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Khalik Allah and Kevin B. Lee on Online Platforms vs. Festival Programming

Kevin B. Lee’s Transformers: The Premake and Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas are radically different films. Lee assembles footage of the making of Transformers: Age of Extinction and related materials to delve into how Michael Bay’s hyper-blockbuster took over cities all over the globe and made deals with their governments to save money; Allah’s film is an hour-long piece of street portraiture from 125th and Park in Harlem, giving voice to the routinely marginalized. What they have in common is that they both initially launched online before receiving festival play. Lee’s film is still online, while Allah has pulled his movie from Vimeo and YouTube as he’s started getting festival play.

I sat down with Allah and Lee at the True/False Film Festival in March to delve into the topic of how putting your work online affects the ability to get into festivals. It should be said that this isn’t anything like a comprehensive guide to the ins and outs of this developing topic, just a discussion between two filmmakers about their different experiences with the same issue. My hope was that the two would talk to each other with minimal prodding from me, since, as directors, issues would occur to them that wouldn’t occur to me as a critic, and that turned out to be the case. This also meant that the conversation ebbed into detours about Allah’s film specifically, that attention-getting title, and his background, but that’s not a bad thing.

Filmmaker: You both put your movies online, but I feel like there’s very different reasons for both of you. Khalik, the subjects you’re filming can’t afford to come to Columbia, Missouri or wherever to see your film, so an online platform is the logical way to give them access. Kevin, for you it seems political in a different way: Transformers took up space in your city and all over the culture, so you’re taking some of it back online.

Allah: My purpose for putting it online is that that’s the future, that’s the present, that’s the way you touch people immediately. Some of my friends saw the film before I put it online and said “Yo, you need to get a distribution deal and get paid for this. This is going to blow you up.” My thing is, I don’t know if I’m going to die tomorrow, if I’m going to go out and get hit by a car. The nature of my photography is raw, so anything can happen on that corner at any time, so I’m like “Let me put this shit out immediately. Fuck a distribution deal,” and that’s what I did. Plus, I’m just starting out with my stuff. I copyright my shit, my own it, release it on the internet.

Filmmaker: Is it literally all you — the sound, the image?

Allah: No, the sound was my boy Josh Furey in Calgary. We’ve been working together for two years now, and we’ve never spoke, except through email.

Lee: How’d you find each other?

Allah: I was on YouTube when I found a song he was a producer on and wrote him. At that time, I was working with Wu-Tang a lot, so when I told him that, he was like “I’ll help you out with whatever films you have.” I have his number, he has mine, but it’s like the perfect marriage where we don’t have to talk.

Lee: For me, [putting it online] was just what I’ve been doing for years. Of course, I’ve had my issues with YouTube. Unlike you, I don’t make original images. I use copyrighted footage, but I add my own critical commentary on the material, which normally falls under the definition of fair use. Things being as they are, corporations are very protective about what goes up. They’re always making claims and it becomes very contentious. So, I’ve always been conscious of the issues involved in copyright. It’s something you kind of have to fight for. Transformers: The Premake was made out of 355 YouTube videos of people filming Transformers being shot all over the world. So part of it was, “Well, I’m using other people’s work and I’m taking it all off YouTube, so in a way it makes sense to put it back on YouTube to close the loop, to bring it back where I found it and start the conversation there.”

I wanted it to be online before the Michael Bay version of Transformers came out, because I wanted to steer the conversation. I’m showing how the film was made and all these political and cultural factors that went into it — deals they’re making with China, tax breaks they’re trying to get. Detroit’s like, “We’ll give you 35% tax breaks if you film here”; I really wanted to expose that. So I put it up on YouTube and Vimeo two weeks before the actual movie came out, and I think that really helped, because it took advantage of that window where everybody’s already thinking about Transformers and then they see this video come along. A bunch of critics wrote about it and it got a lot of press coverage, so I think there’s a lot of advantages, like timeliness.

I noticed that you have this tremendous following on Tumblr, and that’s how you build your audience. You’ve built that with your own hands, so it makes sense to reward them with your biggest thing to date.

Allah: I wouldn’t be at this film festival until I’d done what you did and just put it out on the internet. The way they found my movie was online. They saw it on Vimeo and contacted me and said “Would you consider taking it down temporarily?” Just during the festival.

