In yet another blow for free speech, the Washington Post is reporting (tip to Green Cine Daily) that the MPAA has given a thumbs down to this poster for Michael Winterbottom's upcoming The Road to Guantanamo:
"The reason given was that the burlap bag over the
guy's head was depicting torture, which wasn't
appropriate for children to see," said Howard Cohen,
co-president of Roadside Attractions, which is
distributing the film in North America.
Gayle Osterberg, a spokesperson for the MPAA, said
its standards for print advertising are particularly
"If it's a poster that's hanging in a theater, anyone
who walks into that theater, regardless of what movie
they've come to see, will be exposed to it," said
The Post article, written by Phillip Kennicott, makes clear the disconnect between the MPAA's mommy-culture and the Bush administration's policy of "all's fair (and legal) in war and war":
Although Osterberg says that torture is not specifically
cited in the guidelines governing print materials, the
proscription against violence, blood and disturbing
scenes "would probably encompass" it. Thus, the
MPAA's decision puts it at odds with the U.S.
government, which has repeatedly defended
techniques, including hooding prisoners, as not
legally torture, and not inconsistent with the basic
American values the MPAA tries to uphold.
In a 2003 Department of Defense report, hooding
was given a green light, as not inconsistent with
the United States' obligations under international
conventions or U.S. law. The report also approved
prolonged standing, though stipulated that it "should
never make the detainee exhausted to the point of
weakness or collapse." And that it not be "enforced
by physical restraints."
Which means that the MPAA required a change in
the image that removed something not deemed
torture (hooding) and focused the image on the
bound hands and extended arms that clearly
depicts someone forced to stand (or worse, hang)
under restraint to the point of collapse, which might
well be torture.
Cue up another edit for Kirby Dick, who's MPAA-expose This Film is Not Yet Rated is set for release from IFC this fall. Dick, whose film has been a sensation at film festivals all year, was still editing (and indeed still doing interviews for) the final theatrical version of the film when I met him at February's True/False Film Festival. One of the points of Kirby's film is that most of the MPAA's members (who are outed by Dick and a private investigator) are Republicans, although the new MPAA head, Dan Glickman, was in Bill Clinton's cabinet.
Whether there are explicit political reasons for censoring Winterbottom's poster or not, the idea that we need to "protect people" from the image above is just one more example of the notion that "we can't handle the truth". Whether it's pictures of coffins with American flags on them or the gruesome operating room footage in the upcoming HBO doc Baghdad ER - there is this notion that we need to protect the public from the idea that war has some ugly consequences. The further implication is that pointing out anything that might make the public weary or queasy about war is an implicit anti-war statement. So the only way to truly respect and support the troops is to make as if the whole operation in Iraq, in Afghanistan and throughout the so-called War on Terror is a fun-filled romp of school building and purple fingers.
One certainly doesn't expect the MPAA, which claims repeatedly that they are not in the censorship business, to stop overnight its campaign to protect us from multiple body thrusts in a simulated sex act or from the unpleasantness of two people of the same sex making out. But when it gets into the business of determining that a burlap sack is an image too graphic for public consumption, particularly in an age when the Abu Ghraib photos are seared onto our consciousness, they're not taking a stand for the children. They're infantilizing a nation.
Or, as Kennicott wraps:
The small flap over the Guantanamo movie poster
mirrors, in many ways, the larger issue of how the
subject, and the image of torture, circulates within
American culture. American newspapers, which for
years now have held extraordinarily graphic images
of the Abu Ghraib abuses, have kept to standards
of taste that make many, if not most, of the images
unprintable. Yet many of those images circulate
freely outside the United States, where they
continue to inflame opinion against the U.S. and its
As the photos from Abu Ghraib began to trickle out,
and with new revelations about the extent and
seriousness of prisoner abuse, the importance of
images to frame the torture debate has grown.
Without seeing those images, it can be difficult to
build a visceral case against the Bush
administration's substantial relaxing of rules
regulating torture. Advocates for full disclosure,
including many voices on the Internet, have
argued that the consequences of an American
drift toward acceptance or indifference to torture
are so profound that there should be exceptions
to the usual standards of taste. Which is essentially
the argument Cohen made to the MPAA.
They listened, said Cohen. "But they just didn't want
the head with a bag on it."