On asking permission

Frequently it’s been just unavoidable to ask for permission to include something in a film1. Usually I try hard to avoid it because, well, it just causes extra hassle but recently I’ve wanted to include excerpts from books in one film and footage taken in obviously private places in another. In my short film, Turn it Off, I tried hard to avoid needing permission or infringing copyright. If you look at the scenes with a TV in, you’ll see that the make is “SunSung”. A nice bit of cut and paste work there, I think. But I wanted to include shots of the covers and excerpts from a couple of books and, really, I figured I should go about things properly and so I filled in permission forms and sent them off to the publishers.

I’m currently making a film about the concept of waiting. I like to think that it is only my mind that could make the connections which mean it’s necessary to request permission to film in, amongst other places, a zoo, a laboratory and at a wedding dress exhibition with a designer wedding dress catwalk.2

Out of all three of these, only in the zoo might I get away without permission, stealing a few sneaky chimp shots and a long take of a giraffe’s neck.  In the other places, I’d be escorted from the premises as soon as I said “cheese”, so in each case I’ve approached the relevant people and asked nicely.

Usually you have to pay for all these permissions but so far I’ve found that honesty and modesty reap rewards, or maybe I’ve just had the good fortune to deal with nice, helpful people. (Mainly.3)

By honesty and modesty I mean that, when asking for permission, I’ve been pretty clear about two things: (1) Nobody is funding the film apart from me and (2) nobody is ever going to pay to watch it.

This is what I’ve said when I’ve asked for permission to shoot footage for the film about waiting:

“Dear X

I am making a series of short films about the concept of waiting.

One of these is a short (20 minute) philosophical film about the concept. It is partly an affectionate homage to a series of educational films made in the 1970s called The Ancestry of Science which was about the history of ideas.4 These were serious, artistic, films aimed at explaining difficult philosophical concepts.
My film explores what waiting is conceptually and practically (I have a PhD in philosophy). It is, at times, tongue in cheek. It covers how the concept of waiting was dealt with in Ancient Greek philosophy, whether modern society requires us to wait too much and what waiting is philosophically.
One point raised in the film is whether science is able to explain what waiting is or means. The film goes on to suggest that it can’t.
I need a short section of video of people (or a person) in a laboratory simply as background during this short section of the film. The film then moves on to examine other aspects of the concept and practice of waiting.
The film is self-financed. At this stage I intend to submit it to UK film festivals and to distribute it on the internet. “

So far, everybody I’ve said this to has said “OK”. I’ve usually had to give a bit more detail but, generally, people seem to read this and think “harmless eccentric. Why not?”. I know that they think the whole thing is a bit weird because, usually, when I offer to credit them in the film they quickly say “er…no…no thanks…”. The zoo, in fact, were pretty clear that I mustn’t refer to them in any way at all in my film. I guess few of us will be able to distinguish one chimp from the next so I suspect I can preserve anonymity here.

The only exception was at the wedding dress catwalk show thing where they were extremely keen to be referenced. And I was given a minder. I wasn’t expecting that because they’d told me I’d have “access all areas” before I arrived but when I got there they quizzed me quite a lot more about what I was up to. They seemed to be happy enough with the slightly more in depth explanation about the link between weddings and waiting, about film festivals and the internet and about my non-corporate status so they let me in, but my minder kept asking people if they were happy to be filmed. I didn’t eavesdrop but I’d love to know what exactly it was he told them I was doing. I can’t imagine it was what I told him because he wasn’t listening when I told him it. 

Still, I came away with some lovely footage.

Of course, this isn’t true. I could just change the film. But let’s not quibble.

I do hope nobody is going to respond to this post by telling me this film’s been made before…

I say “mainly” because, even if I try hard, I really can’t include the farmer who told me to “go f*ck” myself when I tried to film a bath in his field, and that I “needed f*cking” because I parked my car down his lane. I do try hard here to be forgiving because (a) I was definitely in his field, definitely without asking, and (b) he maintained that it was hard to get his tractor past my car. I suspect (b) was a bit of a white lie but I can’t argue with (a).

Really, it’s an homage to just one of that series, an experimental documentary called Time Is by the Australian artist and physicist film director Don Levy. The best way to see this is to get a copy of his masterpiece, Herostratus released on the BFI Flipside label. Herostratus was, of course, filmed on a shoestring budget.

I didn’t mention the objectification and commodification of weddings as a phenomenon peculiar to advanced capitalism and that somewhere in the film this point might be made. But I didn’t say I wouldn’t mention objectification and commodification. We just didn’t discuss it, which for the life of me I really can’t understand because what is a wedding show if not the apotheosis of objectification and commodification? It was almost impossible to focus the camera lens and sort out gain and shutter speed without being distracted by it. But, of course, if we had discussed it then no doubt things would not have gone so well, and so I’m glad we didn’t. No matter that we might not all think there’s anything wrong with objectification and commodification, indeed the exhibitors at the wedding show thing clearly don’t because that’s how they make their living, but the words are just so pejorative that it’s best to leave them at home. So I did.

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