Monday, July 22, 2002

Video nation

by Duncan Campbell
Wednesday 10 July, 2002
View Guardian article here.

Duncan Campbell gets on board the US's first mobile anarchist digital video studio, and gets to see film-making and America in the raw

Parked on a side street in Venice, in the west of Los Angeles, is an old school bus with the following quotation from Jean Cocteau painted on its side: "film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper."

At a time when some actors are being paid more than $20m for a film and even a budget of say, $10m, is seen as small, Cocteau's words have a particularly timely resonance. And inside the painted bus, a bold adventure is underway to turn his words into reality.

The bus belongs to LAFCO, the LA Film-makers' Coop, which was founded in 2000 and whose aim is to allow people to make films for virtually nothing. Inside the bus, apart from a disarmingly friendly bulldog called Diego, is a complete editing and post-production suite, film library and recording booth, making it in the words of its founders, "the first fully self-sufficient anarchist digital video studio on wheels."

LAFCO was founded by Tao Ruspoli, a 26-year-old Italian born in Thailand and raised in Rome and the States, where he studied philosophy at Berkeley, and a friend, Alfonso Gordillo, also 26, a Swiss-Spanish film-maker who studied film at the University of California in LA. Ruspoli, who was originally a documentary film-maker, was always attracted to the nomadic life and found, via eBay, a 1984 Chevy Blue Bird school bus in Colorado which he has since transformed into a travelling studio and home. He and Gordillo have since been joined in their venture by an Australian experimental film-maker, Julian Dahl, and a photographer and designer from LA called Roger Mona Webster.

Their aim is to demystify the film-making process and enable people who would never otherwise get near a camera to make their own movies. This process of 'fly film-making', making a whole movie sometimes in a few days, is open to whoever they bump into who has an idea. To this end, the bus travels round the United States, much in the manner of Ken Kesey's 60s Merry Pranksters, stopping in small towns and inviting locals to create their own short film. The team help them make and edit the film, and then show it "in barns, in bars, sometimes even in cinemas." Some of their films are also shown on the internet.

The bus was painted by one of LA'S best-known graffiti artists, Skill. "So this art that was marginalised and looked down on was made visible and mobile - and noble!" says Ruspoli, whose infectious enthusiasm for the project has brought in an eclectic group of fellow-travellers. "The school bus is a symbol obviously - where everyone can go on a journey. It represents an escape from convention."

In their first big trip, up the Californian coast, one of their first film-makers was the 73-year-old poet, ruth weiss (she likes the lower case) who used to perform with Jack Kerouac in the early beat days. The Coop have filmed, too, at Burning Man, the famous desert festival and taken the bus to the Sundance film festival and the Tijuana Graffiti Convention.

The whole enterprise is run on a frayed shoestring of donations, and they are hoping now for grants or sponsors to help them on to the next stage - setting up an LA base. Their dream is of a fleet of buses crossing the US and heading off to Central America, helping people to make films about whatever they want on tiny budgets.

"One of the comments we often get is that we are showing a side of America that people don't usually see," said Ruspoli. "They only see the empire and McDonalds and Coke - not all the other things that people are doing."

Jean Cocteau would be proud to see his words used in this way. As he also remarked: "being tactful in audacity is knowing how far one can go too far."

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