As dissent continues to flourish in this country, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that discordant responses to films is also on the rise. Divisiveness has always been one thing among film critics, with publications throughout the past decade loving to showcase opposing views of everything from Dancer in the Dark to Tree of Life. But it’s another thing for broader American society to not only disagree with one another but to really go at each other over a certain motion picture or movies overall. This is the year that a right-wing political documentary (2016: Obama’s America) outgrossed all but one of Michael Moore’s films, including the gun violence issue doc Bowling for Columbine. It’s also a year, now, when the notion that violent films may have an impact on gun violence more than guns themselves is being spouted by everyone from NRA leaders to actor Jamie Foxx.
Does that make Foxx’s new movie, Django Unchained, one of the most dangerous films of 2012? It depends on whether or not you agree with that idea of films and video games being so influential. Also depending on your side of a debate, you might agree with those calling Zero Dark Thirty “dangerous,” as Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side; My Trip to Al-Qaeda) has now done. I haven’t seen the film yet, so I can’t offer any real opinion on the torture scenes provoking discussion, but here’s what Gibney has to say about it in a lengthy article he wrote for The Huffington Post:
Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow have been irresponsible and inaccurate in the way they have treated this issue in their film. I am not alone in that view. Yesterday, Senators Carl Levin, Dianne Feinstein and John McCain wrote a letter to Michael Lynton, the Chairman of Sony Pictures, accusing the studio of misrepresenting the facts and “perpetuating the myth that torture is effective,” and asking for the studio to correct the false impression created by the film. The film conveys the unmistakable conclusion that torture led to the death of bin Laden. That’s wrong and dangerously so, precisely because the film is so well made.
He takes to task Boal’s claim that it’s just “a movie” and Bigelow’s conflicting statement that it’s a “journalistic account” and their joint refusal to engage with the criticisms and debate about the film’s depiction of torture as a positive means to finding someone like Osama Bin Laden — especially given that there’s no truth in the idea of torture resulting in the Al-Qaeda leader’s death. He writes, “Boal and Bigelow, by all accounts, are frustrated that the discussion of their film has been bogged down in a political debate that they want no part of. I would say, in response, that the debate is not political at all. The subject of torture is one of the great moral issues of our time. Boal and Bigelow shouldn’t run from it.”
Is it the responsibility of cinema, whether of artistic or commercial intent, dramatic or documentary, to engage with the great moral issues of our time? Some certainly do mean to, but not all are concerned with such things. I was talking to a fellow critic about the new movie Jack Reacher this week, and while I found it to be a decent pulpy modern-day western, he found it to be downright dangerous in its misogynistic representation of women (he’s not the only one to address this either). Of the two female characters, one is a presumably intelligent lawyer who seems clueless and also is obviously turned on by the title antihero and his lawless ways. The other is a “slut” (basically the western genre whore equivalent) who gets what she deserves. She’s killed easily because of the way a bad guy is able to convince her that they’ve slept together when she was intoxicated.
My friend believes it’s not okay for movies to have “sluts” in movies where they’re clearly stereotyped as such for the viewer’s amusement and simplistic judgment and expectations for what she has coming. Even if the film (adapted from a 2005 novel) is glued to the western conventions it borrows, it is indeed guilty of holding onto a dated representation of women. But does it influence or encourage society’s double standards regarding gender and sexuality? Is the persistence of the “slut” image and pattern of action in cinema “dangerous” by impacting the world’s own view of women?
On a slightly related point, I’ve often been curious if the prevalence of infidelity in films is a reflection of how prevalent it is in society or if it sort of sanctions real-life acts of cheating by making it seem normal. The fact that infidelity can be found in such a large amount of movies has always been a great pet peeve of mine, but would I consider all these movies “dangerous” to the moral issue of society? If so, would I have to consider all the movies with gun violence dangerous to society as well? Or do we think of misogyny and infidelity as less an issue because they’re not always a matter of life and death the way guns are?
My critic friend (who I’m only keeping anonymous because I can’t reach him in order to get permission to name him, and also because it doesn’t matter) brought up The Invisible War in our discussion after arguing that we can only accept the misogyny of a film like Jack Reacher once we don’t have a major rape problem in America. Kirby Dick’s documentary is not only pertinent because it’s about rape but because it’s proof that films can be a real influence on society. Its exposure of the issue of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military directly impacted a policy change made by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. And it continues to inspire calls for further changes.
While The Invisible War shows us that nonfiction cinema can be a benevolence to society, disagreeable documentaries can therefore theoretically be a danger as well — any propaganda from the other side, for instance. Some feared (and some hoped) that 2016 could influence this year’s presidential election. But just as Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to do so in 2004, this doc had no effect — or at least not enough. Then there’s the case of Caveh Zahedi’s nonfiction film The Sheik and I, which came to SXSW with great controversy in March and just recently reignited a debate about its alleged dangerousness.
The Sheik and I is a satirical essay film initially commissioned for the United Arab Emirates’ Sharjah Biennial art festival, assigned with the purpose of illustrating “art as a subversive act.” Zahedi went over the line of what the Sharjah Art Foundation wanted, legal ramifications ensued and the feature that now exists came about as a result. To some of us, that result is an amusingly provocative and highly reflexive cinematic statement. To others, including and most notably film festival programmer Thom Powers (Toronto; Miami; Montclair; DOC NYC), it was an extremely dangerous and irresponsible work. In a letter to the director reprinted in Filmmaker magazine recently amidst a back and forth between Zahedi and Powers via their own websites, Powers wrote:
Since you asked me for feedback, I want to convey that I watched your film and found it deeply troubling for its breach of filmmaking ethics and reckless behavior toward people who put their faith in you.
The film is framed as championing artistic freedom, but rather than bearing the brunt of risk yourself, you put the greater risk on others – including minors – who could risk deportation, loss of livelihood and potentially worse. Surely you’re aware that 35 people have died in the last week over Koran burnings in Afghanistan. This is a volatile time in a part of the world that you profess to have little knowledge of.
I addressed the film plenty earlier in the year with a review and a two-part interview with Zahedi where I let him speak at length in response to allegations of risk and endangerment (there was plenty during SXSW screening Q&As as well). I trust that the filmmaker and his lawyer are smarter about the production and the international law that was involved with the doc’s release and the safety of those featured in the film. I also respect that Powers can have his own opinions as to the danger he believes is there for people thanks to The Sheik and I.
Seeing as the UAE has banned the film, they see it as some kind of danger. And there are other films that certain governments would view as dangerous to their own nations. China surely thinks the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is dangerous. North Korea is similarly not happy with Camp 14: Total Control Zone. Russia probably dislikes Putin’s Kiss. Israel can’t be pleased with 5 Broken Cameras. Iran definitely has a problem with This is Not a Film. On a more individual level, documentary “villain” Terry Hobbs undoubtedly finds both Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and West of Memphis dangerous to his reputation if nothing else.
But then we’re complicating the definition of dangerousness. To a degree, films that are dangerous to corrupt systems and oppressive states are a tremendous asset that cinema has for us as a society. And films that are dangerous to the morals and ethics and behaviors of our society and/or threaten necessary truths with disinformation or inaccuracy may be viewed as problematic for the same medium. Personally, I don’t feel in danger due to any films I’ve seen over the past year, not physically nor politically, but I’m only one small part of a greater whole.
Did you find any movies released in 2012 to be dangerous? Which ones?