Two months after New Orleans flooded there have been no movies made about it. The CIA leak scandal has yet to become a blockbuster thriller. But the riots that burned through France a month ago are already the subject of a short film.
Though just 13 minutes long, "The French Democracy" provides an unexpected insider's view of the events that set Paris aflame, and it's all thanks to a young Frenchman and a video game.
The movie stars no one. It's a machinima, meaning it was created by staging its scenes within a video game — in this case the November PC game "The Movies" (see "Wanna Make A Movie On A Really Tight Budget? Try Out This Game").
"The French Democracy" (click here to see the film) opens with a re-creation of the events that precipitated the riots: an October 27 incident involving police and several non-white French teenagers near a power station that resulted in the electrocution death of 15-year-old Bouna Traore and 17-year-old Zyed Benna. That event brought to a boil the percolating discontent felt by many of France's growing population of first- and second-generation Asian, Arab and African immigrants. The discrimination felt by them is chronicled in the fictional centerpiece of the film, which climaxes with the riots that sent so many young, angry citizens into the streets and resulted in one death, thousands of arrests and countless charred automobiles.
This is the stuff filmmakers might turn out a year after an event. but "The French Democracy" has hit much more quickly and with purpose.
"Many French people still don't know or don't want to really understand what happened in their neighborhood," said Alex Chan, the 27-year-old behind the film. "That's why I chose this ironic title of 'The French Democracy' in order to refer to the fact that the youth prefer to use Molotov cocktails than ballot papers to get heard by the government. In this way in my movie, I try to bring people to think or to understand — not to necessarily forgive — what can push a young person or teenager to act like this."
Chan himself did not riot. He lives in Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb north of Paris, an area not untouched by the violence. "Hearing some police siren all the night or SWAT helicopter at night made me feel as if I was living in a movie or in another planet," he said.
He knows many of the rioters' struggles of crime, class and race firsthand. He had been hospitalized once when a neighborhood gang tried to steal his cell phone. And just three months ago a news crew in his neighborhood captured an apparent case of police brutality. He has also felt the sting of discrimination. Because his parents come from Hong Kong, he does not look classically French, and he said he and a girlfriend were once denied an apartment they could easily afford for that reason.
That swirl of issues and events led Chan to decide in mid-November to make a film about the riots barely a week after civil order had been restored. By trade he is an industrial designer — he had never heard about machinima before. But when he learned about the "The Movies," he realized it could provide a platform to express his views.
He put the movie together in about five days and posted it online at the official site for "The Movies" on November 22. It quickly became one of the site's most well-rated and widely discussed films.
"There have been a few politically aware machinima works, but none that had the same impact/attention as 'The French Democracy,' " Paul Marino, organizer of last month's 2005 Machinima Film Festival (see "Machinima Film Festival: A Sundance For Video Game Set"), wrote in an e-mail interview. Marino has been writing about Chan's film on his blog, www.machinima.org/paul_blog/.
For Marino, Chan's film stood in sharp contrast to most of the popular machinima releases, like the popular "Halo 2"-based "Red Vs. Blue" comedy and the many just-for-laughs shorts made from "The Sims 2." "Up until now, most machinima has been comedy-based, with a number of dramatic works surfacing over the last couple of years," he said. " 'The French Democracy' shows that machinima can be politically driven."
"The Movies" site shows other signs of this kind of breakthrough. Amid remakes of "King Kong" and sci-fi spectaculars uploaded by the game's movie-making players, the site also has hosted a highly rated short on the recently rekindled debate about evolution.
Marino and his peers have said that machinima democratizes filmmaking. It gives power to the people, as it were, by lowering the barrier to entry for aspiring filmmakers. With just a computer or console and the readymade sets provided by video games, anyone can make a movie replete with actors, sets and even special effects — no animation skills, coding ability, cast or blockbuster budget required.
That such a setup allows for such quickly-turned-around films based on real events excites Chan and Marino. "Machinima, in this context, allows for an 'on-the-ground and in-the-moment' visual product," said Marino. "An easy analogy can be to blogging, though in visual form — a self-published and widely distributed visual narrative of these events as seen through the creator's eyes."
The blogging analogy would seem to suit Chan, who said that making his machinima amounted to taking an empowering shortcut. "Through these tools you can get some more spontaneous reaction or reflection," he said, "not from mass media but from a simple citizen like me."
Not everyone has been a fan of Chan's film. Amid the four- and five-star reviews on the official "Movies" site, there is a sprinkling of one-star ratings. Some criticize technical flaws, like the rushed subtitling. But others take issue with the film's content. "The poor colored persons against the malicious police officers," one reviewer dismissively wrote in French. "Pfff."
Chan is unrepentant and said he already has an idea for another film, and he feels that through machinima he has shed light on injustice: "By making this movie I really think that I did something good for my country."