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Dead Men Tell No Tales

12 Dec 10
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Piracy is alive and well in Indonesia.

Not the sort of piracy we read about today off the coast of Somalia, or even more recently closer to India.

That’s not to say that Indonesia is not acquainted with piracy on the high seas – this region has a long, colorful history of piracy.

Over the years this region has produced much of the world’s more expensive spices. Monsoons provide just the right amount of water for pepper plants. Volcanic ash and the equatorial heat create the perfect conditions for many other spices. And their many uses in Europe and other parts of the old world long made them an expensive commodity, so a worthwhile target for criminals.

Before the days of refrigeration, some spices were valued for their preservation qualities, as well as for the ability to make salted food palatable during a long hard winter. In Elizabethan times, it was believed that nutmeg could ward off the plague. In ancient Egypt, cassia and cinnamon were essential for embalming. Spices were a major commodity, and many of them came from the Malay Archipelago.

This availability of spices attracted people interested in making fast money from international trade. And the region’s geography made it a perfect place for pirates hoping for a share of the loot.

The Straits of Malacca and the Sunda Strait are what naval officers call “choke points;” an area of water squeezed between two points of land, where all shipping traffic must travel. It’s a term still used by naval planners today. Water traffic funneled into a choke point is vulnerable to attack, and the areas around these straits are filled with nearby coastal streams that can, and did, provide shelter for marauders. So for many years coping with pirates was simply a cost of business in the region.

Today, while some shipping piracy continues, especially in nearby Malaysia, the real action does not come from ransoming cargo, but rather from intellectual theft.

Here in Bandung that translates into movies, music and video games. Street stalls display copies of the latest movie releases, often before those same titles appear in the area’s cinemas. New titles for the Play Station 2 and Xbox are everywhere.

Most of us know someone who simply has to be the first person to see the latest movie. Remember those long lines for Star Wars, or Harry Potter releases? I never quite understood the costume thing.

Soon after arriving though we quickly learned to avoid the first copies of new movies. These are for die-hard movie fans only. That’s because they’re made even before a DVD or VHS copy of the movie is available to the public (yes, some movies we’ve seen have been recorded off VHS tape – the visible tape creases and video noise are unmistakable).

It’s curious how this can happen. I first thought that perhaps a stolen print was intercepted on its way to a movie theatre, or that someone inside a movie company or distribution firm was sneaking out an electronic copy. In reality though, it’s decidedly more low-tech than that. Someone, most likely located in nearby China or Hong Kong or Singapore, all of which have been considered at times to be major piracy hubs, simply sneaks into a theatre with a movie camera. They sit in the front row, point a camera at the screen, and that’s all there is to it – the first screening copy.

Before arriving here I had heard of such prints, and in your mind you think you can imagine what it’s like to watch one. But you’d probably be wrong. It’s honestly something you should experience at least once in your life, preferably by watching a comedy.

The first giveaway that you may be about to watch a hand-held movie is the previews they sometimes leave on at the beginning. Some of the videos even start during the “please turn off your cellphones and do not smoke in the theatre” warnings that are screened before every show.

The technical quality of the video really varies. Some are almost crystal clear, obviously shot with a high-end camera by someone worried about producing a good image. Others are so out of focus and sound so terrible that I suspect the original was recorded on an iPhone.

It’s the cinematic equivalent of all those horrible news videos submitted by just about everyone with a cellphone now when they witness a traffic accident or a police chase. Low on content, high on annoyance.

Then there’s the framing. It’s important for the secret videographer to be all the way down front, to prevent a lot of heads from appearing at the bottom of the video (although some movies have just that). But if you’re all the way down front, it’s impossible to have a wide enough lens to take in the whole screen, so the video is cut off on the edges, often missing much of the important action.

The worst part though is the audio. No matter how good the video might be, the audio is always bad – it’s next to impossible to record good audio when your camera is hidden up your sleeve. And in today’s movie theatres, with surround sound systems, some speakers are on the side walls. This portion of the audio is either missing entirely, or comes into the camera system with a slight delay, causing some echoing.

And then there’s the crowd. People don’t sit quietly while watching movies here. Indonesian theatres have surprisingly comfortable seats that can recline a bit while letting you collapse into deep cushions. These seats are often more comfortable, actually, than those found in many homes, including ours. This comfort level apparently makes people feel right at home, so they seem to behave as if they are.

Some people smoke, even though you’re not supposed to. One father, sitting in the row behind us during the latest Harry Potter movie, proceeded to explain, using a loud voice, the whole movie to his young son sitting next to him (who was really too young to be watching the movie in the first place) and didn’t stop through the whole movie.

Some people even take cell calls in the theatre. And one person near me during one screening would call a friend to provide periodic movie updates. I suspect it’s this stuff that leads people to buy those pirated movies in the first place.

So now imagine what those secretly taped movies are like to watch.

We did watch one – the kid’s movie, “Despicable Me.” I purchased this when we first arrived here before I knew about these early releases. What did I know – I thought we were buying a legitimate copy.

Watching it (on our large screen TV that came with the house), I flashed back to the old Mystery Science Theatre 3000 show. You know, the show with the robot and his friends sitting at the bottom of the picture sharing comments with each other about the movie.

People were sitting at the bottom of our screen as well. They would regularly shift position. Someone would leave periodically for snacks, coming back a few minutes later with a big box of popcorn and a soda. And that wasn’t even the most annoying part of the experience.

That was reserved for the audio. The sound was muddy, sometimes so much so that you had to back the video up for a second try at understanding what was being said (subtitles really help, although often they too are quite hilarious). The best part though was the laughter. I still don’t know how this was possible, but somehow the audience knew beforehand what was going to happen. So just before anything funny occurred (the movie is a family comedy) they would begin to laugh. And laughter also came at the worst possible moments – say, when someone says “I’m going to kill you.”

This was the last time we watched an early release movie.

We have our own store we visit. It’s located in the Pasteur HyperPoint, on Jalan Pasteur not far from where the kids go to school. It was the first place we bought movies, and as it turns out it’s also the best movie place we’ve found.

I’ve become friends with one of the employees, who works six days a week (a typical work schedule here, where good jobs are scarce and employers take advantage of that fact) so he’s always around when we stop by. He is fascinated by the kids, especially Adam’s long hair. And although he’s young he is a movie and jazz aficionado. His recommendations have always been excellent, introducing us to such musical artists as the British jazz singer Adele. And he watches out for us, telling me when a movie is still a hand-held version rather than a DVD copy. When a particular video is bad, they’ll even take it back and give me a new one.

To be honest, I don’t know for certain that all of these movies are pirated. They come in plastic bags with the same color inserts you would find with a legal copy, even though the text is not always the typical copy you might expect. The blurbs from reviewers are often hilarious. One example: “Justice is fast – revenge is fatter.” The DVDs themselves have the appropriate label stamped on them as well. Perhaps the real giveaway though is the price. If we buy several at a time (which we always do), they can cost as little as 5800Rp, or about 75 cents each.

Finding a legitimate movie store though is just about impossible, and with 70 cent movies for sale, rentals are nowhere to be found. Even our Netflix live-streaming account won’t work overseas. So for now, we’re stuck with our local store, the good service, and the sometimes bad movies.

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