Is a documentary about illegal art necessarily illegal itself? That’s a question German courts will have to decide after Berlin’s transit authority sued local documentary filmmakers over the movie Unlike U, which offers a fascinating look into the phenomenon of trainwriting — the act of painting graffiti on local subways and Metro trains. The filmmakers however didn’t want to wait for a verdict and decided to release their entire movie for free online a few days ago. “As we spent a lot of time and put in a lot of lifeblood on working on that movie we would like to give everybody the opportunity to see the outcome,” they write on their site.
The legal spat ensued after the BVG transit authority sent cease-and-desist letters to both the filmmakers and their distributor, arguing that they should have obtained filming permits for footage shot at train stations and on other premises owned by BVG. The filmmakers responded by saying that they didn’t actually shoot any of the numerous clips that show how masked graffiti artists rush onto platforms, sneak through underground tunnels and climb over high-voltage electric third rails. Instead, all of the footage was submitted to them by the more than two dozen crews responsible for the graffiti shown in the movie.
The filmmakers contextualized this raw footage with a number of interviews both with graffiti artists as well as law enforcement officials who pursue them — and the interviews openly touch on subjects like fatal accidents as well as legal actions taken against people who get caught. “You get to know each other,” comments one masked artist about the relationship between the scene and police officers.
Of course, one can have differing opinions about graffiti, especially when it’s applied to third-party property — and I realize that even me using the term artist in this context may open me up to criticism.
However, to me, the bigger issue is that BVG is trying to fight windmills: With digital cameras being readily available to graffiti crews, there’s no way to prevent footage of trains getting repurposed as moving canvases popping up on YouTube and similar sites. In fact, this has been going on for years. Now to turn against filmmakers who put all of this into context — and include dissenting voices — is more than questionable.