Big Apple's bureaucrats bite off more than they can chew

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2007, 12:00am

New York

New York City has been imposing a lot of new rules on its residents in recent years - rules on where, when and how to protest, where to smoke, on trans-fats in restaurant food, where to dance and how much noise you can make.

The list is now getting so long that civil liberties activists are questioning whether New York is now a city where the authorities have too much sway over people's freedom.

Others question whether New York is losing its character and catering only to the rich.

But last week, perhaps for the first time in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's five-year reign, the city indicated it may be forced to back away from a new plan to control its citizenry.

Its attempt to impose tough new regulations on independent filmmakers has led to public protests, media criticism, a petition, and perhaps most important of all - the production of a series of short films filled with scorn and a lot of biting humour that have been easily accessed on sites like YouTube.

The new rules would have forced any group of five people or more using a tripod for either film or still photography to get a permit from the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting if they planned to spend more than 10 minutes doing so - and that includes set-up time.

If there are only two involved in any film or photo-shoot - and that could be just someone with their model-wannabe girlfriend or boyfriend - they would be only allowed 30 minutes before requiring a permit. Not only that - to get the permit a filmmaker would need to have at least US$1 million in liability insurance. The city said it was responding to a court case resulting from the detention of Indian filmmaker Rakesh Sharma. He was held by police while filming without a permit in 2005 and subsequently refused a permit to film.

The draconian nature of the proposed rules, though, triggered fears the city was threatening the right to free expression. They also suggested some absurd bans on a variety of harmless activities.

Some questioned whether bird watchers who track the Pale Male hawk in and around Central Park - many of them similarly armed with high-powered cameras with tripods - could also risk being arrested.

And would the rules also bar wedding photographers who often take newlyweds to romantic spots for several hours of shooting? And what about tourists who linger too long in one spot?

A website called Picture New York Without Pictures of New York ( had running coverage of the campaign.

The media also started to turn against the city. The New York Daily News declared that 'City Hall's plan for requiring the camera-wielding public to get permits before shooting film or video on the streets is a turkey, a bomb, the bureaucratic equivalent of Waterworld. It's that mind-numbingly dumb.' And, MSNBC's Countdown programme dubbed the plan's architect, Julianne Cho, assistant commissioner for the MOFTB, the 'Worst Person in the World'.

'I don't know what is going to happen to the city's creativity if young and independent talent is going to be pushed out in favour of big productions that spend more here,' said Richard Davis, who works as media co-ordinator for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Centre.

Mr Davis, who has just completed a film on methamphetamine use, said that a community centre doesn't have the time to seek a permit every time it wants to film. It also destroys any spontaneity.

One group of filmmakers produced a rap video which included the lyrics: 'Proposin' new rules to try and get rid of me, A million in insurance just to cover liabilities!'

As the pressure built, and with more than than 30,000 signatures on a petition, the MOFTB issued a statement last Friday saying it would be redrafting the proposals and would take into account the feedback it had received.

The independent filmmakers and their supporters are declaring an initial victory, but much depends on how far the amendments go.