Media wary as censors gain ground

On April 8, the Rolling Stones will make their first appearance in mainland China, performing in an 8,000-seat stadium in Shanghai. In order to accommodate the communist regime’s ministry of culture, the group that once was synonymous with 1960s-style liberation has pledged not to play “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Brown Sugar” and two other songs deemed too risky by Chinese censors.

The Stones’ capitulation to Chinese censors comes at a particularly bad time for foes of political correctness. Increasingly, free expression is under attack around the world — including the U.S.

The incidents of censorship are widespread and varied.

“The Simpsons” is being sanitized in the Mideast, paintings are being pulled from museum walls around the world and film director Deepa Mehta is getting death threats in India. All these incidents occurred before the worldwide Muslim outcry over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed.

In many cases, the pressure is coming from government watchdogs and religious zealots. But in others, self-censorship is at work, as media companies, filmmakers and even once outspoken artists are caving to government pressures, prejudices and fears of inciting social unrest.

Consider these latest developments:

  • A New York theater decided last week to “postpone” a play about real-life American pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. The decision by the New York Theater Workshop, which was attributed to complications with the lead actors’ schedules, has prompted a barrage of e-mail messages accusing the theater managers of cowardice. The drama played to packed houses in London without any incidents.

  • The Hollywood studio niche labels have all passed on Michael Winterbottom’s accomplished drama-doc “The Road to Guantanamo,” apparently because the depiction of American soldiers in Iraq is one of dunderheads rather than heroic do-gooders; the pic, which won a director nod for Winterbottom at the recent Berlin Fest, has been sold in most Euro territories.

  • Sony is bracing for controversy over its upcoming “The Da Vinci Code,” with one Catholic org having already taken an ad in the New York Times asking director Ron Howard to slap a “fiction” label on the pic.

The producers have not signaled that they’ll change the film in any respect. But we’ve not seen the last of protesters who think the book and film are anti-Catholic.

Sony lost its nerve recently over Albert Brooks’ satire “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” which was eventually picked up and distributed by Warner Independent. The controversy didn’t help the film at the box office, however. It grossed less than $1 million.

All these conflicts are being played out against a backdrop of widespread religious strife. From Karachi to Kuala Lumpur, Western embassies have been laid siege to or burned to protest what many in the Islamic world believe were signs of disrespect toward the Prophet Mohammed and their religion in general.

Those in the media and entertainment biz are increasingly second-guessing their own creative choices, declining to take on particularly risky subjects, toning them down, qualifying them in some way, or postponing them until whatever wave of outrage subsides.

Hollywood’s attitude toward political controversy has always been a bit schizophrenic. The sporadic fear of giving offense is often intermingled with equal enthusiasm among creatives to give offense.

But these decisions usually come down to financial concerns. There is fear that a boycott of a movie, a play or a TV show could negatively impact the bottom line, just as much as there is expectation that daring art can bring in the dough.

And for media congloms eager to exploit untapped markets around the world, concessions to political correctness are just part of the cost of doing business.

While few wanted to go on the record, in Europe there’s a general feeling that subsidies for provocative film and TV projects will in the future be scrutinized more closely so as not to arouse the ire of any ethnic or religious group.

The world has always been a fractious place. Nowadays, however, the media plays an ever bigger role in the lives of everyone, including Tamil Tigers and Tibetan separatists: If how they are portrayed on screen or on the page does not jibe with their own self-image there is often hell to be paid. And the Internet helps spread the word around the world more quickly than ever before.

Taking offense is in short a more popular sport worldwide than soccer. And religion is what is getting folks riled up the most.

The film industry has put itself on the front lines of these conflicts, from Ridley Scott’s epic about the Crusades “Kingdom of Heaven” to the Palestinian-produced Oscar-nommed feature about suicide bombers “Paradise Now.”

Christian evangelicals can be counted on to scold Hollywood for being “out of touch” with heartland values. And virulent opposition to western values and pop culture has arisen elsewhere, particularly among Islamic extremists.

The rise of religious Islamic TV is throwing fuel on the fire, with the recent debut of Hamas’ own station Al Aqsa TV as well as the growing popularity of Hezbollah’s Al Manar satcaster. There’s even an Egyptian Pat Robertson, tele-Islamist Amr Khaled, who rails about all sorts of iniquity from the small screen.

