A new documentary explores Mac users' almost fanatical loyalty to their computers and to the brand.
By AKIN AJAYI
Apple computer enthusiasts tend to set themselves apart from other brand devotees by the boundless devotion - some may describe it as religious fervor - with which they identify with the product, and with the company. Filmmaker Kobi Shely, director of the recently released documentary MacHEADS, first came across this passion in 2000, when he moved to New York to study film at Hunter College.
"I needed to buy a computer for film editing work, and was unsure whether opt for a PC or Mac," he explains. "I didn't have a lot of money and was inclined toward choosing a PC for this reason. But when I mentioned this to a friend - a Mac user - he offered to give me money toward purchasing a Mac! He was so confident about the brand that he was determined that I should buy one too. And the money? He told me not to worry, that he was sure I would want to pay him back some day."
Shely, as his friend expected, was impressed by his choice. "Suddenly, I could complete technical editing tasks on my computer at home. Previously, I could only do this using huge, expensive professional equipment."
Still, he didn't give the evangelism with which he had been converted to the Mac much thought until he encountered it again, six years later. "I was shooting my first short feature, and we had stopped filming for a short coffee break. Suddenly, my cameraman stormed into the room and announced that Apple had made it possible to run Windows on Macs. It started a huge argument."
Shely was at first irritated, as the debate distracted attention away from the project at hand. "But then, I was struck by the passion with which the Mac users argued their case, that their product was the superior one. And I realized that I might be onto something."
Shely did some research, and was surprised to find that there had been no in-depth cinematic exploration of the extensive fan base that surrounded - and to some extent, defined - the Mac computer. "No one had actually made a film about the subject. There were documentaries about the technology of the Mac, about [Apple founder] Steve Jobs, but nothing about the people most intimately connected to the product, the Mac fanatics."
And so the idea for MacHEADS was born.
Premiered in January at the influential MacWorld Expo consumer fair in San Francisco, MacHEADS is a documentary about "fanaticism and unconditional devotion to a corporate brand." Filmed over the course of a year across the US, it traces the history of the Macintosh computer through the growth of its fan base, the disparate collective of individuals who have consistently championed the brand since its launch in 1983.
The film is first and foremost about community. "I wanted to create a cultural document, an exploration of the past, present and future of this community, what I call the MacHeads." But as filming started, at the 2007 MacWorld Expo, Shely witnessed what turned out to be a pivotal moment in the community's relationship with Apple. At the Expo, Apple launched the iPhone, a functional device and a gadget that, like its predecessor, the iPod, has since captured the imagination of a huge audience beyond the core Apple community; and it announced that it was dropping the word "computer" from its corporate name, henceforth becoming simply "Apple Inc."
"It was the end of an era... it seemed to symbolize the whole transformation of Apple as we knew it," Shely suggests.
The two events signified, implicitly, the desire by Apple to move beyond the core community and into the mainstream, in effect distancing itself from the very people whom had championed the brand for two decades. For this reason, MacHEADS becomes more than an observational account of the relationship between the brand and its fans, and asks what, to many Mac users, is perhaps the ultimate question: Is Apple losing faith in the community it so carefully nurtured, and becoming just another brand?
Shely doesn't think that there is a straightforward answer to the question. "Apple's philosophy when it started was of bringing the personal computer to the people, in a sense championing the underdog."
This was a message that particularly resonated with what was then a small core of enthusiasts, people who identified with the concept of making computing accessible, who in time coalesced into a close-knit community of passionate advocates of the Mac over other computing systems.
This strategy was useful in placing the Mac as a credible alternative to the hegemony of the PC, but only for so long. "Apple, after a fashion, actually created this fan base. But is has become more complicated now, with the success of first the iPod and them the iPhone. Suddenly Apple has become cool, mainstream; it can dispense with the fanaticism that sustained it."
MacHEADS illustrates, with insight and with humor, the extremes to which the fan base take its devotion. One interviewee, the sex columnist and blogger Violet Blue, declares, deadpan, that she "has never knowingly slept with a Windows user"; in another scene we see a Mac owner cradling her computer, about to be deposited for repairs, with a tenderness usually reserved for a first-born child. Elsewhere, we meet hard-core devotees camping out overnight for the opportunity to be the first to buy the newest Apple product, and visit the DigiBarn Computer Museum, a 460-square-meter repository for all things connected to the Mac.
But the film also considers, analytically, the lengths to which enthusiasts allow their passion for a brand to dominate their lives. Ultimately, it is a credible attempt to engage with a fascinating anthropological question: Why would people allow an inanimate object to dictate so much about the way they live their lives, and why do they feel compelled to bring others into the fold? "I am fascinated by human behavior, and our need to form communities - to find a way to group ourselves according to shared values - is an integral aspect of human behavior," Shely says.