Lee: What was the the way they put that rationale?

Allah: Certain distribution companies have contacted me and I was real transparent. I said “The film’s been online, but if it’s within the guidelines of me getting this distribution deal, I would consider pulling it,” because ultimately, I’m trying to establish myself as a professional in the game. Not to say that a professional wouldn’t put his work out, but I know there’s a process to the way things get released and distributed, and I hadn’t been initiated through any of those processes, so I’m just putting it out anyway.

Anyway, the good people at True/False asked me to take it down. At first, they said they would respect any decision I made. I thought about it, because at first I was like “Damn, I don’t want to pull it down.” I said to them over the phone, “You wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t had it online in the first place.” But then I was like, “How about this? I’ll take it off Vimeo immediately, because that’s where filmmakers and other professionals coming to this festival would go to find it. Then I’ll take it off YouTube the week of. Afterwards, I’ll make it public on both platforms again.” They totally respected that and said “no problem.”

The funny thing is, the art historian and legend Fab 5 Freddy had seen it based on it being online, contacted me via email, said “I’m Fab 5 Freddy, I don’t know if you know me.” I’m going back like “G, what are you talking about? I grew up on Yo! MTV Raps.” We developed a rapport just based off of that; that would never have happened [otherwise]. I saw a bunch of interviews with him and Nas. I was 9 when Illmatic came out, so I said to him, “I know and Nas are real peace, would you send him the film? I would love if he could see it, I think he would dig it.” At that point, I’m like “Shit, I’m going to pull the film in a few days. If Nas doesn’t peep it before I pull it” — because I already put my word to True/False that I would pull it — he would search for it and he wouldn’t be able to see it. Who knows what would happen if he saw it and blasted it on his Twitter or whatever? Sure enough, Fab hit me up and said “Yo, I just got off the phone with Nas, he said he watched Field Niggas and he was tripping.” Then I was like, “All right, let me pull this shit now. Cool.”

Filmmaker: Administratively, this is all you, right?

Allah: I’m in the streets alone with the camera and a microphone. Online, I got no money behind me.

Filmmaker: But people know who you are. The first thing I got when I typed your name into Google was a Time magazine profile, so you’re not exactly unknown.

Allah: That’s because I take advantage of every opportunity to do an interview. I don’t care who it is, for what it’s for, I treat them all the same. Whether it’s a big or small interview, I could care less about that. An interview is an interview if someone’s going to see it, so I do every single one. When you hit me up, I was like “Of course.” You could’ve been CNN and I would’ve been “Of course.” That’s why so much pops up when you search me.

Lee: Is this the first festival that’s contacted you?

Allah: Yes. I’ve lost my appetite to apply to things, because I hate paying fees and getting rejected. I’ve done that for competitions in the past. I’ve got a few people behind me now, big curators in New York City, who are like “You need to be in this, you need to be in that.” I’m taking their advice, because I really trust them. I’m making a little bit more money now, so it’s cool, whether it’s lost or not.

Lee: Festivals are kind of funny to predict. I felt like I had basically given up on festivals by putting it on YouTube, like I had forfeited any claims. Once it’s online, cat’s out of the bag. What’s funny is, the Vienna Film Festival expressed interest. I sent them a private link even though it’s public, so they had exclusive access to it. Then they were like, “We don’t watch things on private links. You have to send us a DVD,” because their programmer doesn’t like to watch things online. He’s old school, he likes to watch things on a big screen at home. Never mind that you can connect the internet to a big screen. So I had to make a DVD and then mail it to Vienna. Then I heard back: “Yeah, we want it.”

That was the first festival to accept it, and once that happened, all these other festivals started contacted me. I think they’d either seen it at Vienna or seen that it was officially programmed. All of a sudden, a film that’s online takes on a different meaning because a certain festival of some renown makes it legit. So then Rotterdam, Berlin, True/False — True/False is actually the first US festival to pick it up. I did submit it to some other US festivals. They all said something to the effect of “Well, it’s online.” Each festival has their own criteria, and some are like “Well, no one’s seen it on the big screen yet. It’d be awesome to see it on the big screen.”

Filmmaker: Khalik, was it important for you that people could see your work on the big screen?

