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Filmmakers Respond to the Threat of Censorship

Filmmakers Respond to the Threat of Censorship

We asked them to answer the following questions in any way they saw fit: Does the climate of terrorism and threats to artists worry you about the future of free speech in the U.S. and around the world? Do you find yourself censoring things in your own work because you worry about the backlash it could create?

Given the issue at hand, we felt it only appropriate to offer them unlimited space and to guarantee that their words would appear in their entirety. Below are their responses:

Dawn Porter (“Gideon’s Army”)

I’m working on a film about restrictions on abortion in Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. I have been shooting at abortion clinics around the country for more than a year, and regularly wade through protestors to film. Usually they assume I’m getting an abortion, or have a daughter at the clinic (as if I’m old!) On my last shoot, a protestor I’ve never met called out my name, I didn’t turn around, but did wonder how he knew me. I have one idea. In the process of publicizing the project and trying to raise desperately needed money to finish to support it I showed some clips at two public forums, one in New York and one in North Carolina. I know now that anti-choice bloggers attend these forums and then write about them. There are now stories about me in multiple anti-choice blogs — one with a picture – and here’s a quote:

“Another possibility is the eventual publicized death from an illegal abortion – which will tragically happen sooner or later – will be traced back to one of these illegal abortion pushers, like Dawn Porter or members of the National Network of Abortion Funds. We’ll see how long they keep smiling.”

I’m not self-censoring but I’m also not naive. The dangers are real and that’s why people like Laura Poitras and Ross Kaufman and Richard Rowley who put themselves in harm’s way to document stories that need documenting are essential.

Onur Tukel (“Summer of Blood”)

I’m not worried about the future of free speech. As long as stand-up comedians can continue making jokes about shit, sperm and rape, our intelligent culture can keep thriving the way it is.  I’m worried about the next big war. We’re eventually going to elect a President who thinks it’s necessary to blow somebody off the map. I’m guessing it’s going to be Iran. But it’ll be great for the U.S. economy.

I’ve never worried about backlash. I’m an outsider, so I can do whatever I want. I remember when we were going to war with Iraq, the mainstream artists were eerily silent on what the (Bush) Cheney Administration was doing. It was the outsiders who were protesting the war through their work. That shit was inspiring. To see really angry artists putting their outrage into their work. Years later, the mainstream artists caught up, but fuck them, they were too late. When things get dark, we get scared. We’re easier to control. The role of the artist has always been to resist this through expression.

Kim Longinotto (“Salma,” “Dreamcatcher”)

The fear and paranoia prompted by terrorist attacks, and intensified by the government and the media, is very disturbing. Most of all I fear the backlash for Muslim people.

I never censor anything in the films I make. I just try and make a film that is as honest and as engrossing as possible. I think we have to trust our audience. I see the stories as variations of “The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”). By showing people intimately and honestly, we can create a link between them and the audience that is potentially life-enhancing.

Mor Loushy (“Censored Voices”)

I must admit it is hard for me to talk about films and censorship in Israel in light of the monstrous attacks in Paris, as I believe there is no place for comparison between the actions of terror attacks taken out by religious extremists and the ongoing wars between Israel and Palestine.

As for me, I never thought of censoring myself, and the only reason I ever had to censor parts of my film was the implication it would have on my characters — whether my film would harm them or put them at risk.

In my opinion, Israel over the past years has become more and more nationalistic in the street and in the media. Our censorship is becoming self-censorship — each film that shows the pain of the other side, or dares to criticize our army or government, is categorized as “Anti-Israeli” and even as a “Threat.” This is very disturbing, because a nation with almost total freedom of speech must use it to raise harsh questions about our way of life — so we can better see ourselves —  to criticize our own government so it knows it is being watched and to shed light on every dark spot in our history, so we won’t repeat it. I feel it is my duty to uncensor the voices in my films, especially in light of the Israeli reality, the reality of an ongoing occupation. I feel it is my duty to seek the “truth.” The minute that I censor myself because public and mainstream media is demanding we show only the pretty side of Israel, we will cease to be filmmakers. As Amos Oz said in the recording of my film “Censored Voices”: “If we succeed to tell ourselves, and maybe to  others, what exactly pains us here and now, we might not bring service to the national morale, but we might bring a small service to truth.”

