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The Canadian multimedia outfit Vice hits the big time

One of the founders of the Vice empire talks about taking on traditional media, Frankensteining and getting into North Korea.
From left, Ted Chung, Snoop Lion, Suroosh Alvi and Andy Capper attend the Reincarnated screening at the 2013 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Mark Davis / Getty Images for SXSW / AFP
From left, Ted Chung, Snoop Lion, Suroosh Alvi and Andy Capper attend the Reincarnated screening at the 2013 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Mark Davis / Getty Images for SXSW / AFP

Suroosh Alvi is going to tell me how to get into North Korea. One of the founders of the Vice media empire, Alvi is casually well-dressed as he leads a tour through the labyrinthine office/studios and editing suites, a conglomeration of spaces they’ve been “taking over and Frankensteining together” in a Brooklyn complex.

Which, simply put, is the Vice way: unconventional, punk-corporate. But, like Frankenstein, enough to strike fear in the hearts of its mainstream competition. Which, at this point, would seem to be 60 Minutes and the rest of the established investigative TV news media. Which leads me to wonder: how did this happen?

Founded as a street-culture magazine in Montreal called Voice of Montreal in 1994 by Alvi, Shane Smith and Gavin McInnes, Vice has morphed into a conglomerate. The Vice YouTube channel has more than 2 million subscribers; there is a record label and a documentary film division; and now Vice TV is taking on the majors with international immersive newsmagazine segments filmed from Pyongyang to Cairo, launched on HBO this April with what Alvi calls “the Boardwalk Empire treatment”.

“When you see a billboard on Sunset Boulevard in LA, or on a cab, it just makes it very real,” Alvi says. “We did get that major-league Boardwalk Empire treatment from HBO in terms of marketing. And then you feel the effects, with the amount of people hitting us up on Twitter. This is real. The machine works. And it’s cool if what you put inside the machine works, as well.”

What they’ve put in: 15-minute segments that are off the grid, covering stories that have not been pursued by the mainstream. Toxic waste in Iraq; oil pirates in the Niger delta; the “hijacking” of the Arab Spring in Egypt; the “world’s most dangerous place” near Kashmir; all of it “authentic POV content”, Alvi says. “We’ve been trying to report on the unreported since we started.”

But before we get to North Korea and the unprecedented segment they shot there, and the extraterrestrial meeting between the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un  and the retired NBA basketball freak Dennis Rodman –  well, it’s best to start at the beginning.

Voice of Montreal quickly became Vice and just as quickly, notorious for its content, viz: Do’s and Don’ts, a photo montage of people on the street wearing/doing odd, even humiliating things, accompanied by caustic and vulgar commentary. Articles took a similarly ironic, post-modern, even taunting perspective. A young audience loved it. The hip advertisers who covet them loved it and filled the pages with street-cred ads bigger magazines would have killed for. The team found an investor for a “multi-channel brand”. After an ensuing rift developed, they bought him out and what followed was a move to Brooklyn, international success and ambition. They built the magazine audience into a near-million readership in Canada, the UK, Australia and Japan, “because to go ‘big in America’ then [would have] meant putting the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the cover – something that we would never do”.

Regardless, the mainstream came calling. In 2005, MTV execs were concerned their kids weren’t watching the news. “The median age of people watching news was something like 63,” Alvi says. “And the MTV kids were watching things like Pimp My Ride.”

“So we picked up cameras.” Their idea was a “Jackass meets 60 Minutes” approach, which became the Heavy Metal in Baghdad film and the Vice Guide to Travel, visiting a different kind of “hot spot”: Chernobyl, Beirut, the slums of Rio… “And I had access to this gun market in Pakistan…”

Of course. Mum and the guns. Alvi was born in Toronto and grew up in Minneapolis and Montreal, but his parents are from Lahore, Pakistan. Both are retired academics, his mother having worked as a professor of Islamic Studies. Alvi had visited Pakistan every year as a child and considers himself Pakistani-Canadian. On a visit to Peshawar with his family in the early 2000s, he says, “I was bored one day and thought: ‘We’re so close to the Pakistan-Afghan border – where’s the action?’ And my dad said: ‘Well, there used to be this pretty safe gun market…’”

So when the Vice Guide to Travel was happening, Alvi called his mother, who knew the governor of that Pakistani province. “Mum, I want to film there, can you call your guy?’ It was getting sketchy then. I drove through it a year ago and it was very scary.”

But he went, looking for the risky, untold story. And perhaps the key component tying together the desire to chase down the untold fringe story and the access to the same is ethnicity. The “outsider” identity.

“Maybe that’s why I identified with punk rock at 15,” Alvi says. “We had experienced a lot of racism in Toronto, my brother and I – ‘Paki this, Paki that’, getting beaten up in the 1970s. But when we moved to Minnesota, we were ‘exotic’. There weren’t many South Asians there at all then.”

So he’d already learnt that his ethnicity could mean both exclusion and exoticism. Might as well see where it would take him.

Ah, yes. North Korea. Let’s go there, where no one can go.

“There was a Chinese tour group that had been taking people in for years,” Alvi says, “but there were a lot of rules attached. You couldn’t take anything in with you. Zero access, off the grid. You leave your phones and everything at this weird place in China.” The Vice guys had already been there, and had surreptitiously filmed some footage with a camera. But that was nothing compared with the return trip. “Things there have changed a lot. My guys on this last trip had internet in their hotel rooms. And a phone.” What hasn’t changed is the Vice guerrilla mentality.

“We came up with this weird idea, knowing that Kim Jong-un  is a huge Chicago Bulls fan.

“On the previous trip, Shane had seen a basketball signed by Michael Jordan, given by Madeline Allbright to Kim Jong-il. We knew that era of the Bulls was a big deal in the Kim family. So it was pitched that we’d go in there with the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman – and the North Koreans signed off on it.

“And Kim Jong-un  showed up. My guys partied at his house. It’s crazy. World leaders can’t meet him, CBS can’t get him, and my guys partied with him. It’s totally insane.

“There are no rules. That’s our advantage...we don’t know what the traditional rules of journalism are. We’re not stunt journalists, though. What I find interesting is that the content of the segments is not that different from what we did when we were starting out in terms of the aesthetic. We’ve always tried to tell a compelling story and deliver authentic content. The point is to fill a void, and that was always the point of Vice when we started it in Montreal. It’s just a different medium now, and the void is global.”

“At the beginning, we were so broke, we couldn’t tell the stories we wanted to,” Alvi says. “Now we can get on a plane. That’s a dream come true.

“We’ve proven we were on to something.”

 

artslife@thenational.ae

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Updated: June 3, 2013 04:00 AM

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