Piracy: Doorway to World Cinema?

pirateThere was a story my professor told me, and I don’t know if I’m distorting it here, of the time when Fernando Meirelles, the director of City of God visited the Philippines. My professor brought a DVD copy of a ” City of God” for the director to sign. Upon receiving the DVD, Meirelles couldn’t help express his surprise that the DVD was already available.

The DVD in question was a pirated copy and if you’re wondering if Meirelles signed it, he did.

Which brings me to a question that has always been at the back of my mind and is often discussed in joke time sessions with friends. Where would we be without piracy? Now, before the PC police (or the Optical Media Board for that matter) come barging into my door with a warrant, let me preface this by saying that this is not an endorsement of copyright infringement or illegal activity. I do make it a point  to buy original DVDs of the movies I love and Filipino movies in general. When it comes to original Filipino content, I buy original. But I have to admit that I have patronized pirated copies of movies. A lot of it in fact. And I often wonder how in heavens name would budding film makers have access to the world’s output if not for pirated DVDs?

A lot of the great movies I’ve watched over the years were obtained through pirated copies. Aldomovar’s “Talk to Her”, Von Trier’s “Europa”, “Dancer in the Dark” and “Dogville”, heck even “Citizen Kane”! A lot of the world’s best cinema cannot be legally obtained in the country’s video stores at affordable prices. Only the stalls of Quiapo hold the answer for the countries cineastes, many of whom are not exactly flush with cash.

So is this a defense of media piracy? I don’t mean it to be. It’s just me wondering out loud and remarking how something illegal has opened our eyes to the beauty of world cinema.

Setting aside the moral and legal implications of piracy, can we then ask if it actually levels the playing field between the haves and the have nots? Between the first and the third world? When Hajji, your friendly neighborhood DVD vendor from Quiapo, knows his Gus Van Sant from his Ridley Scott, you begin to wonder if something amazing is going on.

So continuous technological advances democratize media consumption. Sounds like a thesis. Whatever. This reminds me of what the papers call “Xerox Intellectuals”, where educated university people read their texts from completely photocopied (i.e. pirated) books. And why wouldn’t they? Not everybody has the money to buy a set of thousand peso text books every semester. In the same way that people from the third world can’t exactly catch an old Kurosawa film on a local theatre (come to think of it, we can hardly catch films by our own local directors on local theatres).

So is this a case of something good coming out of something bad? Yes, I suppose so. But should it stop there. Maybe not. Maybe there’s an opportunity in all of this. Maybe there’s a legitimate business model waiting to be developed to capitalize on people’s desire to consume vast amounts of digital entertainment at affordable prizes. Until such time though, don’t expect Hajji* to lose any business anytime soon.

* incidentally Hajji is the name of my friendly neighborhood DVD vendor.



  1. hi rommel! good point about how something illegal has inadvertently contributed something positive and even, to some extent, “fathered” many of the budding filmmakers we have today.

    by the way, may i put a link to your blog at http://www.thesecuriousdays.com? hope you can drop by. thanks!

  2. i celebrate piracy. tanedo said piracy is the democratization of art and i believe that. i also practice selective piracy, buying original pinoy media whenever i can.

    technology has changed how we see and experience things and progressed at such an impressive rate that we should also rise to the challenge if we want to progress as well as a people and as a third world country.

    the optical media board practically only protects the rights of 1st world capitalists. how about the exchange of knowledge? wouldnt that be more important? 🙂

    1. yes, selective piracy is the word. bilhin ang mga pinoy products! hehe. I didn’t even touch on software piracy. it definitely democratizes the 3rd world’s access to media. Imagine not being able to learn adobe or other design applications. pupulutin na lang tayo sa kang-kungan habang yung mga taga 1st world lang ang rumaratsada!

  3. while my books will never be considered major contributions to the world canon of literature for children, i would still justifiably be upset if somebody came up to me to sign a photocopy of my book. because, there goes my 5% royalty on one copy. and i know my publisher and her employees by name. all our incomes, however miniscule our individual shares are in the production of one little book, will be affected somehow.

    i’m guessing that the prof who told you the story was JAT and that the prof who asked meirelles to sign his DVD copy bought from Mrs. LR was CAH, hahaha. or it could be the other way around, but the DVD supplier would STILL be Mrs. LR. i wouldn’t be a hypocrite now and say i never touched those art films on DVD, because i also was a suki of Mrs. LR. and i saw “city of god” with my then-boyfriend-now-my husband, thanks to his pirated DVD bought in quiapo.

    the lesson that could be culled from the phenomenon of media piracy is one for the big media companies, that entertainment can be (and should be) quickly and inexpensively dispensed for everyone in the world to enjoy. big media companies are learning their lesson the hard way because pirated copies always preempt their releases by months. piracy has actually considerably brought down the prices of music and film dvd’s, and has poignantly underscored the fact that big media companies have been robbing us blind all these years with their overpriced products.

    brazil is a third-world country like the philippines–and i’m just guessing–meirelles perfectly understood the hunger for art by his co-filmmaker (if i guessed it correctly that it was CAH who had his copy signed) or fellow lover of film, and it must frustrate him sometimes that big-time businesses get in the way of his sharing of his art. anyway, due to the critical success of his film, he must have already been paid handsomely anyway in royalty checks so he didn’t mind signing one pirated copy. bravo for that brave, honest soul who dared having his copy signed 🙂

    1. Yes, it was “CAH” who had the DVD signed. Hehe.

      The music industry is currently facing big problems on this front since a lot of songs are being downloaded for free on the net. But Apple’s iTunes Store has proven than companies can make money from downloaded digital content offered at affordable prices. I hear the iTunes store is hugely successful and accounts for more than half of all legally downloaded digital music. At 99 cents per song, it’s not bad at all I suppose. It’s certainly changing the way media is consumed in the new century.

      One other good thing piracy has brought out for the consumer is the lowering of original DVD prices. I buy a lot of original DVDs nowadays. For P199 per DVD or even P299 it still can’t compete with pirated copies, but it’s definitely more reasonable. I bought my Hellboy and Spider-man DVDs for P299 per package and they had two discs and loads of bonus features and that didn’t feel so bad.

      I guess it all boils down to “FAIR PRICE” and “VALUE FOR MONEY”.

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