Karina’s Capsule: Free NYC Rap

Indie filmmakers, videographers and photographers are uniting to protest a series of new regulations proposed by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting here in New York City. As currently worded, the new regulations would force any group of two or more people using a camera of any sort on a New York street for more than thirty minutes, or any group of five or more people using a tripod for more than ten minutes, to obtain both a permit from the city and a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance.
Picture New York, a group formed by local artists and activists in response to the MOFT’s proposal, has created a website in an attempt to get the word out about the permit regulations before the period of “public comment” graciously provided by the Mayor’s Office ends on August 3. The website includes an online petition (which, as a press release notes, has already been signed by the likes of Albert Maysles and Micheal Stipe), notes about public events (the group threw a rally this past Friday in Union Square, where they created a spectacle that included a gospel choir, a “sermon” from Reverend Billy, and perhaps most importantly, an abundance of local news cameras), and a growing page of web videos in support of the fight.

From an artistic standpoint, the “best” of these videos is Free, by award-winning filmmaker Jem Cohen. But in terms of effective propaganda, the video that may have the best shot at making a difference is probably Free NYC Rap. The clip was produced by web comedy troupe Olde English, with an assist from Jesse Novak and special appearances by other notable indie comedy stars, such as Fat Guy Stuck in Internet and The Whitest Kids You Know.
It’s a classic protest song dressed in the modes of the late-’80s, Yo! MTV Raps-style music video. It’s a jokey enterprise for sure, but never underestimate the power of sight gags (my favorite: the rapper in the $2 barrister wig) and “did that even rhyme?” verses (“It’s hard enough to shoot in Manhattan/and now you want to cash in every time I say ‘action’?”) to rally the troops. It’s the Schoolhouse Rock theory of social issue education at work.
Free NYC Rap is both auditory agitprop and object lesson. With its variety of New York exterior locations, fixed-camera dutch angles and time lapse segments, it functions as a catalogue of the techniques currently available to enterprising independent artists that could soon be off the table to those who can’t afford liability insurance. If the protests have no impact and the regulations end up going through, it’ll stand as one of many artifacts of a tradition of no-budget, NYC-as-free backdrop filmmaking that may be on its way to extinction.