The media is the message

TV Utopía, dir. Sebastián Deus (Argentina 2011, 92′)

Since the dawn of time, or at least the invention of cable, the lament has remained unchanged: so many channels, and nothing’s ever on. For a moment, though, in one neighborhood in Buenos Aires, something was: a pirate television station that aired programming of and by the community twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Utopía, as the station was known, was created in the early ’90s by Fabián Moyano and featured a rotating cast of volunteers who contributed their individual interests and expertise for the benefit of the community at large. Over the following decade, Utopía would provide a forum for the discussion of topics ranging from the trivial to the sublime, transmit impromptu jam sessions from the neighborhood’s main plaza, screen films ranging from B movies to blockbusters to rare prints of lost classics, and be raided more than a dozen times by the government, regularly losing key pieces of broadcasting equipment in the process.

It is this collective endeavor that Sebastián Deus revisits in his recent documentary TV Utopía. Contextualizing the channel’s project within the debate surrounding the enactment of the Ley de Medios in 2009, which ostensibly protects against the monopolization of the media by international conglomerates but which has been criticized for tipping the scales toward State control, the film examines not only the space allotted independent audiovisual programming, but also its role in fostering active involvement in a democratic society. Deus, who volunteered with Utopía nearly two decades earlier, effectively intersperses footage from the channel with a visual record of the hearings that led up to the passage of the law and his own interventions on behalf of the public right to alternative, community-based programming beholden to neither corporate or government interests. It is a matter of creating a space for public debate, and for public enrichment.

This exploration of the ways in which a fundamentally local phenomenon inflects national – and, indeed, global – thought on the production and dissemination of audiovisual content is, without question, the best aspect of the film. There are, of course, several notable encounters with former participants in the station, as well as the gratifying impression that – despite the singular personalities of a few of these contributors – this truly was a collective project. Not to mention the glimpse that the rescued footage provides into the social and political history of this particular community. Yet despite these strengths, and the timeliness of its subject matter (when will freedom of speech ever be of questionable relevance?), TV Utopía can’t really be called a good film: the on-screen interventions of its director are just a little too clumsy (at one point, Deus films himself wandering the rooftops of Buenos Aires with Utopía’s original antenna, searching for the lost signal; audio from the station is heard over the sounds of the city), and its visual metaphors just a little too worn (Utopía’s footage of a pair of hands flitting across a rickety keyboard, projected above those of the same musician as he plays a well-tuned upright some fifteen years later, and so on) to allow the work to stand on its own merits. Even so, the documentary’s examination of alternative models of engagement with the media is such that it is worth seeing, in spite of its eccentricities.

One of the characters that populate Deus’s post-Utopían world spends his nights searching the skies for UFOs. Watching him dart back and forth between telescopes trained on the heavens, it is hard not to be reminded of the filmmaker-protagonist’s own search for the source and logic of a transmission sent nearly a generation before; this parallel seems to suggest the possibility of a future encounter with this kind of collective intervention, rather than a purely retrospective engagement of a lost past. In a question and answer session after the screening of the film, Deus affirmed that yes, he did hold out hope for a second coming of Utopía, but that – in many ways – the more numerous the channels available for the dissemination of audiovisual content (namely the hundreds of websites dedicated to the dissemination of video material), the harder it becomes to create the sense of community fostered by the original project.

This observation is borne out by the current state of Utopía, which has been revived – albeit in a markedly limited, and far less communitarian, form – on YouTube. Yet despite the difficulties, one can’t help but think how necessary this type of intervention continues to be, particularly in light of the events in Tahrir Square and the Occupy protests in downtown New York City and around the world, which have had to confront media blackouts, less-than-objective coverage, and even outright State intervention. In both these cases, and in many like them, it has been the members of the community who shed light on the events as they transpired; the question of whether it is possible to channel these individual interventions into a collective space for dialogue and development, however, remains.

Insofar as it presents both a timely take on the longstanding question of who gets to control the waves/dial/cloud and a model case of the media as a medium of active community involvement, then, Sebastián Deus’s TV Utopía is worth watching, and will hopefully find its way to screens beyond the festival circuit. It won’t likely inspire anyone to go to film school, but it just might create a new generation of “telesintientes,” the term coined by the audience of Utopía to indicate their active and affective engagement with the station’s programming, over and against the passive model of viewership typically fostered by the mainstream media. It might get a few more people out on the street with a camera, or a tape recorder, or a cell phone, working to forge communities through the process of telling our own stories, in our own words.

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