In some cases, foreign governments are clamping down on what can be published, exhibited in museums, performed by musicians, shown onscreen — or clicked onto on the Internet.

Even “Bruce Almighty” and “The Matrix” were banned in some Arab territories for their sacrilege.

Ironically, just as news and information outlets proliferate, and access to them becomes technologically easier, authorities are becoming more leery of their impact.

A Turkish film critical of the U.S. military called “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq” has created a ruckus in Germany, where politicos and Jewish groups initially called for the pic to be pulled from cinemas. (They were worried that immigrant groups in the country would be sparked to demonstrate more anti-Americanism.) There are now round-table discussions about the movie to “educate” the public.

In India, it’s now apparently routine among Bollywood film producers to have someone on staff scour a movie for any incident or dialogue that’s likely to offend any group before the pic is sent to the country’s censor board.

Last week Chinese state television failed to air remarks made by “Brokeback Mountain” director Ang Lee at the Academy Awards, since his brief references to Taiwan and gays are both no-nos in the most populous country in the world.

Some western entities are kowtowing to these governments for fear of offending — or losing their business contracts. Yahoo and Google have obliged the Chinese authorities by blocking certain politically touchy Websites.

And as sexual taboos fade in one part of the world, they pop up in another.

An Egyptian pic that premiered recently at the Berlin Film Fest called “Yacoubian Building” managed to deal sensitively with homosexuality — though it’s still unclear whether censors in Cairo will snip the more daring bits.

From China to India and the Mideast, recent pics that touch on child prostitution, lesbianism, circumcision and under-aged sex have been either banned or denied funding.

Even in Holland, that bastion of liberal thinking, authorities and media execs are soul-searching in the wake of the murder of director Theo van Gogh at the hands of a disaffected Muslim immigrant. “Submission,” his film about the treatment of women in Arab society — and a follow-up project by his collaborator about gays in that culture — have been shunned by film festivals.

Caroline Croon, director of the Netherlands Association of Feature Film Producers, says the murders of Van Gogh and Dutch politico Pim Fortuyn two years earlier, changed Dutch society. “We lost our innocence and we were made more self-conscious.”

Netherlands Film Fund director Toine Berbers maintains there is no self-censorship in the Dutch film community. But Gijs van de Westelaken, producer of Van Gogh’s short film, disagrees. “Of course there is self-censorship: No one in his right mind would make a film like ‘Submission’ today and no one in his right mind would make fun of the Prophet.”

It’s not just Muslims who are quick to take umbrage over some depictions of their religion.

In post-communist Russia the Orthodox Church has become increasingly chummy with Vladimir Putin’s regime, and anything that impugns its brand of Christianity now raises official hackles.

Artist Avdei Ter-Oganyan had to seek asylum abroad recently after he destroyed religious icons as artistic performance art. And the Moscow museum — ironically named after Soviet human rights activist and dissident Andrei Sakharov — got into hot water after the opening of an exhibition called “Careful! Religion” was disrupted by protesters.

Back in Scandinavia, the TV drama series “The Eagle” — which was co-financed by all the Scandi pubcasters — came under fire in the press for its alleged anti-Semitic portrayal of a Jewish character. No broadcaster axed the series, and it eventually drew large audiences, but the incident highlighted just how electric the issue of tolerance is.

After all, Europe is undergoing an unprecedented period of upheaval over how to accommodate its recent immigrant populations, mostly from the Muslim world. Whether and to what extent they will be integrated into the mainstream culture and to what extent they will conserve their own very different values is arguably the thorniest issue facing that Continent.

After riots a few months ago by North African immigrants in the Paris suburbs, France last week took a concrete step to improve the diversity of the media industry, appointing for the first time a black — 33-year-old Harry Roselmack, originally from Martinique — as a news anchor on top commercial broadcaster TF1. In Holland there are new programs afoot to get immigrant groups more involved in the media and arts.

The old adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” has to be deconstructed. Words, images, musical notes do hurt, and sticks and stones are being hurled to curtail them.

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