But why the Mac computer? "Computers are central to modern life, and - unlike Windows-based computers - Macs sell themselves on their capacity to integrate, through its products, with life itself."
Shely - together with his brother Ron, who co-wrote and produced the film - accumulated 90 hours of original footage and archive material over two years, before whittling it down to the 54 minutes of the final version. While he does not consider himself a Mac obsessive - "objectivity was very important for me when I was making this film" - making the film was certainly a labor of love, given that it was made on the comparatively small budget of $120,000, and with no indication before completion that it would attract significant interest.
But since the premiere, it has received universally positive reviews across both mainstream and specialist trade media, as well as from the subject matter of the film, the MacHead community. "It is immensely gratifying, especially since it is my first full-length feature."
Initially released on the digital Amazon.com and iTunes platforms, it has topped the documentary charts in both formats. A full DVD release is forthcoming, and negotiations are ongoing for MacHEADS to be screened on television in Israel, Germany and other countries.
Shely came to filmmaking through a love for photojournalism. "When I was a teenager, I used to follow ambulances and police cars, looking for the 'good' picture." After army service, unsure about what he wanted to do next, he saw an advertisement for editing school and decided to check it out. "It was fascinating, I really enjoyed it. I had never been a film buff, going to the cinema and studying films obsessively, but I found that I was really attracted to the technical aspect of filmmaking, the editing."
Another inspiration was more intimate. "My mother's brother, whom I was named after, was killed during the Yom Kippur War, at the age of 19. Obviously I never knew him, but my thoughts of him have always been associated with a picture in my grandmother's home, a photograph of him with a camera in his hands." Shely pauses. "I've never really thought about it before now, but I suppose there is a subconscious identification of sorts."
After he started to work as an editing technician, he came across a stack of old film, 8-mm. reels shot by his uncle, in the family attic. "Of course, he has always been a major part of the family, but at the same time we never really talked about... what happened to him, the past. And I've always been very curious, by nature. So, restoring and editing these reels that he had shot into a short narrative was actually a way of getting to know him, of exploring long-forgotten family history."
While in the US, Shely also worked as an assistant editor with Scott Doniger, the Emmy-award winning editor, on the Turner Classic Movies documentary The John Garfield Story. He also directed two short films, The Ladder and Intervention, the latter winning an award at the San Francisco Brainwash Film Festival. But in 2005, he decided to return to Israel.
"It wasn't necessarily the obvious decision to make," Shely explains. "On the surface at least, living in the United States was the more straightforward option, especially in my career." But one influential factor was the opinion of his then girlfriend, now his wife. "We both knew that we wanted to raise our children at home, closer to family."
After returning to Tel Aviv, he worked in television for a year, directing promos and music videos, before taking the plunge into independent filmmaking.
Making MacHEADS while based here posed challenges, albeit not the obvious difficulties of filmmaking. "Israel, as a country, is remarkably supportive of independent filmmakers," he explains. "The problem, however, is that a lot of interest is focused on films that fall within a particular narrative vein - there is a bias toward films with political or social themes, and it is much easier for films of this nature to attract funding. So, raising the budget for MacHEADS was difficult. That said, I guess this is a challenge faced by any number of filmmakers who want to focus on subjects of broader appeal."
The success of MacHEADS points to interesting possibilities for independent filmmakers here, not least those who are interested in exploring issues outside the cinematic mainstream. "It is immensely satisfying, not just because people are interested in the content of the film itself, but because it also points out a new direction for independent filmmakers."
The choice to launch the film on digital download platforms was a deliberate one, he explains, but was something of a risk. "The traditional route for documentaries is the film festival route. But it can be exclusionary, with films selected at the discretion of the organizers, and filmmakers obliged to pay a fee even before consideration for inclusion."
Releasing MacHEADS initially on a digital platform was something of a risk, "but paid off, considering the very limited publicity, and potentially opens a new path for ambitious independent filmmakers."
Shely is now working on two separate documentary projects. The first is about Israeli women who accompany their partners to live abroad, and is in part influenced by personal experience with his wife. "I was conscious - even if I didn't experience it personally - of the difficulties that women face when they are obliged to live abroad, in a different culture, because of their partner's work. Often they don't even have the opportunity to fulfill themselves through the parallel development of their own careers." Preproduction has been completed, and a funding proposal is pending.
The second, still at an embryonic stage, is about the subject of money camps. Money camps? "In the United States, children, often between the ages of eight and 12, are sent to camp to learn about money - financial institutions, savings, investments. They play games with money, learn about the functions of money in modern society."
Shely is reticent about saying more at this stage, but observes that "the interesting thing is that many of the children are from immigrant backgrounds - their families want them to find a way into the American dream."
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