SUBJECT #01 — Fear as a Creative Tool — EPISODE 2
PROLOGUE: Film, fear, bravery and box office numbers are central in this second episode of SUBJECT #01, where we have passed the pen to progressive film and media student Signe Lilja, who guides us through film history and shares her vision on how the camera could change the world.
I would love for this article to be about all the filmmakers who fearlessly and selflessly, have thrown themselves into the art of filmmaking since the Lumiere Brothers invented the film in 1895.
By Signe Lilja
Creative restrictions from all angles
As ideal as that world and the statement above would be, it is unfortunately not the case. The story is rather that filmmakers through history have suffered under strict regulations and production codes set by the heads of state in various countries.
Actually it is even worse, as the movie business has been self-censoring for almost a decade. The Motion Picture Production Code was a set of industry moral guidelines that had to apply to most motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. The code consisted of a long list of no-go’s that could not appear in the films, in order for them to be released. A few examples would be; sex, illegality, profanities and blasphemy. The business set up this system, because they feared that people would not go and see their films, and therefore the studios would lose money. In 1968 the MPAA film rating system, which exists to this day, replaced the Production Code. A film’s survival today can depend on the rating it receives by the MPAA.
Lord, have mercy on the people who try to release a film rated NC-17 in America.
Where the market controls the American censoring system, the European industry is controlled by the state. The most gruesome cases of film censoring were seen under the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Hitler. The Russian revolution in 1917 resulted in an incredible amount of experimental filmmaking. The young generation of teenagers came to the film with energy, euphoria and enthusiasm, and put an end to the bourgeoisie culture. For the next ten years they would experiment with the medium and invent new editing techniques. Some of the greatest works in film were made in this period. Lenin famously said that; ‘The Film for us is the most important of all the arts’. Unfortunately the party ended when he died, and Stalin came to power. He did not like (or understand) the experimental films. He made it illegal to produce, what he conceived as elitist films, and the filmmakers were either killed or chased out of the country. It was not that Stalin did not see the potential of the film, but like Hilter and Moussolini, he saw that film could be used as propaganda. Soviet, German and Italian film during this time, were used to show the people how wonderful and good the regimes were, and what horrible things would happen if you went against the system. Most noteworthy are the two anti-Semitic propaganda films from 1940 Jud Süss and Der Ewige Jude. It’s pretty clear from these titles where the film wants the viewer’s antipathy to lie.
The American ‘propaganda films’ were a bit subtler in their way of directing viewer antipathy. During ‘the red scare’ that rose during the cold war, and resulted in an all out witch-hunt on Communists in the American movie industry, the science fiction genre was revived, and used as a political allegory. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, emotionless alien duplicates and replace the bodies of American citizens. It is a clear metaphor for the individual vs. the masses and the paranoid fear of communism making the people into lifeless robots without free will.
Where is the controversy, Hollywood?
In the history of film, fear has been used to steer both the viewers and the filmmakers in a certain political direction. There have not been a lot of instances where filmmakers took that fear and used it against the system. It simply has not been possible. Filmmaking is and has always been a costly business, and without economic backing for production and distributing, you cannot make films. No studio or state would take chances on controversial films, because there was literally a chance you might get killed for it. But that is all in the past now. Hitler, Stalin and the cold war are long gone now and freedom of speech is the talk of the town. So where are all the controversial and dissident films? You would think that the years of oppression would have inspired a ton of filmmakers, but that is unfortunately not the case. I my opinion, Hollywood take fewer risks than ever. Every time I think that a new film has the chance of actually taking a stand, I am disappointed. Where was the sexual controversy in Fifty Shades of Grey, and what exactly did The Fifth Estate have to say about the Internet being used as a space for democratic freedom fighting? Hollywood is playing it safe in order to insure viewers and profit, and it is getting kind of boring.
A few bright lights
There are of course a couple of bright lights. Laura Poitras, the director of the academy award-winning documentary Citizenfour, is a fearless filmmaker. She continuously makes controversial films about America, and takes on subjects such as The War on Terror and Government Surveillance. But it is not without a price. The American government is most certainly closely watching her, which is why she has taken up residence in Berlin. Another incredible filmmaker, who will not be stopped by government restrictions, is the Iranian director Jafar Panahi. After several years of conflict with the Iranian government over the content of his films (including several short-term arrests), Panahi was arrested in March 2010 and sentenced to a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban of directing any movies. Incredibly he found a way to defy the ban, and made the documentary This Is Not a Film. It was smuggles out of Iran on a Flash-Drive hidden inside a cake and shown at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
If that is not fearless and badass, then I don’t know what is.
I love movies and I love good stories. But film as a medium can be used to do more than just telling a good story. There are no military totalitarian regimes left in the western world to tell filmmakers what they can and cannot do. Now is the time to use our freedom of speech and pick up a camera. Shakespeare said: ‘Be not afraid of greatness’. And I say: ‘Yes that too, but be not afraid of failure either’. The camera is a tool for democracy, pick it up, press record and change the world.
Signe Lilja is a first year student of Film- and Media studies at University of Copenhagen and currently editor in chief of ‘Ordet – journal of film and media’.
SUBJECT is an ongoing feature series inviting artists and creative entrepreneurs to share their point of view and interpretation of a given subject. To inspire, open up horizons and start conversations – because more perspectives make a better story. SUBJECT is curated and edited by Sidsel Søgaard Spas.
SUBJECT #01 takes its starting point in the subject of fear as a creative tool. Alter Ego has invited three contributors to interpret and shape the subject to their own opinion. Signe Lilja’s contribution is the second of this series.