YouTube should let Iranians speak
The video-sharing website has wrongly barred Iranians from its documentary experiment, Life in a Day, because of US sanctions. Negar Esfandiary reports
16 Aug 10

YouTube logoThe video-sharing website has wrongly barred Iranians from its documentary experiment, Life in a Day, because of US sanctions. Negar Esfandiary reports

This is a cross-post with Comment is free

On 6 July 2010, YouTube announced the launch of Life in a Day, an experimental documentary incorporating footage submitted by YouTube users, calling for “thousands of people everywhere in the world … on a single day, which is the 24 July this year, to film some aspect of their day and then post it onto YouTube so that we can use it to make a film that is a record of what it’s like to be alive on that one day”.

For the many active Iranian YouTube members, this was a sensational opportunity to finally contribute, participate and share in a non-political world community project through a medium they knew well. After all, it was the 2009 elections that inspired citizen filming in Iran, with YouTube serving as the main channel to the outside world. Clips of the brutality on the streets of Iran catapulted YouTube into newsrooms and signalled it as a potent news source.

It came as a slap in the face then to read the FAQ on the Life in a Day website: “Anyone over 13 years old can submit footage, except for residents and nationals of Iran, Syria, Cuba, Sudan, North Korea and Burma (Myanmar), and/or any other persons and entities restricted by US export controls and sanctions programmes.” The “story of a single day on earth … One world, 24 hours, 6 billion perspectives” is actively boycotting 1.5 billion of the 6 billion perspectives it pursues.

Wouldn’t it be great to have included these countries – to have seen something of daily life rather than the usual imagery? Surely that would have been more in step with the spirit of the project, especially given that most of the submissions will naturally end up on the cutting-room floor. Instead, this decision is mean-spirited, hasty and compromises the integrity of a project intended to be truly universal, when it is in fact not open to all.

YouTube has been described as “a Speakers’ Corner that both embodies and promotes democracy”. A valid appraisal. So why the concern and involvement with political sanctions? Even if the film were funded by the US government, the boycott wouldn’t have made sense: the US senate has allocated $50m to the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act (Voice) to help Iranians evade government censorship of the internet and to put pressure on foreign companies not to help Iran in its repressive measures.

Life in a Day is due to be screened at the 2011 Sundance film festival – and the Sundance institute apparently prides itself on providing a forum for filmmakers “to explore their stories free from commercial and political pressures”. Even Korean electronics giant LG partnering the project says: “Using video footage to bring people together to share their diverse perspectives and experiences helps enrich all our lives. Life in a Day is a perfect fit with our core values: humanity, pleasure, curiosity, and an optimistic energy”.

The film’s multinational footage will be directed by Kevin MacDonald, who made One Day in September and Touching the Void, both provocative films that don’t succumb to public expectation. Life in a Day’s executive producer Ridley Scott, acclaimed director of Blade Runner and Gladiator, has come under attack on Iranian internet forums. An accomplished group of Iranian filmmakers in Amsterdam are now creating their own Iranian version of the Life in a Day concept in retaliation.

It was Scott who directed the campaign that launched Apple Mac computers in 1984. In this Orwellian depiction of the Big Brother state of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Macs are coming to save man from conformity, with the strapline “with Macintosh … 1984 will not be 1984”. This feared dystopian society is characterised by a large military-like police force, repressive social control systems and an absence of individual freedoms. All now rather too familiar for comfort.