Monday, 29 December 2008

Freedom of Expression

I think I'll wait until after the holiday season to look at what was on TV - so in the meantime there's something else I want to talk about - Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Speech, and how it specifically relates to screenwriting.

Often cited as one of the key tenants of any democracy, it's also a massive responsibility and continually used to defend offensive material. The most obvious minefields surround race (although fortunately not nearly as frequently nowadays) and religion. Thankfully, during my script reading career I have never encountered anything I have found offensive, and I'm not sure how I would react if I did. That's not to say that I have not read stuff whose message or theology I have not agreed with. It will come as no surprise that as an Orthodox Jew, I don't subscribe to Christian beliefs, particularly about Jesus. But that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy the mythology of movies such as The Matrix and Narnia, even though its allegories are pretty clear. So too when I give feedback on a script - for me the important questions are is the story telling working, how is the structure, the characters, the themes etc. It's important to remain objective. But it's difficult too, as movies are often open to interpretation. What is inoffensive to one person is not to another. I think Kevin Smith's Dogma and Monty Python's The Life of Brian are hilarious, but the latter was originally banned and the former received a lot of unfair criticism (especially for a movie that if you watch it, is certainly not anti-religion, it just has a rather unique take on it!) But what about Mel Gibson's The Passion... I have not seen it myself so cannot comment directly. But it caused huge offense within the Jewish Community, despite claims that it had no intention to do so. (Gibson's subsequent anti Semitic drunken rant did not exactly help these protestations.)

Maybe that's an obvious example. Let's take The Golden Compass instead. I haven't seen the movie yet (it's on my to do list) but I've read Philip Pullman's novels, His Dark Materials. Pullman is a renowned atheist and his novels certainly have an anti religious theme. But they work as intended and are often seen as a rebuttal to C.S Lewis and his resurrecting lion - which is fair enough I suppose! Then there's Jerry Springer - The Opera, which many Christians thought blasphemous due to its depictions of Jesus, but which the BBC nevertheless decided to broadcast. What about Theo Van Gogh, murdered for making a film about violence against women in Islamic societies or the Danish cartoon depictions of Mohammed that caused riots all over the Muslim world? As I say, it's a minefield.

How does this relate to non creative activities? When, for example, convicted Holocaust denier David Irving is invited to speak at Cambridge, or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives a speech at Columbia University, the defence is often that the opinions of these people are given a platform so they can be shown up for their disgusting content in intellectual debate. I've always thought this pretty stupid to be honest. The platform gives legitimacy to their opinions regardless. You wouldn't waste time to debate whether the sky is in actual fact green and the grass is blue. There would be no value in that because there is no legitimacy in the claims. But that aside, how does that argument extend to a one way broadcast in Channel Four's alternative Christmas message? There was no avenue to question, challenge or debate. Instead we were treated to a carefully orchestrated peace to all mankind message from probably the biggest threat to world stability apart from Osama Bin Laden. It seemed like nothing else than an appalling attempt by Channel 4 to shock (had they run out of funny celebrities for their message?) but only they know what their true intention was.

And here lies the crux. Like a bad tackle in a football match, only the perpetrator knows deep down whether their intention was to go for the ball or injure his opponent. Creative writers are no different. Only we know what our intent is when screenwriting. Are we out to question, debate, shock or offend? How do we approach screenworks that may do all four? Honestly, I have no idea. Banning everything that may be controversial is hardly the answer, but neither should we be naive enough to think that everything under the sun should be allowed. I hate it when the most extremist, disgusting and offensive views that have no intrinsic value, are given weight and a platform, whilst everyone hides behind the banner of free speech. Freedom of Expression and Free Speech are a right, but they are also a privilege. And if they are abused, the offenders should not be appeased.

I'm not suggesting that any readers of this blog are guilty of anything! But as a general point, we must be aware that we choose the subject matter and the themes and the character and every single thing that goes into making our screenplays. I certainly do not think we should all stay away from controversial subjects. That would be like driving with the handbrake on. But we have a responsibility in creating the stories we tell and it's not one that should be treated lightly.

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