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The roots of censorship

By Sara Pentz
web posted February 5, 2007

It begins small; often on the local level. Then it mushrooms. And, next the bandwagon begins. That's why it is critical to stop bad ideas at their roots.

One of the latest bad ideas to take root has done so in North Carolina where state Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has called for "…the government to review (movie) scripts before cameras start rolling in North Carolina." While Sen. Berger, nor anyone writing about this proposal, has mentioned the big "C" word, censorship is what underlies Berger's call to action, even though he says that his ‘system' would only apply to those films seeking the state's filmmaker incentive program that allows as much as 15 percent of what is spent on filming in North Carolina to be refunded to the production company.

The ‘system' of Sen. Berger's is a potential mushroom clouding the meaning and intent of his lawmaking activities. Beware the bandwagon.

North Carolina was the locale last summer for the filming of the controversial film, Hounddog, starring12-year old Dakota Fanning. The Fanning film, which was introduced at the often controversial Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah (2007), has been a flashpoint of controversy since it was filmed on locations in North Carolina's New Hanover and Brunswick counties last summer (2006).

Fanning's role as Lewellen is an incest and rape victim in the 1950s Southern Bayou country. In the film, Fanning's character gyrates in her underwear, wakes up as her naked father climbs into her bed, demands that a pre-pubescent boy expose himself to her in exchange for a kiss, and finally, is raped by a teenager with the promise of Elvis Presley tickets.

According to published reports only Fanning's face and shoulders are seen throughout the rape scene. North Carolina Catholic activist Bill Donahue has, however, called for a federal investigation into the film for its theme which he described as child abuse, and went so far as to call for a boycott of the film. Leave it to a Catholic to tell us what we can and cannot watch. Do you see the mushroom growing?

North Carolina state law denies this particular tax incentive to films that are obscene––defined as anything depicting sexual conduct presented in an offensive way. Offensive is defined as something that appeals to our prurient interest, lacks any serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value, and "is not free speech as protected by the state or federal constitutions."

This state law includes a reference to free speech in a most peculiar manner. It presupposes that films produced in North Carolina are not free speech; thus allowing the lawmakers to circumvent any accusations that they are infringing on the free speech guarantee.

Meanwhile Sen. Berger is preparing legislation drafts which will not allow films to receive the North Carolina incentive if the content of the script are found "objectionable." While most of us would certainly consider the childish antics in the Hounddog film more than "objectionable," there are always choices involved in movie going. They include the choice to watch the film, not to watch the film, to exit the movie theatre that is playing an "objectionable" film, to write a review of the film to the local newspaper, and to spread the word about your opinion of the film.

In fact, the film has received very bad reviews, not because of the rape scene, but because reviewers seem to agree that the film's content is meandering, the film production is of poor quality and that the acting is considered bad.

The Sundance Film Festival has often taken on controversial independent films which, when promoted, give this Festival and its founder Robert Redford some degree of dubious publicity. While Redford is surely at the opposite end of the spectrum from both the aforementioned Berger and Donahue, the so-called artistic standards used to qualify films for the Festival have often been questionable in terms of taste and artistic value.

Since it's founding in l981, those standards have fallen even further with the film entry this year (2007) of something called Zoo. This entry is about zoophiles who are apparently humans who like to have sex with animals. The documentary explores the activities of a group of men in the Pacific Northwest who engaged in bestiality. To be precise, they engaged in sex with Arabian stallions––or they did until one man died from a perforated colon in 2005, according to one published review.

Despite Redford's debatable taste in films, he still has the right to include any kind of film in his festival that he chooses.

In the meantime, state Sen. Berger and Catholic activist Donahue have jumped on the bandwagon to promote censorship of film scripts before they go to production. This is seriously incompatible with our rules of law. We do not allow governments to abridge our freedom of speech. Sen. Berger and Mr. Donahue are engaging in a very bad idea. It needs to be exposed for what it is––the roots of censorship.

© 2007 Sara Pentz

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