From the tightened security at the door to moderator Nick Fraser’s bluntly ominous litmus test for remaining in the room, this 90-minute discussion about sensitive material and documentary ethics certainly wasn’t for the timid. Even after the warning, everyone stayed put for the panel entitled “Watching What We Say: Censorship and Freedom of Expression in Documentary,” which took place last week at the Sheffield Doc/Fest. Fraser fostered a free exchange between panelists and audience members—a climate defined not by fear but by honest debate.
While hot-button films like “Citizenfour” and “Going Clear” were name-checked throughout, most of the discussion centered on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and on the costs of, and threats to, free speech in its considerable wake. It’s hardly a surprise, as those wounds are still very fresh, and some in the audience even knew the Charlie Hebdo contributors personally. And of the filmmakers and TV producers in town for the documentary film festival, most routinely have to make tough choices about publishing or broadcasting divisive content, choices that have only gotten tougher in recent months.
After director Ursula Macfarlane presented a clip from her work in progress film for Channel 4 about the Hebdo massacre, tentatively entitled “Two Days that Shook Paris,” Fraser turned to director Parvez Sharma, whose newest film “A Sinner in Mecca” is a first-person account of the filmmaker’s devout pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and Mecca, where he’s in constant risk because of his sexuality. Rounding out the panel, media attorney Patricia Sweeney-MacBride spoke about the legal risks, both in the UK and the U.S., surrounding publishing and airing sensitive material.
Among those who chimed in during the discussion were a French filmmaker whose offices were next door to Charlie Hebdo, a Danish filmmaker whose journalistic instincts for covering complex issues have been stymied by fears over violent retaliation, and Macfarlane’s own producer, who delivered a more defiant message regarding risky content. And throughout, Fraser, who’s the editor of BBC Storyville and a major presence at Sheffield and at doc festivals throughout the world, acted as both conductor and agitator. “Sorry, I’m playing the role of a rather impartial moderator,” he conceded at one point.
The following is a condensed account of the two major strands of conversation—the chilling, censorious effects of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the question of how and when to present shocking imagery.
On publishing or expressing offensive speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre:
Ursula Macfarlane: Like many liberal people in the Western world, freedom of expression to me is an absolutely crucial part of life—to who I am and how I want my society to be. That has not changed. And yet you meet people whose lives have been torn apart and traumatized by this, because their husband or partner or good friend was making cartoons. It’s a very difficult thing. I can’t say that Charlie Hebdo should never have done those cartoons—I don’t think that at all. But you look at someone who was massacred for effectively holding a pen, and then you speak to his wife, and behind every one of those people is a family, is an entire life. Do you put yourself in that position?
Parvez Sharma: There’s just no excuse at all for what happened [to the Charlie Hebdo contributors]. None. But I can understand that a large number Muslims would react negatively to the existence of images like this. As a child very early on, one of the first things I learned is that you do not depict the prophet. It’s a central tenet of Islam. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and they grew up in a belief system that does not allow them to see their own prophet. Because there’s god and there’s the individual and that’s it. Do people in the West have the right to do this, just because you can play around with religious authority figures from the other religions? It’s a question that most Muslims have not had a chance to debate amongst themselves.
Christoffer Guldbrandsen, Denmark TV, from the audience: In principle we need to exist on our freedom of expression, only. But in practice I would never depict Mohammed. I would never make a film around that subject matter. Not because I don’t think it’s relevant, but because I think it’s too dangerous. It’s a loss of freedom and it’s outright wrong. But it’s not been very long since—in Copenhagen at an arrangement very much like this—at a debate about freedom of speech a colleague of mine, a Danish documentary filmmaker, was killed just for sitting in the audience. It’s a threat. And it’s a great loss.
Parvez Sharma: It’s as simple as using our freedom of expression with responsibility. And that responsibility lies upon all of us, you and me as filmmakers, me as a Muslim filmmaker. It’s a difficult and challenging question, but not all Muslims are that dangerous. The majority aren’t savages with blood on their hands. But perhaps there also needs to be an understanding of why these images are problematic to most Muslims. Even freethinking Muslims like myself who attack Islam for what’s wrong with it.
Christoffer Guldbrandsen, Denmark TV: I don’t think we should be respectful. As journalists, as storytellers we do not need to be respectful. It’s sad what it has come to. Of course I wouldn’t even call it a minority of Muslims [who pose a violent threat]. These are very few, disturbed people.