Allah: Definitely. I got Spielberg dreams, you know what I’m saying? To me, to have something on the screen, it’s like winning an award. Just having it here, seeing it on the screen with a crowd, with a packed-out house, it’s like “Whoa!” But at the end of the day, it’s still important that someone can see it on their phone. I want somebody to be on the subway or wherever and be able to just look into their phone and say “Yo, I’m watching Field Niggas and listening through my headphones.” That’s very important to me.

When I was in high school, I used to go during study hall to the library and study my favorite rappers. I was also studying a lot of esoteric knowledge while I was in school from different places. Now, kids — 13, 14, 15 — hit me up through Tumblr and Facebook and they’re like “Yo, I was just watching your movie.” Any time a prepubescent or even someone younger than 21 says they’ve seen my film, that’s the illest thing, because I’m helping direct and shape the course of their life. Even if it’s just one aspect of their life, it’s still going to affect them. I still remember the Rakim interviews I was reading in study hall, so it’s very important.

[At this point, a filmmaker stops by to congratulate Allah on his film and is reluctant to say the title.]

Allah: Say it! Say it with power!

Filmmaker: This has been going on all weekend.

Allah: I’ve seen the asterisks coming out of people’s mouths. [laughs] I respect that, but to me it’s a term of endearment. When you understand the history of that term, Malcolm X designated that term. But ultimately, words are meaningless anyway. We invest power into them. We give them meaning. Words aren’t cause, they’re effect. They’re symbols of symbols. They’re twice removed from reality. Words are just symbols of thoughts that are symbols of deeper thoughts. Somebody could say “Fuck you” to me, and I could interpret that as “I love you.” We’re only in control of our interpretation.

Filmmaker: When did you get on the internet?

Allah: I made a film back in 2005, called The Absorbtion of Light. I was 19, it was the first film I ever made. I didn’t put that online, because YouTube had just started. Those were the days of MySpace. Facebook wasn’t really popping like that, YouTube had no HD.

Lee: Everything was just 240p.

Allah: Exactly. At that point, I just got on MySpace and started pumping out a lot of words, throwing out phrases and words I was thinking about. Then I started doing music videos for Wu-Tang, and all of that shit went straight to the internet. So that was really the genesis of the whole thing.

Lee: Wu-Tang found you through the internet?

Allah: No. I grew up through the Five Percent Nation, an organization based all around the globe and mainly in Harlem. I got left behind in school in 8th grade, and was opened up to information at that point. It was really a blessing, because it opened me up to learning. The main thing it taught me is that learning isn’t just something that happens in school. The Five Percent Nation just took me under their wing and started schooling me. The foundational Wu-Tang members are Five Percenters, so I would just bump into them around the city. “Yo, peace, my name is Khalik, da da da.” We just became cool, me and the GZA, Masta Killer — certain brothers, we just vibe together. Me and the GZA would talk about water for two hours, talk about the brain, just building on subjects.

Filmmaker: To go back to the internet, it’s important for you to make sure that voices that aren’t heard otherwise are online where they can reach people?

Allah: That’s very important, because number one, that area is dangerous. A lot of people don’t come through there or stay there. The 4/5/6 subway station is on the corner of Lexington and 125th, but most people just book as soon as they get out of the subway or they’re booking into the subway, because many of the people out there look like zombies — strung out on drugs or whatever. I’m out there two, three, four am, and I feel fully comfortable and safe, because I learned to see past appearances. This person might have just come out of jail, but he’s peace.

Field Niggas is the result of me being out there as a photographer for two years and seeing and hearing things that the still image camera can’t capture, some of the arguments that people are having in the background I thought were interesting. People see the images, but they don’t know what goes into it. I could’ve been talking to this person for two hours, and it could’ve been one of the illest conversations I’ve ever had, but it wasn’t recorded. So eventually, out of frustration, I was like, “I have to make a movie.” So I tried to make the movie mirror the photography, so that almost every scene could look like the image.

Filmmaker: Did you first go out by yourself without a camera before introducing yourself as a filmmaker?

Allah: I wouldn’t go out without the camera.

Filmmaker: So you automatically become associated with it.

