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The Interview, the Sony hack, North Korea and the future of political film

By Mark Longden | 19 December 2014

Promotional poster for The Interview

Promotional poster for The Interview

Thanks to Mark Longden who sent us this very timely contribution on the furore surrounding the film The Interview and the hack on Sony.

If you have been reading the entertainment news, you may have already known that Sony Pictures has completely cancelled its proposed 25 December release of The Interview, a comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-Un of North Korea starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. Now the fate of the film is making front page headlines worldwide.

A group calling itself the Guardians of Peace hacked Sony’s computers, taking copies of a number of films, and millions of pages of emails and scripts. So as well as finding out that a couple of senior Sony executives are extremely unpleasant people, it’s given the studio an excuse that the very poor box office performance of its Annie remake is not that it was a terrible idea ,but that everyone had access to a DVD-quality copy before it came out officially.

Other people have noticed that the Guardians of Peace refer to themselves as “GOP” a lot – the same set of initials that the US Republican Party is known by (Grand Old Party). This might indicate it being a joke by a few hackers, and not North Korean cyber-terrorists.

At the time of publishing, the FBI has just formally accused the North Korean government of being behind the hack, while China has demanded to see the evidence.

Threats

What isn’t a joke is this same group’s threats to blow up cinemas that were showing The Interview – the more conservative cinema chains said they weren’t going to show it, and after a day of defiance from Sony, which said it would go ahead no matter what, the company has now chosen to remove the film completely. Sony’s share price is down by 10%, and hopefully a couple of racist asshole senior execs are going to lose their jobs.

If you’re looking for backbone from anyone in this industry, you’re out of luck – several independent theatre chains have requested copies of Team America: World Police, the puppet movie made by the South Park guys a few years ago, where Kim Jong-Il was the bad guy. Paramount, the people behind that one, have refused any and all requests.

The first thing that sprang to my mind is: we’ve just had #Gamergate rumbling through the press, where women were getting death threats by the dozen solely for the reason that they didn’t want sexist computer games any more. Don’t you wish people had taken those threats as seriously as these?

You’d better believe the cinema chains and movie companies take the threats over The Interview seriously, because this is costing a lot of people a lot of money. If you saw all that money being spent on a Seth Rogen and James Franco movie, when you’d been laughed at for wanting to cancel a serious speaking engagement due to death threats (as was the case with the critic Anita Sarkeesian), don’t you think you’d be a bit pissed off too?

Criticises

It’s also, realistically, the end for even vaguely political films getting made through the studios. If you’ve got a script that criticises the political right, organised religion or any particular country that isn’t a friend of the US, then get ready for a lot of rejection because now all those groups realise anonymous threats can get a heck of a lot done.

We’re going to have a lot of family dramas, historical dramas and Christian movies (not that any of those genres are bad in and of themselves, but it’s very unlikely anyone’s going to be making any art in this climate).

This is also about how movies have been made recently. Can you remember the last mainstream movie that was even remotely critical of China? If you can, you’ve got a long memory because, realising that Chinese box office was very important, as is China’s industrial might, big films have very deliberately not even mentioned them – most famously, in the terrible remake of Red Dawn, where the Chinese invasion force was digitally altered to be North Korean.

NK has been the cinematic baddie of choice for a long time now, despite it being a tiny country, unable to feed itself, and of zero threat to anyone – outside North Korea, that is. The crisis over The Interview will end that ridiculous state of affairs, at least.

Just entertainment

It also gives the lie to the “well, it’s not propaganda, it’s just entertainment” canard that gets trotted out from time to time. If it was just entertainment, why not be critical of China? Or Saudi Arabia, the state with a tiny number of millionaires and a lot of near-slaves?

Freedom of expression is important – and that we’re this upset about what was, according to all pre-release views, a pretty average movie – indicates that those principles are still strong. If only we’d been this upset about death threats towards women, or slave labour conditions in China!

This is not only a bad thing going forward, but it shows how far we’ve come in a relatively short time. Can you imagine The Satanic Verses being published in this climate? Or, to use a more recent and more relevant example, Borat? What about Team America: World Police, which has Kim Jong Il as a villain?

Imagine it the other way, because a comedy film about a couple of guys from the Middle East choosing to assassinate President Obama due to the illegal wars he’s still involved in would go down pretty badly in the US, freedom of speech be damned. In fact, the US-made Death of a President a few years ago was investigated by the FBI.

Wider point

I’m a socialist, and spending too much effort defending the right of a corporation with racist senior execs to produce a film where wealthy Americans treat the murder of real foreign heads of state as a joke isn’t a great use of my time. But there is an important wider point to make: that those people shouldn’t be free from criticism, and it’s right to say that satire and humour are best used against powerful targets. Look back to one of the all-time great works of cinema, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, for ample evidence of that.

We should defend the right to freedom of speech, but we should be critical of how that freedom is abused – to allow racists onto Question Time, or to spread vicious lies about left-wing political figures as with NUM leader Arthur Scargill during the miners’ strike – just as we should be critical of how it’s ignored – threatening movie theatres with bombing to get them to stop watching a film, altering the words of history textbooks to remove references to slavery and increase references to religion.

Every Tweet you see from someone criticising the cinema chains for refusing to show it, ask where they were when religious protests effectively drove Jerry Springer: The Opera out of business. Ask where they were when the US used hackers to disable Iranian power plants a few years ago, which actually affected peoples’ lives.



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