appropriate forms, put my visitor's badge on and limped back to shoot two more shots, then had to go all the way back again to hand in my badge and sign myself out. All for a pair of two-second long shots of a couple of storefronts, the proprietors of which were both happy for me to do so.

While I do understand that there are privacy restrictions on shooting photos or video in some locations (try pointing a camera at a school playground and see how quickly you have the police on your arse), I get a little twitchy when spaces to which anyone and everyone has free access are patrolled by private security firms with orders to watch out for anyone taking photos and stop them in their tracks. What, exactly, are they trying to protect? And how in all seriousness do you enforce that restriction in an age where just about everyone has a camera in their phone and is seemingly obsessed with taking pictures of themselves and their friends and their kids in any and every location they visit? As if to hammer this home, two weeks later I was in the same location (this time on a shopping trip) when I spotted a woman and her children posing in front of these very shop fronts for a series of photos being taken by what I assumed was the father of the family. Where were the black-clad security guards then?

Shortly after my first encounter it occurred to me that had I chosen to shoot my video on my iPhone (whose video capabilities are certainly up to the job), then there's a good chance I wouldn't have been approached by the men in black. Was it because I was using a DSLR (albeit a small one) that they so quickly targeted me? Were they protecting some half-arsed and legally suspect notion of image copyright, or were they on the lookout for any opportunity to sting anyone they suspect may be a commercial photographer for a fee for grabbing an image of something that a quick Google search would likely plonk on their desktop anyway? My natural charm aside, I couldn't help but suspect that a key reason that I was eventually allowed to shoot my footage after all was that the video was being made for a non-profit organisation – as a non-commercial venture with a budget of close to zero, there was no real opportunity to cash in on the project.

The whole thing brought back memories of a tiresomely abortive day some years ago when I was shooting a micro-budget feature for my fellow scribe Camus. The plan was to film a short conversation between the film's two lead characters on Holkham Beach in Norfolk, and as we arrived at the location – one where the public is free to walk, sunbathe and do whatever people generally do on beaches countrywide – a BBC crew heading in the opposite direction pointed our way and blurted, "I hope you're going to make them pay too." It turns out that Holkham Beach is privately owned by the Holkham Estate, whatever the hell that is, and if you wanted to film there back then, no matter how small your production, then you had to pay them £500 for the privilege. I'll bet it's considerably more now. We had no such funds for what we knew would probably be a single shot, so we turned around and went in search of another beach to film on. We found one in the shape of nearby Wells Next the Sea, but had only just started filming when a bearded troll strode towards us and told us that he was a warden, that the Holkham Estate owned that beach as well and we had to stop filming and be on our way. Quite how these beaches have remained in aristocratic hands for so long is beyond my comprehension, particularly given the preposterous nonsense delivered by the warden about the right to ownership of this stretch of shoreline being decided by how far a knight could throw his spear. Seriously? It's a story that immediately brought to mind that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when Graham Chapman's King Arthur relates the story to Michael Palin's anarcho-syndicalist peasant of how he became ruler when Excalibur was held aloft by the Lady of the Lake, and Palin gloriously responds, "Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government – supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical aquatic ceremony!"

The rise in what has been intriguingly labelled pseudo-public spaces – seemingly public areas that are actually owned by private individuals, groups or corporations – has recently become a subject for more widespread discussion and concern, with each of these spaces subject to rules that are often not clearly displayed and sternly enforced by private security firms. It's an issue whose extent I only really became aware of through a detailed article published in The Guardian back in July of this year*, and adds a new irony to the changing nature of low-budget independent filmmaking – as the equipment required to shoot high quality video becomes cheaper and more accessible, the restrictions on where can use it and what for appear to be narrowing, as once public areas fall into private hands. You can walk there, eat your lunch there and gaze at your surroundings, but woe betide the individual who elects to pull out a camera and record a small memory of their visit.

For zero-budget filmmakers, the message is clear: if you're filming in what logic dictates is a public space, then consider shooting on your phone or another small camera that ideally doesn't look like a camera at all. And if you want to get that wide shot of a location that some wealthy individual or organisation has called dibs on, then give a thought to borrowing a drone, which can be flown and navigated from some distance away and called back to home base at high speed if detected. Of course, guerrilla filmmaking is nothing new, as independent filmmakers the world over have found ways to bypass the bothersome and sometimes costly process of obtaining permits to shoot on city streets. But back then you had a clear idea where you were and weren't permitted to shoot, and if necessary could find a creative workaround. Now, whole swathes of seemingly public spaces have rules you'll likely be unaware of, imposed by faceless corporate figures for mysterious reasons that they and their paid enforcers seem to be curiously unwilling to share.