Spielberg spins spiel in Venice

Ironically, it was American mega-grosser Steven Spielberg who provided the climax to the two-day International Authors (i.e., filmmakers) Symposium in Venice, held to defend freedom of expression and the moral (i.e., creative) rights of screenwriters, directors and music composers.

To the delight of those assembled Tuesday at the symposium’s close, Spielberg publicly returned the Gold Lion that Venice fest chief Gillo Pontecorvo had won for directing “The Battle of Algiers.”

Spielberg explained that he had bought Pontecorvo’s Gold Lion at an auction in the U.S., where Italian film mementos were sold to raise money in support of the cause of moral rightsfor filmmakers. These rights are not economic, but concern the creator’s legal right to protect his or her work from being modified by the film’s owner without permission. An example would be the colorization or re-cutting of films before they’re aired on television.

“Despite the strength of American distributors,” said Spielberg, “remember that in America we as filmmakers support your battle as filmmakers … Viva moral rights.”

Great tragedy

He called the 1918 U.S. law giving copyright owners the title of “author” a great tragedy. “Our film libraries are in danger of disappearing because we filmmakers can’t protect our own work in court.”

He is one of 168 top U.S. directors and writers who signed a declaration of solidarity with filmmakers and their right to express themselves and define their cultural identity.

Present in the jammed ballroom of the Hotel des Bains were directors Sydney Pollack and John Turturro, along with numerous European and foreign filmmakers.

“This is the first time all these directors have been present,” Italo helmer Ettore Scola noted. “That could make a difference to lawmakers concerned with moral rights of authors.”

The symposium generated a number of concrete results. The most significant was the creation of a worldwide Authors Union, aimed at defending the rights of directors, screenwriters and composers of film music. It will be headquartered in Venice and run by a permanent secretariat.

The symposium also approved the establishment of an International Court for Freedom of Expression to defend filmmakers’ rights and publicize the most flagrant cases of violations.

Authors’ rights

It approved the resolutions of a variety of work groups, including commissions on authors’ rights, film distribution and film education. A work group studying the feasibility of awarding quality labels to selected films disbanded itself, apparently deciding the idea wasn’t feasible at all.

The American majors came in for some heavy flak in the symposium’s closing remarks. Ths studios were accused of fostering the standardization and uniformity of films and of imposing American culture on other countries, which are deluged with successful Yank films and distribution strategies.

French minister of culture Jacques Toubon and his predecessor Jack Lang, who chaired the session, decried the 80% box office share earned by U.S. films throughout Europe.

French and Italian speakers insisted repeadedly that films must be kept separate from other types of merchandise at the GATT trade talks.

They want European law to recognize that cultural products are an exception to strict trade laws, by which governments could be forbidden to subsidize the national film industry or apply film national quotas on film distribution, as France now does.

Simple trade product

The American film industry under Motion Picture Export Assn. of America chairman Jack Valenti, on the contrary, lobbied in favor of treating films as simple trade product, and seems to have succeeded in keeping the issue of cultural exchange off the crowded GATT agenda. “The Americans already have everything,” moaned Lang. “Why do they want more?”

Valenti, who was not present at the symposium, told Variety earlier in the week, “Quotas are not the solution. European filmmakers have to listen to their audiences and make films that audiences want to see.”

Lang suggested there should be a delegation of American filmmakers at the GATT trade talks to present their own demands for creative freedom.

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