The fires from last month's riots in France have barely been extinguished, but the tensions that gave rise to them already have been given the artistic treatment -- in a short film that posted to the Web last week, using video game characters instead of human actors.
The film, called "The French Democracy," is inspired by real-life events that led up to the riots. It tells the story of Muslim French citizens of African descent who face harassment and discrimination in their day-to-day lives and who reach the boiling point when news surfaces about two teenagers who were electrocuted in a transformer station while hiding from the police.
"If they have the opportunity to shoot you, they will," one angry character says -- in the film's broken-English subtitles -- about the French police as tensions rise. "They will do it because we are different."
The 13-minute film was made using a new computer game called The Movies that lets players take on the role of movie moguls charged with managing a fictional studio. Players can go through the 20-hour game without ever creating their own project from scratch, but those who are so motivated can write and create their own films with sets and "actors" provided by the game. The game's designer, Lionhead Studios, has made online space available so that amateurs can upload their projects or rate and discuss each others' works.
Directing a movie of one's own
Lionhead Studios founder Peter Molyneux said in a phone interview that his vision when designing The Movies was to turn gamers into aspiring moviemakers.
"One of the dreams for the game was that as you play, you realize you could direct a movie of your own," he said.
But some early fans say they are coming to this title from the opposite direction; they like the game well enough -- but mainly they just want to make movies.
David Riedel, a student in Berlin, said he picked up the game as a way to learn some film-making chops because it's so tough to get into film school in his home country. His most recent project, called "Am Ende der Distanz" (At the End of Distance), is about a guy heartbroken over a recent breakup. The film was posted Saturday and spent this week at the top of the virtual box-office charts on Lionhead's Web site at http://www.movies.lionhead.com/ .
"The French Democracy" was made by Alex Chan, a 27-year-old who lives in the suburbs of Paris. In an e-mail this week, he said he doesn't particularly consider himself a film buff or even a huge game fan. He almost didn't buy The Movies because he would have had to sell his favorite PlayStation 2 game, God of War, to pay for it.
Chan decided to get The Movies with the idea of telling a story about the recent events in France, some of which started near the town where he lives.
"The main intention of this movie is to bring people to think about what really happened in my country by trying to show the starting point and some causes of these riots," he wrote. The resulting film took him three or four days to complete, not including the time it took to get far enough in the game to unlock the movie-making tools he wanted to use.
'A fantastic step forward'?
Video game fans have made movies using games before but until recently, most have been written as inside jokes for people who already understand the language of the game world. The most popular online series, "Red vs. Blue," is set inside the Xbox game Halo and features a set of dimwitted space-marine types bumping up against the absurdities of the gameworld they are stuck in. The series gets about 1 million downloads per episode.
Though "The French Democracy" is a rough bit of work that might not win over many film critics, some folks are hailing it as a milestone for being the first politically motivated film in this newish and mostly obscure medium, called "machinima" by its fans. Hugh Hancock, who runs a Web site called Machinima.com, rated the piece as "a fantastic step forward."
Hancock said he thinks machinima will become an increasingly mainstream form of entertainment as computer graphics get increasingly sophisticated.
Molyneux, on the other hand, thinks that people prefer to see real people starring in their film entertainment. To that end, his company is developing a contest in which players of his game will have a chance to get their material turned into a film project with real actors-- a Project Green Light for the computer game world.
Chan, meanwhile, says he wants to make more serious films, but hasn't unlocked all of the game's movie-making tools that he wants to use yet. To make the next film he has in mind, he'll have to keep playing.