Politics comes before lights and camera
Politics comes before lights and camera
27 Jul 2009
Dr Chris Scanlon
First published in The Age on 27 July, 2009
Controversies around film festivals may shock, but they are not unexpected.
The Melbourne International Film Festival has it all: dramas involving officials from foreign governments, larger than life characters sticking to matters of principles whatever the consequences and the struggles for liberation. And that was even before Friday's launch party got under way.
Among the controversies this year, the Chinese Government - followed by Chinese citizens able to hack into computers - took offence at the decision to include The 10 Conditions of Love, a documentary about Rebiya Kadeer, the leader of the Uighur people, China's Muslim minority. Beijing has accused Kadeer of inciting riots in Xinjiang, the home of the Uighur.
Two weeks ago the Chinese cultural attache tried to bully festival director Richard Moore into dropping the film from the program. Moore refused, and subsequently three Chinese films were withdrawn.
The stoush over The 10 Conditions of Love followed Ken Loach's announcement that he would withdraw his film Looking for Eric from the festival in protest over its acceptance of sponsorship from Israel.
In some respects, the most surprising thing about these kerfuffles is not that they have happened, but that they don't happen more often. While most of us think of film festivals as cultural events, the truth is that they are also deeply political events.
For the most part, the links between politics and film go unnoticed. Part of the reason for this is that most of us are not privy to the behind-the-scenes dealings that go into making a film. What we do see is usually filtered through an interview with the director, or perhaps, in the case of a film festival, a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers.
In these sessions, the film appears as the product of an individual visionary. This view of filmmaking is about as realistic as the standard Hollywood happy ending. The reality is that films are rarely, if ever, the personal, unadulterated vision of a director. They are influenced or, depending on your point of view, compromised from the start by those who bankroll the films.
While many of us are familiar with the commercial pressures to modify films - to include product placement, to cast a particular actor in the lead, to alter the ending to appeal to a particular market segment and so on - what gets far less attention is the extensive role played by political actors in the filmmaking process.
The role of political actors, and the nation state in particular, in the film industry is enormous. With the exception of Hollywood and, to some extent Bollywood, most films would not be made were it not for generous state subsidies. And in spite of nice-sounding claims about facilitating cultural dialogue, nation states don't fund films because they love a good story. They do so because film can be a highly effective means of spreading influence. Since they're footing the bill, it's understandable that they want a say in the content of the film and how it is positioned.
To re-phrase Clauswitz's well-known dictum about war as the continuation of politics by other means, films and film festivals are the continuation of politics by other means. It shouldn't be imagined that this applies only to authoritarian states such as China or political organisations with clear political objectives. Nearly every Australian film is made with some public money, and so filmmakers are subject to similar, if far more sophisticated and subtle, forms of state influence.
A filmmaker friend of mine tells of representatives from Australian state funding bodies who have the right to view the final cut of a film, accompanying directors into the edit suite to ensure that the films adhere to government messages.
Of course, the representatives never stoop to anything so vulgar as directly telling directors to cut scenes. Instead they say things like, "We don't think the film is working to its best advantage. We suggest you make these changes."
But what they mean is "take that out".
Against this backdrop, the most surprising aspect of the disputes affecting the Melbourne festival are how clumsily the politics has been handled.
China has miscalculated the extent of its reach and, in the process, provided both the Kadeer documentary and the film festival an avalanche of publicity. And Ken Loach, in remarkably poor political judgment, has effectively silenced himself by withdrawing his film.
The Kadeer and Loach issues are unlikely to be the only controversies at this year's film festival. No doubt, the festival's organisers are bracing themselves for more of the same when another documentary, Stolen, screens on Friday.
Stolen began as a family reunion story, but during filming, turned into an expose of alleged slavery practices by the Saharawi liberation organisation, the Polisario Front in Western Sahara.
When it screened at the Sydney International Film Festival in June this year, Fetim Sellami, who was portrayed in the film as a slave, travelled to Australia to confront the filmmakers, claiming that she and the Polisario Front had been misrepresented. Since then, there have be claims and counterclaims between the producers, non-government organisations and activists.
With so much political argy-bargy surrounding the films, festival-goers are going to have a tough time keeping both eyes on the screen.