READ MORE: When is a Foreign Film Too “Foreign” for Western Audiences?

Kel O’Neill & Eline Jongsma (“Empire”)

We expect that the filmmaking community will respond to the Charlie Hebdo murders in a characteristically fragmented way, and that the gutsy filmmakers will continue to hang themselves out there like they always do. The conditions we’re facing are nothing new: it has always taken a measure of bravery to play with volatile ideas, and to poke at ridiculous power structures. Calling people out on their shit can be a dangerous vocation, whether you’re a serious documentarian or goofball provocateur. Reprisals come—just ask Laura Poitras, or, better yet, ask Theo Van Gogh’s corpse.

Evading people who are trying to shut you up is just part of filmmaking. In our experience, the biggest enemies of free expression have not been balaclava-clad maniacs waving guns around, but bureaucrats and executives acting on behalf of some imagined audience that must be shielded… you know, for their own good. We’ve had partner organizations drop out on us because they didn’t like our choice of subject matter, and we’ve lost potential funding because we wouldn’t bend our vision to the whim of the people holding the money bags. It’s not always easy to take the hard road and stick with your vision, but doing so teaches you to be self sufficient. A two-person crew doesn’t need much from anybody, which means a two-person crew can walk out on a funder and still find a way to make the story they want to make.

Since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we’ve been thinking a lot about a young man named Yaakov Baruch. Yaakov is a law professor of Dutch-Indonesian heritage who lives on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Yaakov’s Dutch ancestors were Jewish, and he carries on their religious traditions to this day, despite the fact that Judaism is illegal in Indonesia. Yaakov practices openly, and, in doing so, often makes himself a target for the country’s prominent Islamic extremist fringe. The higher the threat level, the more defiant Yaakov becomes. He serves as the de facto rabbi of a tiny synagogue in mountains of Northern Sulawesi, and walks around town in a yarmulke.

Yaakov is a brave guy, and in 2011 we decided that his bravery—and contradictions—had to be documented in our project “Empire.” Others disagreed. Right before we were scheduled to shoot, the Indonesian NGO that was helping us coordinate the project dropped out, citing concerns over “cultural sensitivity.” The cultural arm of the Dutch embassy in Indonesia also refused to support the project despite initially expressing interest. We later found out that the diplomat in charge of the decision had a reputation for stifling cultural projects he saw as potentially controversial (he now works as human rights advisor to the UN).

In the end, we found another organization that was willing to help us out. We shot the piece about Yaakov, and then exhibited it a month later in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta. Our venue was the Jogja National Museum, a beautiful space founded and run by Prince Wironegoro, a well-loved Muslim monarch and patron of the arts. On the night of our opening, we feared protests by the local chapter of the Islamic Defenders Front, a group of extremists who make it their job to beat up religious minorities and protest cultural events. They never came. Perhaps they didn’t see our posters.

Since then, we’ve decided that the way to stay brave as documentary filmmakers is to film people braver than yourself. Some of it rubs off.

Jeta Amata (“Black November,” “Amazing Grace”):

I definitely worry about the future of free speech. I grew up during the military era in Nigeria when freedom of speech was a luxury. I know what it’s like to be worried of speaking up without getting punished or targeted for it.

The truth is YES. I find myself censoring things in my own work. I’m stubborn, I might be able to take the risk but I’d hate to endanger others attached to my work.

Robert Machoian (“God Bless the Child”) 

I don’t feel that the terrorism and threats really worry me about freedom of speech in the U.S and around the world. I guess mostly because I don’t find I work with confrontational material. To be honest, I think freedom of speech is being threatened in may other ways that for me are more concerning, the media constantly pushes ideas or events as if they are black and white: politics, religion, all the wonderful subjects that have such diversity and are such great platforms for learning, are being broken down to bits. That to me is more concerning. These tragic events are horrible. I don’t want to take away from that at all, just in reference to your question and freedom of speech there are bigger things at play then terrorist acts. I don’t censor my work at all. I think there is a need to have reverence for things that people consider so, even if I don’t. Personally I don’t address those topics, but it’s not out of censorship. Maybe it’s because I got in a fight when I was younger because of something someone said about my Mother, and since then that idea has always stuck with me.

READ MORE: “Citizenfour” Producers Urge Filmmakers to React to Paris Terror Acts

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