Allah: At first it was suspicious, because people are coming straight out of jail, and they’re like “Who the fuck are you with the camera?” Now I’ve been doing it so long that people are like “That’s Khalik, the official 125th Street photographer.” So I don’t really have to say anything at this point. At first it was like “Yo, I’m trying to do a book,” and then I started bringing around a book of 4×6 prints like you see in the film, and that helped them trust me more.

Filmmaker: Kevin, did you try to shoot original footage?

Lee: The original idea was to go out on the streets of Chicago and see them filming Transformers. I wanted to get away from my screens at home and see how movies played out in real life locations, but I couldn’t get very far. There was one point where a friend gave me this production crew t-shirt as a disguise to go in, but the crew saw right through it, grabbed me and escorted me out of the premises. So I sequestered with all these other fans, observers and spectators in these designated waiting areas, and that’s why I noticed everybody had a camera. I’m just one of 50 or 100 image capturers. There’s nothing special about what I’m doing, and then I noticed there were all these videos popping on YouTube.

Filmmaker: But not everybody can be an annotator. You’re the guy who tried to organize it and make sense of it.

Lee: And acknowledge that all of this other stuff is out there and start thinking about what to do with it. Maybe part of it is being a film critic used to working with existing material and finding your own way into it.

It was amazing that we watched Field Niggas the night Al Maysles died, because there’s that one moment where someone’s like “Yo, you should put this in the Maysles [Theater].”

Allah: I came back out to the streets after the movie was made and said to the brothers, “There’s this movie called Field Niggas and I put it out online,” but they don’t have access to the internet, so many brothers couldn’t see it.

Filmmaker: People know it’s out there and they want to see it.

Allah: Cats kind of forgot about it after I mentioned it. They’re a bunch of lip professors. People say things and don’t do them, so they more or less didn’t think what I was doing was real. They didn’t know it was out and getting the response it was getting. About two months after I told them this, a brother named Denair said “What’s that movie that you said you made? I want to go home and watch it.” “Field Niggas, just search it online.” The next day I came to the block, the streets were roaring: “Yo, I saw the movie.” Even the Pakistanians in the bodegas were like “Yo, I watched your movie.” They were quoting the end of it, so I knew they were watching to the end. Those brothers show love to each other, so if one person has a house with a TV or a computer, 15 people will go over there. It kind of made me uncomfortable after the block saw it, because now everybody is hopping in front of the camera. Before, it was so real.

Lee: So how are you going to adjust your style?

Allah: All I’ve been doing is taking portraits. I haven’t been shooting anything. I’ll shoot some video in a bit, but I’ve been taking portraits until it dies down.

Lee: What if, when the weather warms up, you get a remote generator and do a projection on one of the walls on the corner?

Allah: I’m gonna do that. My boy gave me a projector and it’s in my house. I’ve been waiting for that, so as soon as it gets warm I’m going to do that. I was going to do it over the winter, but it’s too cold in New York right now.

Filmmaker: The stereo separation is really strong: people talking on one side, plantation singing on the other side. It felt like it might’ve been optimally intended for somebody wearing headphones.

Allah: There was a 1950s prison gang working in Texas. That’s the music. It’s just them singing as they’re chopping with their axes. Josh threw it in there whenever he wanted to. I gave him free rein to do that and said “Yo brother, you’re in control of this. Put it anywhere you want.” He chose very specific parts of the film. I just left it to him and I didn’t change one thing.

Filmmaker: He’s the only person who works on the film besides you. And Kevin, that’s the same for you?

Lee: Yeah, Jacob Ross, who’s done a lot of experimental film sound mixing, like Deborah Stratman and other Chicago-based artists. He’s the only guy I brought in, and his major challenge was, “I have never worked with this much found footage before and so much shitty YouTube audio.” The main challenge for him was to bring it all to roughly the same level and create sound dimensions with it.

Allah: I’m self-taught, for whatever that’s worth. I came off tour with GZA in 2009, and then I went to film school for one semester at Five Towns College and dropped out. Because the teachers started saying shit like they tell you in high school, like “Wait until you get out into the real world.” And I was like, “Yo, you don’t know what I’ve seen. The real world? I’ve been in the real world.” After that, I was like, “I’m not coming back.” I was getting straight A’s, and I still never came back. I’m still paying student loans.

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