BEIRUT: A surfeit of offers to freely access local and international entertainment platforms is now raining down on the world, in an attempt to encourage confinement in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. However, a dilemma between art consumers and art workers is rising again: if the world of culture is free, will it appeal to more people or will it damage the art producers’ income and put their living at stake?
Abbout Productions, a production company actively bringing together artists in film, theatre, and music since 1998, has allowed people free access to some Arab indie films during quarantine, for a limited time period per movie. Over 8000 persons from around the globe have watched the displayed movies online since the beginning of lockdown.
Georges Schoucair, CEO and producer of Abbout Productions, said his producing partner Myriam Sassine first proposed the idea.
“I immediately thought that it was a great idea as we’ve been wanting to make our films accessible for a larger audience for a while now, but we were restricted by the classical schemes of distribution,” he told Annahar. “We’ve also been receiving complaints from people around us that our films weren’t easily accessible, so now feels like a second chance offered to movies that have already premiered in festivals. One of the means to go through this crisis is certainly watching movies that enable introspection and self-questioning.”
However, access to indie films, especially Lebanese ones, was limited - almost restricted - before quarantine, which raises a number of questions, including one on whether the world of culture generally and cinema particularly can be freely accessible even after quarantine.
“Financing independent movies is complex and difficult. Movies are expensive to make and a whole industry makes a living out of them. It’s not viable to make access for films completely free of charge, even if we take great satisfaction in making these films by tackling important issues to us and working with talented filmmakers,” Schoucair said.
“We need to rethink our producing model. This crisis is very similar to the one the music industry went through when music became widely available for free. The cinema industry will need to come up with its own answers,” he explained.
Some Abbout Productions films are now playing on Aflamuna Online, an initiative by Arab filmmakers and film institutions led by Beirut DC.
Schoucair also noted that art patronage observed in Europe, for instance, doesn’t exist everywhere, which exacerbates the impediments to art production.
In fact, internationally-renowned museums such as the Louvre museums (France), the Vatican museums (Italy), the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum (Spain), and the State Hermitage Museum (Russia) are offering free virtual tours through their collections. The Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow is broadcasting classical opera and ballet performances including the Nutcracker, for free viewing on the theater’s YouTube channel. Musicians moved from concert arenas to Instagram live streamings.
"It’s important during this period that we maintain access not just to news and information, but to the arts and culture. For many people they are a valuable part of their lives and a way of stimulating imagination, thought, and escapism. It’s a vital part of who we are as individuals and part of our identity as a nation,” said Tony Hall, director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), on the reasons behind the launch of the BBC’s “Culture in Quarantine” platform.
On a similar note, Shoucair sees that “the confinement and the emergence of the multiple platforms allow [them] to test a different, direct access to the audience and offer several movies, to viewers who seek diversity and who are curious about a different Lebanese and Arab Cinema than the most popular one.”
Visual Artist Ghassan Ouais thinks that access to art should be free of charge, not limited to a specific class, collectors, and gallerists.
“Letting people freely access museums and be exposed to dance, music, and visual paintings, will make them connect more, feel the different messages, and tolerate despite the surrounding political and discriminatory disparities,” he said.
Ouais is now painting self-portraits on a daily basis, each reflecting his state of mind during each day in quarantine. He even went to draw the virus itself, which he considers as the modern-day paralyzer that dethroned the failure system ruling the modern world for decades.
“At first, I thought about this quarantine as a chance to make more art peacefully without being bothered. It later hit me when I felt the urge and need to draft my feelings and the feelings of others towards it. I had to document and not only paint.”
This spike in freeing cultural content online is likely to question imposed fees on access to art post quarantine. In other words, did the world wait for a quarantine to offer art on a silver platter? Can’t art be free of charge?
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