Nick Fraser: The thought is that freedom means you don’t have to be responsible. Why should you be responsible in claiming your freedoms? The whole point of freedom is that you do what you want. Unless it’s to harm other people—that classic English utilitarian view. And you could say, well, they published [those] cartoons. But it doesn’t harm people. It pissed them off but it doesn’t harm people. Don’t you think being irresponsible is a good thing?
Parvez Sharma: I’m very responsible in my film. The film is about me coming out as a Muslim. It’s not about me coming out as a gay man—I did that already a long time ago. What I say at one point in the film is that it’s no longer a question of whether Islam will accept me, it’s a question of whether I will accept Islam. I feel comfortable completely with who I am and the religion I practice. But I know that in my lifetime that there is not going to be a Muslim opinion to be heard that Muslims like me can and should exist. Now, these discussions are happening. The problem is that while they’re happening in the West, they’re not necessarily happening in a mosque in Karachi in Pakistan. Because what you’re hearing in the mosque in Karachi in Pakistan during Friday sermon is anger against, say, the people who made the cartoons. And then you react in a particular way to that. The prophet Mohammed’s Islam adapted very easily to freedom of speech. The bastardization of Islam that exists today—and most of it comes from the Saudis, who successfully exported it all around the world—bears no resemblance to that original Islam. Freedom of expression and Islam had a very comfortable relationship in 7th century in Arabia.
On whether or not to publish or broadcast disturbing imagery and footage.
Nick Fraser: It’s the question about the ferocity of images and cruelty of human beings displayed that really causes me problems. That’s where I don’t know if censorship should be a part of things or not. Should there be blocks not just on saying things but on sharing things? I’m a failed free speech absolutist.
Ursula Macfarlane: I wonder about our showing the death of Ahmed Merabet, the police officer [in the work-in-progress “Two Days that Shook Paris”]. Many of you would have seen that clip on YouTube, but it has been taken down by the person who shot it because he was horrified about how it spread like wildfire. I wonder what this audience felt about whether we should show the moment.
Patricia Sweeney-MacBride: In the U.S. there could be issues of displaying footage of a family member—a family member could make a claim of emotional distress. You have to be careful not to run afoul of that law, and it’s different in every state. It’s terrible what happened to that man, but it’s [about] informing the public about the viciousness of the people who committed those murders. The cold-bloodedness. There’s an important message in displaying that footage.
Luc Hermann, of French TV’s “Premieres Lignes,” from the audience: None of the French networks showed those pictures. They either used out of focus or made it so that you just hear the sound. For two reasons: it’s a horrific picture, but also like in the U.S., the family could sue the networks. It created an amazing controversy on the Internet because the video was on YouTube and Facebook. And not well informed people starting saying there’s so much propaganda on the major networks that we’re seeing the real truth on the Internet. Conspiracy theories—and it’s still going on. A lot of pressure was put on the main channels for not showing these pictures.
Parvez Sharma: You see videos of ISIS chopping people’s heads off. We live in times where people have maybe become immune to it.
Patricia Sweeney-MacBride: We live in provocative times, and people are doing provocative things, and people have the right to have information about what’s going on.
Nick Fraser: People have a right to know about the horrifying things that human beings can do to each other.
Neil Grant, Executive producer at Films of Record, and producer of Macfarlane’s “Three Days that Shook Paris,” from the audience: I’m certainly in favor that we show the image. Indeed I think it’s a reality I feel duty bound to argue for. It’s a truth that we need to expose and bring people to, to ensure that it never happens again. I also was the executive producer for the Panorama Hebdo film, when the BBC was making a decision of whether they should show the [Hebdo cartoons] or not. I insisted that Panorama had a responsibility to show that image. And Panorama supported me in that. Not the least because of the impact of the atrocity of the murder, we had a responsibility to show what caused it. What caused it? Those cartoons. I also feel that way [about the] beheadings, and here I pushed and pushed when I was doing the Panorama show that we should show as much as we could. Not because I was a self-indulgent filmmaker masturbating over this gore. What I was doing was expose the reality. And I feel, as a journalist and filmmaker, a real responsibility to do that.
[Someone in the audience talks of trying to show as little as possible of footage depicting a child being murdered. Another talks of the problem of alienating audience members with disturbing imagery when the goal is to change hearts and minds.]
Nick Fraser: You’re talking about it like prophylactics. What’s appropriate. What’s tasteful. What will the audience put up with. Well, the other argument is the Charlie Hebdo argument, which is, well, fuck that. What’s wrong with saying fuck that?