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Monday, December 29, 2014

On Ridley Scott's Exodus and Bannings

The Washington Post reports that Egypt has banned Ridley Scott's controversial Bible film, Exodus (starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, and Ben Kingsley), due to "alleged historical inaccuracies and a 'Zionist' agenda."  You can read the article for more detail, though I would suggest extra care here given the region under discussion and the inevitable spin that will come out of U.S. news sources.  For the record:  the BBC has reported the same thing, more or less.

I should also note that I'm not going to defend Exodus from the charges that it is inaccurate in any direct sense.  Honestly, I don't think the movie should have been made.  Its white-washing of history and clear manipulation of Biblical narrative for "sensationalist imagery" -- not to mention Ridley Scott's absurd defense of the former -- have not endeared the film to me.  In fact, I'm perfectly content with never seeing Exodus, and I sincerely hope it does so poorly that Hollywood thinks again before letting Ridley Scott ruin anything else.  But none of this is a reason to ban the film.  They made it, and if theaters want to play it, then so be it.

Now, to my thoughts:

As a general rule, I am against censorship, allowing for exceptions that might arise in which censorship might be necessary (no, I haven't a clue what those exceptions might look like).  Of course, when I say "censorship," I mean "from the government or its subsidiaries."  While I might be bothered by a theater refusing to play a film, my objections would be personal, not ethical or legal. Censorship from the government, however, moves beyond a personal level.  
One business entity making a quality judgement has little bearing on the public's perception of a work of art.  After all, there are theaters devoted entirely to independent films, and so they intentionally leave out all sorts of films that do not fit their criteria, in part because so many of those theaters are small and cannot play every indie film that gets released.  The Hippodrome Theater in Gainesville (where I live) does this.  They probably play 10% of the "significant" independent films released in a year because they do not have the space -- nor the funds -- of a company like Regal Cinemas, which receives, I imagine, 100 times the attendance of the Hipp.  And so the Hipp must make judgments on what it wants to play and for how long.  Those judgments might involve content, the assessment of the local audience, money, and so on and so forth.  All fair in the economics game.

But the government doesn't have the luxury of reflecting the voice of one entity, let alone a small collection of people working within that entity.  It is meant to reflect the voice of a nation.  In the case of the U.S., that voice is a protected voice, not just by our Constitution, but also by the individual laws we have put in place to protect artistic and everyday expression.  We have a history of that protection lapsing, and we still struggle with a culture of book banning.  Ever more the reason to discuss these rights and to continue fighting for them.

Egypt, however, is not the U.S. and is not bound by our rules and legal structures (as should be obvious).  Here, I think the principle of expression is paramount, and that's something that I find difficult to support beyond the confines of the U.S.  After all, it's not every day that I am asked to defend my perspective of human rights with someone who does not share my nation's history.  How do I justify a position which says that Egypt's banning of Exodus is wrong -- even somewhat fascistic -- when that position arrives from a growing up in a nation where such values are mostly upheld?  Even if I suggest that expression is a fundamental right, can I defend that without resorting to a Western view?

As it turns out, I can.  Sorta.  Egypt has been part of the United Nations since 1945 (Oct. 24).  In 1948, they adopted the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which contains a handy little section on expression:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
In short, Egypt agreed to the same principles which protect artistic and everyday expression in the U.S. (though, I must admit that the U.N.'s language is a tad clearer on the implementation).  Egypt's decision to ban Exodus, in other words, is a clear violation of this right/principle.

We could certainly get into arguments about whether the U.N. has any authority or whether its Declaration is anything other than symbolic.  Regardless, that Egypt adopted the Declaration suggests that they agreed with the principles written within it -- or, rather, that a previous government did and no government afterwards saw fit to contradict that adoption.  A banning, in short, is fundamentally unethical, and it sets a precedent that allows for other moralistic decisions about art.  After all, that's what Egypt's banning is.  Exodus was not banned because it is obscene or can be shown to have any real impact on Egypt's population; it was banned because it does not represent history as Egypt's government would want it.
While it is probably true that Exodus is disgustingly wrong about its history (it certainly failed on the racial front), there is a suspiciously religious-moralistic flavor to this particular banning.  If it were not so marked, then one could look back through Egypt's history and find instances of other blatantly inaccurate films being banned.  But Egypt released Gladiator, 300, 300:  Rise of an Empire, The Patriot, and 10,000 B.C.  One might argue that some of these simply take creative license with historical periods, but you can't say that they are accurate films; given that at least two of these intended to be accurate, they have the same potential effect on a certain segment of the population as a historically-inaccurate Bible flick (huge emphasis on certain segment of the population).

A simple rejection of historical inaccuracy, while still violating the principles under discussion here, would seem less disturbing than what Egypt has actually presented.  Here, state-sponsored notions of morality, religiosity, and history have now determined which art is accessible to the Egyptian public.  Nothing good ever comes from such practices.  Unfortunately, given the turmoil in Egypt over the past few years, I'm not sure they'll notice.  That's unfortunate, but understandable.  But it goes to an underlying issue with so many governments:  so many of them, including my own, have deemed it fit to dictate the terms of expression to the rest of us, sometimes under the guise of "protecting us from harmful ideas."

Me:  I'd rather we lived in a world where we all have to parse through the good and the bad instead of having some entity serving as the ultimate parent.  Art, as I've mentioned before, must be controversial to force us to think about the world in which we live.  Sometimes, even shitty and/or inaccurate art can serve the same purpose.  After all, Exodus has got us thinking about ethnic identity in ancient Egypt.  Just 10 years ago, I'm almost certain we wouldn't be having this conversation at all -- at least, not in any very public way.  That, at least, is a good thing.

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