After the now infamous anti-Islamic viral prompted angry protests in the Middle East, Jack Jones defends cinema's power, and right, to offend.
When the recent protests broke out across the Middle East and parts of the West in reaction to the posting of video clips from the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims, the prevalent issue of cultural and artistic freedom emerged. Defending the right of this particular film may not prove fruitful, and indeed on the evidence of the two clips released on YouTube it neither warrants a defence, but to ignore the matter would be to forgo a valuable discourse on free speech.
Whether by coincidence or otherwise, the rumblings continue when the victim of perhaps the most infamous religious reprisal has just released a memoir, the twenty-fourth anniversary of the publication of the book that originally sparked the outrage has just passed, as well as the impending release of a film taken from one of his acclaimed novels.
The term fatwa may be alien to some, but it has been synonymous with author Salman Rushdie ever since the first publication of 'The Satanic Verses' in 1988. This one-sided confrontation with Ayatollah Khomeini and the subsequent offering of money for the murder of Rushdie was once wonderfully described by journalist and close friend Christopher Hitchens as the “the single worst review any novelist has ever had”.
The days when the threat against Rushdie’s life was at its most real has slowly eased and he is now set to debut a film adaptation of his Booker Prize-winning novel 'Midnight’s Children' at this year’s London Film Festival. A remarkable achievement and one that marks Rushdie as a steadfast figure in the argument regarding freedom of speech and artistic civil liberties.
Despite the frivolous accusations that artists such as Rushdie 'knew what they were doing', does that therefore permit the murder of said artist and the banning of their work? And who exactly is possibly qualified enough to judge this for you?
It seems now that with protests aimed, be it directly or indirectly, in retaliation at these two 14-minute trailers leading to outbreaks of violence we are likely never to see the finished film (if indeed it ever really existed). Knowing, however, that Pastor Terry Jones is a supporter of the film and is happy to use the film to affirm his own religious agenda gives you an idea that there are far better ways of spending ones time. Crucially though this relies on the ability to have a choice.
In response to the clips, the Iranian government has decided to boycott the upcoming Academy Awards due to an "intolerable insult to the Prophet of Islam". In no less than a year Iran has gone from winning the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar, for Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, to having no entry at all.
Judge for yourself how significant the Oscars are in terms of rewarding anything the film industry produces, but one can’t deny this was an unprecedented achievement. Heroically, A Separation was a statement that despite a totalitarian policing of the people or the arts, Iran, along with many other nations in the sub-continent, is experiencing a prolonged artistic renaissance.
Case and point is Jafar Panahi, who openly defied the Iranian regime and his 20-year ban from filmmaking to make This is Not a Film: an intimate portrait of his on-going house arrest. That the film was smuggled out of the country on a flash-drive hidden inside a birthday cake and exhibited at some of the most prestigious film festivals proved that prohibiting people from artistic expression cannot possibly be policed and is being resisted by a generation opposed to censorship.
Only last week, Abbas Kiarostami announced that Panahi had completed his second film while under sentence. This continued defiance is even being rewarded by the international community with Panahi’s recent nomination alongside the recently imprisoned Russian punk band Pussy Riot for the Sakharov Rights Prize is as equally symbolic as Iran’s boycott.
Admittedly, despite all that the Iranian New Wave and filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui, Panahi and Farhadi have done to establish a cultural and political modernity via artistic expression, there remains a bitter and passionate conflict.
Criticism of religious meddling in artistic freedoms cannot alone be levied at Eastern theologies. In the not too recent past the Catholic Church had a firm grip on what we were allowed to see in our cinemas. With as much power to decide a film’s rating or what cuts needed to be made as the Hays Code in 1930s Hollywood, The Catholic League of Decency was, in all tense and purposes, the national censor for motion pictures. Britain itself incurred a turbulent censorship debate over the release of certain films on VHS during the 1980s. Both government and religious organisations ushered in the video nasties era and willingly employed strict codes.
When you consider the history of the relationship between film and censorship, the moral values and ethics of religions have always been consulted – or to put it more accurately, permitted – to shape the guidelines for 'acceptable' entertainment. But when does fair regulation become autocratic censorship?
Dictating what a film depicts is the next step to surrendering one of the freedoms we have as an audience or society. If in our own fear of offending a religion or the religious, we must then accept that self-censorship is a real presence and not an illusion.
Put simply, self-censorship makes the audience a prisoner of what they decline to be subjected to. For example, would the filmmaking of Paul Thomas Anderson, William Friedkin or the Pythons – all of whom have found their work the target of religious condemnation – benefit from the safety of consensus?
The sanctuary we should embrace most dearly is the right to free speech and that with that comes the right to defend the thoughts and utterances of those with views other than our own. Calling for the banning of a film is dangerous in that where does it stop? After all, what is cinema without its power, and right, to offend?