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MPAA Rates Poster an F
Documentary Ad's Image of Guantanamo Prisoner Abuse Deemed Inappropriate

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Motion Picture Association of America has censored a poster advertising a film about the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The image that ran afoul of the MPAA is tame by the standards set by the amateur photographers of Abu Ghraib. It shows a man hanging by his handcuffed wrists, with a burlap sack over his head and a blindfold tied around the hood. It appeared in advertisements for the new film "The Road to Guantanamo," a documentary with some reenacted scenes, that follows the fate of three British men imprisoned at Guantanamo for more than two years before being released with no charges ever filed against them.

The distributors of the film, directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, submitted the poster to the MPAA, which must approve publicity materials for the films it rates, on April 24. It was rejected the next day.

"The reason given was that the burlap bag over the guy's head was depicting torture, which wasn't appropriate for children to see," said Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, which is distributing the film in North America. The film will open on June 23, advertised by another poster, approved by the MPAA, which shows only a pair of shackled hands and arms.

Gayle Osterberg, a spokesperson for the MPAA, said its standards for print advertising are particularly sensitive.

"If it's a poster that's hanging in a theater, anyone who walks into that theater, regardless of what movie they've come to see, will be exposed to it," said Osterberg. While she wouldn't comment on the particular reason for the poster's rejection, and while MPAA guidelines for what is acceptable in advertising aren't made public, she did list some of the things that are not allowed: "depictions of violence, blood, people in jeopardy, drugs, nudity, profanity, people in frightening situations, disturbing or frightening scenes."

Cohen says he understands why the MPAA exercises control over advertising materials -- he's a father himself. But that doesn't diminish his frustration with the decision.

"This is a film with a serious purpose, and this is the subject of the film itself, and the marketing materials were appropriate to the subject," he said. And, he added, horror flicks and slasher movies are often advertised with images far more suggestive of graphic violence. He cited a poster for the film "Hard Candy," about Internet predators, which showed a small child framed by a bear trap. His argument is supported by advertisements for last year's horror flick "Hostel," which left little doubt about the blood, gore and decapitation that audiences could expect.

"When you look at standards for horror movies, their standards are not consistent," he said. "What is implied in horror movie posters is way worse than what's in this movie."

Although Osterberg says that torture is not specifically cited in the guidelines governing print materials, the proscription against violence, blood and disturbing scenes "would probably encompass" it. Thus, the MPAA's decision puts it at odds with the U.S. government, which has repeatedly defended techniques, including hooding prisoners, as not legally torture, and not inconsistent with the basic American values the MPAA tries to uphold.

In a 2003 Department of Defense report, hooding was given a green light, as not inconsistent with the United States' obligations under international conventions or U.S. law. The report also approved prolonged standing, though stipulated that it "should never make the detainee exhausted to the point of weakness or collapse." And that it not be "enforced by physical restraints."

Which means that the MPAA required a change in the image that removed something not deemed torture (hooding) and focused the image on the bound hands and extended arms that clearly depicts someone forced to stand (or worse, hang) under restraint to the point of collapse, which might well be torture.

Kirby Dick, director of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," a new film devoted to the MPAA and its ratings system, said that's not the only irony in the MPAA's decision. He compares the MPAA's secrecy to the secrecy that has governed so much of what has happened at the prison in Guantanamo and other U.S. facilities where suspects in the war on terror have been held.

"It's also interesting that the image is of someone whose vision is being blocked -- and that's the image that they're blocking," Dick said. "When you get into censorship, the irony never stops."

Dick's new film, which will be released in September, focuses on the Classification and Rating Administration, which decides if a film is PG or R or gets the dreaded NC-17 rating, more than the five-member panel known as the Advertising Administration, which made the decision about the "Road to Guantanamo." But Dick found that small films are often at a disadvantage when they deal with the MPAA.

"Foreign films and independent films are right at the end of their budgets" when they get to shepherding their film through the MPAA process, he said. They don't always have the budget to reedit their films or make other costly changes that will assure smooth sailing with the association. And while filmmakers and distributors can simply forego an MPAA rating -- and with it oversight of their advertising -- without an MPAA rating, it's difficult for a movie to break out of the limited art-house and festival circuit into the big bucks of wide distribution.

Serious subject matter also puts small filmmakers at a disadvantage. The huge budgets of companies that make movies of fake violence aids their marketing effort to titillate the public, while small companies that deal with real violence must be more demure. Cohen, of Roadside Attractions, said that he made only one effort to get the MPAA to reconsider the decision, arguing that because it dealt with serious issues in the real world of the war on terror, the standard for the poster should reflect a greater tolerance for the troubling nature of the material.

"We went to their boss, but then we kind of folded," he said. Persistence, however, often pays off. Large studios "are more relentless," Cohen said, and can often wear down the decision-makers.

The small flap over the Guantanamo movie poster mirrors, in many ways, the larger issue of how the subject, and the image of torture, circulates within American culture. American newspapers, which for years now have held extraordinarily graphic images of the Abu Ghraib abuses, have kept to standards of taste that make many, if not most, of the images unprintable. Yet many of those images circulate freely outside the United States, where they continue to inflame opinion against the U.S. and its foreign policy.

As the photos from Abu Ghraib began to trickle out, and with new revelations about the extent and seriousness of prisoner abuse, the importance of images to frame the torture debate has grown. Without seeing those images, it can be difficult to build a visceral case against the Bush administration's substantial relaxing of rules regulating torture. Advocates for full disclosure, including many voices on the Internet, have argued that the consequences of an American drift toward acceptance or indifference to torture are so profound that there should be exceptions to the usual standards of taste. Which is essentially the argument Cohen made to the MPAA.

They listened, said Cohen. "But they just didn't want the head with a bag on it."

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