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Guerrilla Documentary: Clandestine Footage

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/4/2011

On the battlefields of rebel filmmaking using illegally acquired footage may be useful, but dangerous. Learn about how to employ these clandestine videos in an effective and safe way. Disclaimer: This article is not intended to condone or encourage any illegal activity, whether state or federal.

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    Those Who Trespass

    When producing the guerilla documentary you are likely going to be discussing topics with a radical or subversive bent. These often skate the line of public acceptability, and as part of the general analysis may even resort to things of a not completely legal nature. Though it may not be advisable, both for legal and safety reasons, to get footage of restricted locations or events yourself; there are hundreds of sources that have already done this for you.

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    Using The Right Kind Of Footage

    The most important thing to know is how to use the footage that you have found. Your rights, as well as the access to footage, depends on exactly what you are looking for. Since clandestine footage is usually defined as footage that may have been obtained illegally and usually does not have an author attached to it, its use is almost never a copyright violation. Unless you are going directly to the source or have an intermediary organization that is willing to give you the raw footage you might have to resort to using compilations of footage that you find online. For example, Animal Liberation Front videos are often recorded by people who take direct action against animal exploitive industries. In such cases cells may videotape themselves releasing animals from a commercial fur farm, destroying a live vivisection laboratory, or setting fire to the headquarters of a logging operation. In these cases the tapes are then sent anonymously to press organizations, such as the Animal Liberation Front Press Office, who then use them in press releases that go out to media internationally. It is often difficult to get this footage, but there are hundred of compilation videos that you can find online with a little effort. Usually these are edited to music, and include other material such as news real footage and interviews. To use this footage you simply have to identify what videos are strictly the ALF footage and then separate that. Make sure that each video clip you show is in its entirety and does not have any cuts or alterations made to it by the previous editor because that will make it an original creative work. Once you have these little unaltered pieces you can then edit them together at your own discretion. The producers of these videos may have rights over them, but they cannot over the raw footage. As long as you are using clips that have not had any independent artistry done to them outside their original context then you are free to use them.

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    Deep Throat

    If you are getting the footage directly from the producer of the video then you could be in some hot water. If they give it to you then you have a connection with the person and may be compelled to give up your source. There are many laws that protect journalists from revealing sources, but in recent years these have been usurped for reasons of ‘national security.’ It is best to have them remain anonymous and to place the videos in locations where you can pick them up alone. The less you know about the producer the better.

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    Its a Steal

    Clandestine footage can also mean footage that was stolen or reproduced illegally. This could be things like classified government videos, security tapes, and other things of a sensitive nature. There are many journalistic and artistic situations when a documentarian may feel the ethical imperative to use this footage, but it is still a difficult road. Again you must maintain complete anonymity between you and the person delivering the material. If it is a matter of government record your rights as a journalist and filmmaker may not matter, so anonymous authorship may be required. Normal government videos are often public domain, which can even extend to police and military videos. Often times surveillance videos that were used in public investigations are illegally obtained, but they can still be utilized once they are obtained and put into the public record. The best way to do this is to obtain the video and then post it anonymously on a public forum, such as YouTube. Once it is up there you can use the video, citing that you received it from that public forum. Private videos are not as difficult to use, but unless they prove something of significant social or legal importance then it is leaving you unnecessarily open financially and ethically.

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    Keep Your Eyes Pealed

    The Internet is flooded with clandestine footage of a political nature, so it is best to scour around as much as you can. Many publications and organizations that promote certain viewpoints, from social responsibility to fringe radicalism, may be able to connect you with certain amounts of footage. In these cases it is important to be respectful and intimate with them, even if you do not agree with the foundations of their stance. No matter what topic you are addressing you will not be able to produce a quality film without understanding and showing compassion for all viewpoints and individuals involved.