NYFF 2001: Entertainment, Politics and Movies that Matter
by Farrin Jacobs
(indieWIRE/10.09.01) — Although the “Making Movies That Matter” panel
at this year’s New York Film Festival was conceived of long before the
events of September 11, the attacks and their aftermath were front and
center, informing every question, answer, and conflict at the event on
Saturday morning. Coming nearly a month after the tragic events — and
just a day before the U.S. officially began its large-scale strike —
the panel brought together a lively mix of filmmakers, executives and
cultural critics. With the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Oliver Stone
in the house, it’s no surprise that at least a few insults were bandied
Richard Pena, director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, started the
morning by pointing out that though panels of this sort had once been a
tradition at the festival, they had somehow gotten lost over the years.
This panel, he told the large audience gathered at Alice Tully Hall
(which seats over 900 people), was conceived of last spring. The idea
back then, he said, “was to do something on film and politics.” But,
he added, “September 11 has given this panel greater urgency, greater
After moderator David Ansen of Newsweek took his place, the rest of the
crew assembled: Hitchens (the journalist described as “a political
agent-provocateur”); independent producer Christine Vachon (“Boys Don’t
Cry,” “Storytelling“); Stone (“JFK,” “Nixon“); filmmaker and former Haitian Minister of Culture Raoul Peck (“Lumumba“); Bob Shaye, chairman and CEO of New Line Cinema; author bell hooks; and Tom Pollock, producer and former head of Universal Pictures.
The first scrap came during the responses to Ansen’s initial question,
in which he reminded everyone that since the attacks people have
speculated on whether this will change everything or nothing. “We’ve
heard about the death of irony, the death of the death of irony,” he
joked, before asking, “But how will it affect you?” After Shaye invoked
Samuel Goldwyn (“If I want to send a message, I use Western Union”) and
responded that movies exist to entertain people, the audience hissed and
then applauded bell hooks’ direct response to his statement: “Movies
never just entertain,” she replied. “They’re always political.” And,
she was quick to add, they can be both political and entertaining.
Although a few panelists expressed discomfort with the changed world and
an inability to focus on work post-September 11 — “It’s really hard to
see the relevancy of what we do,” commented Vachon — Peck saw it
differently. “I didn’t feel my world had changed,” he said.
Pollock said he couldn’t help but thinking in before-and-after terms.
Before, he said, he had been manipulating the system to get movies made.
And after: “I have been unable to focus on that process for a number of
reasons. Not just because of the human tragedy, but also because I
don’t know what people want to see now.” He was also careful to point
out that Hollywood movies could very well be at the root of the
current situation. “The American culture we export in films is at
the forefront of the people who hate us despise,” he said, and we
might need to pay closer attention to how films show America to the
rest of the world.
Hitchens stressed the importance of not turning away from the tragedy
completely and to try to help people understand what has happened. On the
whole he seemed pessimistic that filmmakers will make a difference —
which is not to say he doesn’t think they could, but since the immediate
reaction has been to pull films and cut offending scenes out of
soon-to-be-released movies, he suspects they won’t. “In the name of
sheltering the children,” he said, “everyone’s being sheltered.” Stone
seemed to be on the same page. He wants to make a film that addresses
the terrorism directly, something akin to Gillo Pontecorvo‘s “The Battle
of Algiers.” But having worked in the business for as long as he has,
his pessimism was more focused. “It can’t work anymore in a system that
has gone bananas.” And, he added, much to the crowd’s glee, “This is
bullshit that six people have control. There’s a control of culture and
ideas. We have too much order.” (He named Michael Eisner and Rupert Murdoch as among the gatekeepers.)
Pollock agreed with Stone’s characterization of a media oligopoly and
was just as pessimistic about getting political films made in the coming
climate. “There was little room before September 11 to make political
statements; and there’s less room now,” he declared. “Filmmakers like
Oliver won’t change,” he said later. “They’ll continue to tackle this.
But it will be ten times harder to get studios to do them.” He suggested
that movies where the politics are masked by the entertainment
(giving the example of “Lord of the Rings,” which addresses Nazi
Germany) may be in order, an option Shaye, who said more than once
that he found the title of the panel a tad pretentious, finds
reprehensible. For him, movies are about entertainment and entertainment
only. Any message that may be thrown in is a betrayal of the audience,
except for the rare film (according to him) that had both political
value and high entertainment value. (Ansen noted that David O.
Russell‘s “Three Kings” was one recent film to hit both.) Peck
joined hooks in disagreeing with this notion, stating plainly,
“Entertainment and political films, I don’t understand the
distinction between them…For me, every film is political. Film
is not innocent. Film is politics.”
A question from the audience addressed the fate of those filmmakers willing
to try to make movies that matter. Vachon suggested it was too soon to tell.
Shaye, who was pretty much begging for audience disapproval at this point,
said it was up to the market. “If you like political movies, just tell us.”
Things occasionally got ugly, with the audience hissing at Shaye repeatedly
and Hitchens loudly taking issue with Stone’s categorization of the September
11 attacks as “a revolt.” At one point, hooks felt the need to comment,
“I appreciate Christopher’s wit and agree with some of his points. But I will
not tolerate his disrespect.” Nobody seemed to take anything too personally,
though. In fact, hooks and Hitchens could be found walking side by side down
Broadway, deep in conversation, less than ten minutes after the room cleared.
[Farrin Jacobs is managing editor of the Independent Film & Video Monthly.