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Arts Funding and Censorship: Ann Arbor

Arts Funding and Censorship: Ann Arbor

Michigan Cuts Arts Funding, and Trouble Begins

by Celeste Headlee

All Things Considered, March 20, 2007 ·
“In Michigan, state lawmakers have cut funding for the popular Ann Arbor Film Festival, claiming it showed material they considered pornographic. But the ACLU says the lawmakers may have overstepped their bounds.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is the oldest festival in North America that showcases independent and experimental film. It recently lost state funding because legislators say it violated a prohibition on the depiction of sex acts. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit in order to force the state to remove those restrictions.

The guidelines have been in place since 1996, but they had not been rigorously enforced until last year. Amid passionate talk in the state house about protecting citizens from pornography and obscenity, legislators decided to bar the Ann Arbor Film Festival from receiving state money for at least three years.

The drive to enforce the funding restrictions was sparked by an essay from Michael LeFaive, a policy analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a libertarian think tank in Michigan.

LeFaive argued that the state had no business funding the arts at all, and claimed that taxpayer dollars could end up paying for a so-called “cesspool of silliness.” He used the Ann Arbor Film Festival as an example, but he says he didn’t intend to single out that organization.

One of the films mentioned in LeFaive’s essay was Boobie Girl, from director Brooke Keisling. Keisling says she thinks LeFaive didn’t see any of the films he objected to, since her movie is suitable for all ages.

“There’s nothing pornographic about my film,” she says. “It’s really G-rated; it’s really sweet. In fact, the woman who narrated used to be the voice of Rocky the Squirrel from Rocky and Bullwinkle.”

This is but one example.

A little reported story resulted from the inclusion of the beastiality doc ZOO at Sundance this year…Some folks a Free Republic made the accusation the “Tax dollars support sickness masquerading as art at Sundance Film Festival.” Others at American Family Association lobbied Congress to cut NEA funding for Sundance.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed (sort of), as Congress defelcted the bullet:

“An “Action Alert” by the American Family Association falsely reports that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) gave grants to the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival to support the showing of the films Hounddog and Zoo. The organization has urged its members to write and email their members of Congress in protest.

To set the record straight: The National Endowment for the Arts did not provide support for the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. The National Endowment for the Arts did not fund the two films. The National Endowment for the Arts had no connection whatsoever to the films. Regarding the NEA, the action alert is all wrong. The NEA did fund the summer educational workshop last year at the Sundance Institute, which trains people working on careers in film, from directing to screenwriting to producing.

NEA funds awarded to the Sundance Institute for the educational workshop could not be used by the organization for any other activities – nor were they. Since 1997 Congress has stipulated that grants awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts may support only a specified project. The recipient organization must spend the NEA funds only for the specified project. NEA funds may not be used by that organization for any other activities.

In the past, the NEA has sometimes been criticized for programs it doesn’t fund. This instance is another such example.”

One can only wonder what the response would have been had NEA funding beein directly tied to the screenings of ZOO and HOUND DOG.

What is to come of other grant recipient festivals that screen content deemed objectionable?

Should festivals reject such funding, as Ann Arbor ultimately did?

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