In 2010, a USC film student named James Marcus Haney snuck into the Coachella music festival in southeast California. While there, Marcus became hooked on the intoxicating frenzy of the moment. He documented his experience with the many cameras around his neck, and knew he had to relive the experience again as soon as possible. In the months following his Coachella break-in, Marcus successfully snuck into Bonnaroo (in Tennessee), Ultra (in Miami), Glastonbury (in England), Coachella (again), and more, documenting his exploits the entire time. No Cameras Allowed is the fun and frantic feature length documentary of his adventures.
Instead, there were two main things concerning No Cameras Allowed that I took issue with. The first is that Marcus clearly has money. His camera equipment, for example, is insane. He has vintage 8mm cameras, Canon 5Ds – at any given point, he has least five different cameras around his neck, and he’s shooting with lenses that cost double the amount that the bodies of the camera cost. How is that an L.A.-born and raised kid, who is attending USC film school, who lives in his parent’s basement, who has tens of thousands of dollars worth of production and post-production gear… how can he not afford a concert ticket, or, at the very least, gas to get him to the concert? Coachella is expensive, sure, but if Marcus hawked just one of his lesser-grade lenses, he could easily buy two tickets from the profits.
The second thing I questioned is the overall validity of the film itself. I’ve never snuck into a festival, so I can’t call into question the legitimacy of Marcus’ sneaking-in efforts. What I do know plenty about, however, is licensing music for films. This is an extremely difficult and cripplingly expensive task. In No Cameras Allowed, not only does Marcus feature songs from Jay-Z, Skrillex, The Naked and Famous, and many more, he features footage of those people actually performing the songs, which is infinitely more difficult and costly to license.
So, how did Marcus pay all the licensing fees to clear the performances in his film? In publicity interviews Marcus has given to reputable publications, the authors shamefully throw Marcus curveballs. (“What’s your worst experience of being thrown out?” “Do you feel like you’re stealing?”) But it was his recent and disastrous reddit ama that piqued my interest. For those of you who don’t know how reddit ama’s work, they are essentially a forum for regular people to ask famous people questions in real time. A celebrity logs onto reddit, instructs users to “Ask Me Anything,” and spends the next several minutes answering questions. I’ve read hundreds of ama’s, and Marcus’ is easily the most cringe-worthy one I’ve come across. When asked about the film’s validity, Marcus either ignored the question entirely, gave an obviously rehearsed answer, or replied with snark. If you check out the ama, you’ll see that nearly every one of Marcus’ answers are hidden because they’ve been down voted (the opposite of a Facebook “Like”) by reddit users.
Obviously, the reddit community wasn’t buying what Marcus was selling. They called bullshit, and Marcus didn’t have a convincing retort. Marcus has said that the licensing fees for his film were picked up by MTV (who came on as a distributor after the film was completed, which is quite common for independent films). But I’m still skeptic about the overall legitimacy of the film as a documentary (it’s very interesting, for example, that the film doesn’t appear to have an IMDb page).
But does it matter if Marcus’ documentary is more staged than spontaneous? Film is a medium based on manipulation. The individual components of a film – music, cinematography, editing, to name a few – are designed to manipulate us into feeling a certain way. The stringed instruments cue up, and we’re manipulated to feel emotional. The film cuts frantically, and we’re manipulated to feel excited. Documentaries are no different. My favorite documentarian, Werner Herzog, openly admits that many of his documentaries implore staged and rehearsed sequences, yet they are disguised in a manner that, as Herzog says, “Strives for greater truth.” Most every documentarian has staged a scene or “performance” in their career. Does that make me feel slightly cheated? Yeah, sure. But does it invalidate the entire film? Hopefully, no.
Whether you roll with it or call bullshit, it’s up to you to decide how much slack to give No Cameras Allowed. I can honestly say that, real or not, I enjoyed most everything about the film. It made me laugh (two words: Acid Chris), it made me cry (two words: rope swing), and, above all, it filled me with a great sense of inspiration. You can stage sneaking into a concert and you even can lie about licensing songs, but you can’t manipulate shot composition of a live event. Nor can you cheat polished editing. No Cameras Allowed looks great, is cut together brilliantly, and is factual proof that if you own a digital camera (or five), you can manipulate your footage into something quite entertaining. Real or not, No Camera Allowed is a film of its time. B+
No Cameras Allowed is currently available for rent on iTunes, and will air on MTV Aug. 29.
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