When people think of Peru, they imagine archeological sites like Machu Picchu and delicious food, but few outsiders know that in Lima, the nation’s capital, is the largest film library in Latin America. The collection is housed inside a truly unlikely place: a shopping center. But not just any shopping center. Polvos Azules, a 30-year-old market, started when immigrants from rural regions of the country came to Lima and became street sellers in order to survive.
The largest film library in Latin America began when rural immigrants came to Lima to survive.In the 1990s, the municipality of Lima reached an agreement with the merchants: due to a change in municipal codes, they could no longer sell their goods in the streets, so the city government purchased a brick-and-mortar shopping center in the popular La Victoria district. Now, they sell everything from clothes and shoes to computers and video games.
Most of the time, the electronic products are smuggled from neighboring countries to evade paying taxes. Similar tactics are used with counterfeit luxury clothing brands. But one of the most interesting characteristics of the shopping center is the presence of bootleg films, generally offered on DVD and Blu-ray.
Of course, bootleg films are offered in many other cities in Latin America and the entire world, but most places only offer big, American studio films for purchase. In Polvos Azules, though, there is a special place called Pasaje 18 where four stores specialize in independent and classic films. The stores are often visited by film critics, university students, and curious tourists. You can find the entire filmography of American indie auteurs like Richard Linklater or Wes Anderson, in addition to the old European cinematic classics.
However, since these stores are in Lima, many of the clients – particularly the foreign ones – are interested in exploring Peruvian and Latin American cinema. In 2013, the 2010 winner of the Palm d’Or at Cannes, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, visited the shopping complex. Around the time of the Lima Film Festival, many directors also visit the stores – some even leave their copies of their own films, while others take pictures with the sellers. Pasaje 18 has become a hotbed for exposure to new international artistic talent, as well as old classics and niche, underground masterpieces.
Pasaje 18 is not a secret. Vice made a documentary about it, and it’s also been featured in a Peruvian web series called Los Cinefilos (The Cinephiles). If someone reads tourist blogs about Lima, this part of Polvos Azules is featured prominently. But there’s also a political side to the success of Pasaje 18.
What about Intellectual Property and Copyright?
I’m not claiming that selling pirated films is a political act per se, nor a fully accepted one, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Patent lawyers come in firmly on one side, arguing that intellectual property should be protected by the state as property rights, while many principled libertarians and tech-savvy progressives oppose conflating intellectual property as property rights.
Even if someone wanted to buy an original DVD or Blu-Ray, they couldn't, thanks to monopolies and import restrictions.Libertarian lawyer Stephen Kinsella, for example, argues that the history of intellectual property is the history of the state creating monopolies – both in patents and copyrights used – to restrict new creations. Irish academic and journalist John Naughton echoed these ideas in The Guardian, arguing that current copyrights are based on previous cultural inventions. So, from a strict and logically consistent point of view, they are not complete innovations.
In fact, copyright laws are often pushed by special interests like big movie studios and music labels rather than local content creators. Rather than being a free market idea, intellectual property laws are one of the most outrageous forms of protectionism and crush creativity and innovativeness.
Despite some strong persuasions, there is still not a complete consensus among libertarians over the topic of intellectual property. Another prominent libertarian lawyer, Richard Epstein, has argued in support for intellectual property using two main arguments: physical property rights are similar to non-physical property rights, and intellectual property generates a social surplus. However, views are changing rapidly on this issue. Even John Stossel, who by no means would be considered a radical libertarian, has questioned the premises of intellectual property laws. Many libertarians, in fact, are not complete intellectual property abolitionists: in a debate in the Reason headquarters, Brink Linday of the Cato Institute argued that, while not an abolitionist, he wasn’t particularly in favor of trade agreements (including intellectual property clauses) because Third World countries have very few products with intellectual property and these laws would likely only benefit large corporations.
Offering what the Market Is Demanding
In Peru’s case, even if someone wanted to buy an original DVD or Blu-Ray, they simply couldn’t because there are no regular movie stores like there are in other places, and there are harsh restrictions on imports. Many police operatives seize all potentially pirated films, including the ones that don’t have copyrights, like the films from Latin America. More recently, Peruvian directors have started to sell original DVDs there and, while police intrusions have stopped, it isn’t clear what will happen in the future.
While there are massive multiplexes in Peru, they offer mostly American blockbusters, leaving people without the options of non-American or independent films. The film distributors that control the market prefer to show any mainstream American film, even if it tanks, rather than take the risk on an indie or foreign movie. Pasaje 18 has solved that problem by offering what the market is demanding, even when the monopolies don’t want to provide it.