We are coming to the end of Free Speech Week, and yesterday the Motion Picture Association of America and Freedom House invited me and my colleague Ann Hornaday to speak about free expression and the movies. It was a timely invitation, given the release this month of “Kill the Messenger,” a biopic about investigative reporter Gary Webb, the arrival in theater this weekend of “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden, and the forthcoming release of “Rosewater,” Jon Stewart’s directorial debut about a journalist detained in Iran. And freedom of speech is not just a rich subject for film, but a pressing issue for filmmakers both in the United States and abroad.
Battles over speech restrictions and efforts to publish important news stories make for good movies not only because filmmakers have an interest in free expression, but also because these stories pit determined individuals against powerful forces. That storytelling orientation can lead to its own kind of bias, of course. Gary Webb may have been hellbent on the idea that the Central Intelligence Agency is the main reason the United States was hit so hard by crack cocaine, but his fierce pursuit of the story is not a substitute for actually having conclusive proof that it was true.
“Rosewater” does a nice job of demonstrating why Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) was detained in Iran after shooting a spot for “The Daily Show,” for which Stewart is the anchor: Iranian authorities decided to interpret as serious a satirical bit and determined that Bahari was using his Newsweek assignment as cover for spying. But in the film, Stewart does not address what responsibility “The Daily Show” had to Bahari and his safety, given that Bahari had to go back to covering the lead-up to the Iranian elections after “The Daily Show” got what it needed from him.
These questions of responsibility are at the heart of a critically important point Hornaday made in our conversation about the lines between art, journalism and propaganda. As fact-checking movies has become a more common form of entertainment journalism, filmmakers — particularly those working on stories about current events — feel some pressure to demonstrate the authenticity of their work, particularly by detailing the research they did, including interviews with or the participation of real-life players in the story filmmakers are telling.
But as strong as the draw of this sort of process might be, it also risks exposing writers and directors to the same sort of prejudices that journalists on a beat can experience. They trust the people who will speak to them and become skeptical of those who will not, and they risk mistaking inside information they are given access to as the full story.
Variations of this can happen in high and low art alike. Mark Boal, the screenwriter for Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” was accused of collaborating with the CIA to make changes to the film in exchange for access to information about the investigation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
By contrast, “Act of Valor,” a campy movie that started out as a Navy training film and starred active-duty Navy SEALs, became an odd hybrid of action movie and promotional project. (The Navy Special Warfare unit monitored its production.) It proved a reasonable audience draw, pulling in $70 million at the box office against a budget of $12 million.
These sorts of close collaborations raise many difficult questions for filmmakers. Should documentarians claim to be journalists in order to obtain the legal ability to protect their sources? Should makers of fictional films disclose their sourcing, and if so, how? Unlike in nonfiction storytelling, it is difficult to weave sourcing into a fictional narrative without acknowledging its status as fiction. And what restrictions would claiming to be journalists place on filmmakers in places where artists may be allowed more leeway than reporters?
Neither Hornaday nor I would ever say that free-speech restrictions are worth it for the artistic innovations that result from clever efforts to circumvent those crackdowns. But it is true that some lovely and important movies of the past several years have come from such stifled environments.
Take “Wadjda,” the first feature-length film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, a movie that to the government represents its tolerance toward artistic expression. Haifaa al-Mansour made a sharp and charming movie about the little girl of the title (Waad Mohammed) who enters a Koran recitation contest to earn the money to buy a bicycle she can race with the boy next door. “Wadjda” is a lovely family movie, far better than many stateside offerings, and it also draws a clever parallel between Wadjda’s yearning for mobility and her mother’s reliance on the immigrant men who drive Saudi women to work.
In making “Wadjda,” the restrictions Mansour faced were cultural more than governmental. She had to direct some scenes from the inside of a van to avoid violating taboos about how women present themselves in public. “Wadjda” is a testament to her determination and her directorial vision, which penetrated the vehicle that sometimes separated her from her actors.
Similarly, Hornaday pointed out that Iran has a flourishing film culture despite that country’s restrictions on speech, chronicled in both “Rosewater” and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s wonderful film “Tales,” which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. In Iran, limits on expression have produced filmmakers such as Academy Award-winning director Asghar Farhadi, whose movies, including “A Separation,” often focus on domestic life, addressing government policy indirectly.
And Joshua Oppenheimer’s outrageously creative “The Act of Killing” is a searing and wildly creative workaround to the Indonesian government’s efforts to keep him from speaking with the survivors of a genocidal killing campaign that took place in 1965 and 1966. Ostensibly targeting Communists, the killings were more indiscriminate and claimed the lives of an estimated 500,000 people.
Because he was barred from interviewing survivors and their families, Oppenheimer approached some of the perpetrators instead. Known as movie-theater gangsters because they used to deal in black-market film tickets, these men talked about themselves and their actions in cinematic terms. Oppenheimer worked with them to re-create their massacres in short films that used the tropes of Hollywood movies, simultaneously illustrating the self-glorification of mass murderers and an ugly undercurrent to one of America’s biggest cultural exports.
There were no easy answers to the questions the audience asked us yesterday about shield protections for artists and their sources or about the impact of American surveillance culture on American filmmaking. But the conversation emphasized that the right to make movies is one worth fighting for — and one to exercise with a full respect for just how powerful film is.