The Interview and Censorship

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One of the films that has been making headlines this year is The Interview, especially since the following synopsis was released in June:

In the action-comedy The Interview, Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) run the popular celebrity tabloid TV show “Skylark Tonight.” When they discover that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is a fan of the show, they land an interview with him in an attempt to legitimize themselves as journalists. As Dave and Aaron prepare to travel to Pyongyang, their plans change when the CIA recruits them, perhaps the two least-qualified men imaginable, to assassinate Kim Jong-un.

Now this wouldn’t be the first time the assassination of a head of state was put on film or even a comedy, with films like The Naked Gun including a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth II and Team America including an unflattering portrayal of Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father) to nary a protest.  Nonetheless, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea hasn’t been subtle in its criticism, threatening war over the film and taking the issue to the United Nations. While nothing much came up after changes to the films were promised, Sony Pictures Entertainment – parent company of Columbia Pictures, distributors of the film – was soon hacked, leaking documents and unreleased films over the internet. While some benign aspects of the leak kept people occupied, things soon took a nasty turn once the hackers threatened film-goers watching The Interview, leading to suspicions that the cyberattack on Sony was carried out on the orders of North Korean officials.

When faced with this situation, a number of major cinema chains chose not to screen the film. The New York film premier was subsequently cancelled, and Sony issued the following statement:

In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.

While releasing the film online as a video on demand seemed like a possibilitysources indicate that Sony now has no plans to release The Interview at all. It seems that the hackers have won, for now.

While it’s fairly easy to be frustrated at this turn of events, I can only laud the respective theatre management teams for prioritising the safety of their patrons if there was ever any real threat (which they could have been held responsible for). If not, they could have just been more self-interested and wary of being hacked themselves, which no entity would want. Sony’s decision is likewise detestable but understandable, as the hackers have the upper hand at this point. The response elsewhere has been almost unanimous, understandably condemning the move as bowing to the demands of terrorists and as an affront to the freedom of expression. Anyone who simply accuses Sony of cowardice should, however, remember that they may have bowed to pressure, but they are doing so at gunpoint.

That being said, I do not believe by any stretch of the imagination that Sony should leave The Interview on the shelf altogether. While I support diplomacy, I also believe in the freedom of expression, especially when it comes to discussing states like North Korea. The same state came under the scrutiny of a Commission of Inquiry on human rights in DPRK, and the findings are disgusting, to say the least. While the dire human rights situation in North Korea was basically an open secret, the inquiry exposed the sheer depravity of the totalitarian regime. Respect for basic human decency demands that satire tackle the issue in some form or another, no matter how subtle. To see a comedy like The Interview – which uses the Western outlook on North Korea as more of a comic situation exposing human fallibility than actually commenting on the grave situation – seemingly shot down in line with the wishes of people of such monstrous behaviour thus feels like a major loss.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of all this is that it sets a dangerous precedent. Firstly, bowing down to such demands could embolden the hackers and their possible masters to employ the same means in future or go even further. Secondly, expression has become that little less freer and our entertainment sphere could have just been damaged. Ironically, the same liberty we now enjoy through the internet can be used to the advantage of its critics; we could surmise that Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Walt Disney’s Der Fuehrer’s Face – or even the purely comedic Hot Shots! Part Deux – would have faced similar attacks on their respective studios were they produced in 2014. In the words of George R.R. Martin: “If Kim Jong-Un scares them, Adolf Hitler would have had them sh—— in their smallclothes.” The Interview itself is, after all, a comedy at best and witty satire at worst. What will happen when a filmmaker wants to make a more sombre film which involves the realities of North Korea or any other country with a hostile regime? That idea will now have to be nipped in the bud out of distributors’ fear of reprisals. Plans to produce the thriller Pyongyang (starring Steve Carell and directed by Gore Verbinski) have already been scrapped in the fallout of the Sony debacle, with Verbinski being candid that “I find it ironic that fear is eliminating the possibility to tell stories that depict our ability to overcome fear.” Hopefully this won’t start us on the slippery slope towards needless self-censorship.

The optimist in me cannot but hope that Sony reconsider releasing the film through other means, either through home media or online. The publicity generated by this whole story has generated enough interest in The Interview to make it a probable success should this come to be. It’s a shame that the quality of the film itself has almost become inconsequential, but its release would send the right message about freedom of speech and respecting the basic rights of citizens.

Update

Sony Pictures have gone ahead and released The Interview after all – both online and in select theatres – and it has gone one to become their highest grossing online release to date. The film itself has received mixed reviews, turning out to be nothing more than a fun – if at times dumb and excessive – comedy. As much of a shame it is that the quality of the film has become almost inconsequential, its release should be savoured as a victory against – in this case unwarranted – censorship. If this paves the way for more sombre and/or intelligent productions to be made which comment on the excesses of pariah states and which actually deserve a profitable return, all the better.

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