Funds, Financiers, Filmmakers Stand by Freedom of Speech in Europe and Beyond

But fears grow of a new market caution after Charlie Hebdo slaughter

Artistic Expression under attack Charlie Hebdo the Interview
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As France still reels from last week’s Charlie Hebdo slaughter and its aftermath, which left 20 dead in total, there is no indication of a new caution at Europe’s funding sources, though it is far too early to gauge official reactions.

Indeed, the Charlie Hebdo slaughter may well prompt a slew of films analyzing the issues it raises.

“Did Hollywood stop making terrorist movies after 9/11? On the contrary,” said Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, at Paris-based sales agent Films Distribution.

But it is one thing to finance and make films, another to screen them.

“What happened shows that these people are not joking. There is bound to be some change after the killings,” said one foreign distributor.

“I would think twice before buying a militantly anti Islamic fundamentalism film, in part because I don’t think some exhibitors would screen it,” he added.

Running Jan. 15-19 in Paris, the UniFrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema may offer an early bellwether of the international market’s real appetite for movies turning on Islamist terrorism, or not so distant cousins after the Hebdo executions: Fanaticism, freedom of speech, solidarity, the fate of Muslim immigrants in Europe.

Eurimages, the European film fund, does not finance films that are apologies of violence or pornography. “I don’t think we would add another criteria such as ‘religiously sensitive,’” but that’s my personal opinion, “ said Isabel Castro, Eurimages deputy executive secretary. Any movie dealing with terrorism or fundamentalism would have be discussed at selection commission meetings, which take place four times a year, but freedom of speech is paramount, she added.

2012’s “Iron Sky,” a parody but not apology of Nazism, prompted “significant” discussion, but finally received Eurimages funding, thanks to a selection committee majority decision, Castro pointed out.

“Canal Plus’ success relies on free speech. Most of our shows are really disrespectful to religion: the ‘Guignols’ (which has existed for 20 years), ‘Groland’ (15 years), …and may already sometimes offend some sensibilities. They feed our brand,” said Nathalie Coste Cerdan, head of cinema, Canal Plus.

“That’s why I think that our movie and series acquisition policy will not change,” she added.

True to Coste Cerdan’s Word, a sketch in last Friday’s “Les Guignols del ’Info,” a “Spitting image”-style puppet satire, pictured a fiercely bearded God and Muhammad in Hebdo Heaven, a place of puffy clubs, with Stephane Charbonnieer, Charlie Hebdo editor, and cartoonist Jean Cabut, the four pondering whether the terrorists would have a place in paradise.

The World Cinema Support fund, part of France’s CNC film-TV agency which funds films from emerging markets, also stood firm by its funding policy.

“We do not expect this terrible terrorist attack to have any kind of impact on the type of films to be supported by the Aide aux Cinémas du Monde fund (which the CNC co-finances with the Institut Français) or, incidentally, by any other of our support schemes,” said Michel Plazanet, at the CNC’s International Policy Unit.

Generally speaking, all the CNC’s support decisions are taken after advice from a committee of experts who are fully free to choose the films they would like the CNC to support. Plazanet added: “In other words, there is no ‘editorial line’ (whether artistic or political) imposed by us. As regards Aide aux cinémas du monde, we just ask the committee to encompass the diversity of the world production and to take into account general criteria such as the quality and originality of the script, the financial feasibility of the project or the record of the director.”

“I don’t think [the Charlie Hebdo slaughter] will hinder potentially sensitive films getting funded,” argued prominent Egyptian indie writer-producer Mohamed Hefzy.

His logic: “If it does, that will just mean that these guys are doing a good job of making it worse for us, that these terrorists are actually getting what they want; and that’s not a message they should be sending people.”

That determination to not be undeterred holds true in France as well.

“Everything is speculation, pure opinion. We’re dealing in effects, not facts,” said sales agent Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, at Films Distribution. “But the French industry prides itself on being able to say a lot, to release stories, images, points of view that are extremely diverse. That’s a fact. However, horrible the massacre, that diversity will survive.”

“Everything is speculation, pure opinion. We’re dealing in effects, not facts,” said sales agent Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, at Films Distribution. “But the French industry prides itself on being able to say a lot, to release stories, images, points of view that are extremely diverse. That’s a fact. However, horrible the massacre, that diversity will survive.”

There is little indication filmmakers will back down in the face of the attack. One of the first things Egypt’s Hefzy did when he heard about the Charlie Hebdo attack was to reach out to Eric Lagesse of France’s Pyramide Films, his French co-producer on Egyptian auteur Mohamed Diab’s drama/thriller “Clash,” which he calls “a film that tackles Islamist extremists and Islamists versus the rest of society in a non-judgmental way.”

The reaction he received was: “‘Now we really need to make this film faster, and it’s more relevant,’” Hefzy recounted. And “it’s not for business reasons that he and others are saying this. They feel you need to shine some light on the truth,” he added.

“Clash,” which is expected to start shooting in Cairo in March, is set entirely inside an overcrowded police truck packed with both pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators. Diad is known internationally for bold sex harassment pic “Cairo 678.”

The large question may not be not only – or so much – films’ public-sector financing, but their distribution. France’s Backup Media Group, a film investor and consultancy, is packaging a film that has Islamic/violence ingredients.

“It’s our huge responsibility to tackle such issues, to find explanations. If you look at the images of the Charlie Hebdo attack this morning again, it’s like war. At some point, war has always led to a kind of propaganda. And I think as independent filmmakers, we need to propose another kind of vision,” said Jean-Baptiste Babin, a BMG partner, said last Thursday.

What he fears, however, is an “implicit limitation of filmmakers freedoms”: “A new political correctness at film funds, distributors telling us that the theatres are afraid to show films on such subject matters, broadcasters telling us such films freak their audience out.”

Beyond France, that sensitivity may have played out recently in Morocco, where Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” was originally approved for release by state-backed Moroccan Cinema Center, then banned by the CCM as it opened in Moroccan theaters. Reason: Its alleged representation of God in the form of a boy. One cinema theater, Marrakech’s Colisee Cinema, also the film’s distributor, continued to screen the film until its received official written notification of the prohibition from the government.

So far however, a new era of atrocity-induced market caution is only a fear.

Some foreign distributors are far more optimistic. “I believe recent events may encourage distributors to look for French films, which may help the audience to understand contemporary Europe – also terrorism and clash of cultures, believes and religions,” on said. Heswent on: “Sometimes cinema comments on contemporary events in more profound ways than news channels… Films showing contemporary, multicultural Paris like ‘Samba’ may gain a new meaning and send a positive message full of hope.”

Market realities will first be tested at the UniFrance Rendez-vous and all the more so at next month’s Berlin European Film Market, a traditional launchpad for contentious arthouse film fare.