Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas! The Fight Against Censorship Celebrates a Victory

A Christmas Day movie release seems more like Halloween as the Orwellian nightmares infecting our domestic politics have spread to the realm of international affairs. The Interview, a film starring James Franco and Seth Rogan, set for a Christmas debut, reinvents the recently popular template slapstick comedy films centering on ordinary guys in absurd situations with the added dimension of international politics. Internet Movie Database summarizes The Interview as follows:


Dave Skylark and producer Aaron Rapoport run the celebrity tabloid show "Skylark Tonight." When they land an interview with a surprise fan, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, they are recruited by the CIA to turn their trip to Pyongyang into an assassination mission.


I was eager to see this movie; excited that someone was branching out from the typical “bro-comedy” to make a piece of meaningful political satire that would appeal to a broad audience. Television shows such as the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report illustrate how comedy is a highly effective way to express political viewpoints. Two famous comedic actors using this technique in a major motion picture would be exciting, fun, and potentially very powerful.


Then Sony, the company releasing the film, fell victim to computer hackers. The hackers first leaked several upcoming Sony films to the Internet. Next, confidential company data, including salary numbers, layoff strategies, employee details and 3,800 social insurance numbers (SINs), were made public. On December 8th, the hackers published a statement online, demanding that Sony cancel The Interview’s release. “Stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War! The destiny of Sony is totally up to the wise reaction and measure of Sony.” More data continued to be leaked, including private eMails between Sony executives. On December 16th, the hackers threatened to harm moviegoers who saw the film. “We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places The Interview be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.”


It is the general consensus of experts, including the FBI, that North Korea orchestrated these cyberattacks to prevent the release of The Interview. A hundred years ago, if someone wished to shut down a media outlet, they would smash a printing press or burn copies of a book that was deemed offensive. Today, an unknown number of nameless, faceless people can work from any location on earth to bring a major company to its knees. It is honestly terrifying that the great advances in technology the world has come to enjoy have left people, companies, and even governments vulnerable to such devastating attacks from remote distances.


And that is why acts of terrorism are performed. To cause terror. To frighten people into obedience. Unfortunately, in the case of The Interview, it worked. After the attacks, several movie theatre companies, starting with Carmike Cinemas, announced that they would not be showing the film. Sony followed up by saying they supported the decision of the distributors, and that they would be cancelling the scheduled Christmas release date.


After these developments, several theatres decided to take a stand against North Korea’s efforts to censor American media by showing Team America: World Police instead. Within a day, however, reports were being released that these screenings were also being cancelled.


As this story continues to unfold, however, it is clear that The Interview and the controversy surrounding it are not simply going to disappear. In fact, North Korea may have started many more problems for itself than had they simply left Sony alone. President Obama made a speech this week in which he said that he wished Sony had not pulled the movie, adding, “I love Seth.” He assured the world that attacks like this would not be tolerated, and that North Korea would be punished for its actions, although no plan of retaliation was specified. On a broader note, Mr. Obama stated “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” He pointed out that attacks like this could have serious implications for our economy, which of course, it can.


It is commendable that the President of the United States is taking action to defend a private company that is being bullied by another nation. But the government stepping in isn't enough. Sony may have saved itself for the moment by pulling The Interview, but this could have devastating consequences in the long run. If The Interview is never shown, Sony will probably lose a large amount of money and many Seth Rogan fans will be disappointed. But the cancellation of this film means much more than that. It means that cyberattacks work. It means that if a country dislikes what someone is saying, or a product someone is producing, they can bully them from thousands of miles away and change their actions. This one film cancellation sets a frightening precedent that could have a devastating impact on free speech and on commerce.

Cancelling The Interview sends a message to the world- "If you bully us, we'll give in." So what happens when Sony does something else North Korea doesn't like? Or will they self-censor for all eternity, to avoid future cyberterrorist attacks? What happens if they offend another country? All of these questions apply to other companies as well. If Sony can get shut up through cyberterrorist attacks, will other companies do the same? It's likely that we'll find out, now that the first domino has fallen. (Especially because said first domino is a multimillion dollar company...)


As more and more people continue to speak out in support of this film, it is quite possible that Sony will stand behind its movie after all. Yesterday, it announced that The Interview will be released on its scheduled release date of December 25th, but only in select theatres (for now). A statement from Michael Lynton, Chairman and CEO of Sony Entertainment, assures viewers "We have never given up on releasing The Interview and we're excited our movie will be in a number of theaters on Christmas Day. At the same time, we are continuing our efforts to secure more platforms and more theaters so that this movie reaches the largest possible audience.” If this is true, I will absolutely find a theatre close to me and go see the film. I will likely see it multiple times to show my support for it. I will write a review and post it here for all my lovely readers.


The push to share this film with as many people as possible has led to yet another development. The Interview will, indeed, be getting its Christmas release, primarily online. This is a great way to use technology to promote the spread of ideas, as opposed to the cyberterrorists’ usage of technology to bully people into silence.


Several artistic venues have used this entire incident as a way to speak out against bullying tactics and censorship. Secret Cinema, a British film and theatre group, held an event this weekend “with a view to strengthen the resolve of filmmakers and artists against the threat of censorship, and to stand in solidarity with artists whose freedom of expression is routinely curtailed.”  Several theatres in America are planning similar events.


These are the best possible reactions to an attempt to impose censorship. It is unclear what sort of actions the American government will take against North Korea, but it is very possible that small-scale events such as Secret Cinema and Sony’s release (even a nonconventional one) of the film will be even more powerful in showing that a dictator on the other side of the world cannot censor another nation’s media.


Until I get the opportunity to see the film in its entirety, I will settle for watching this clip from the end of The Interview. This is just one of the many scenes that North Korea did not want shown. And for that reason alone, we should all just keep on playing it.

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