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Silent Censorship

I had heard about countries where governments censor their artists and considered myself lucky. I was allowed to make anything I wanted.

I didn’t know I was censored. I know that now.

But the censorship I and other filmmakers and artists experience living in so-called "free market democracies" is different from clearly defined political censorship and, to a large part, we censor ourselves without even noticing. I'm not comparing ourselves to those suffering political oppression, but I want to take a moment to acknowledge the kind of censorship I'm experiencing.



In art school I had a freedom I might never find again. I'm sure many artists can identify with this, as we all had to meet the reality of making a living in a world where your ‘art’ also needs to be a ‘product’ if you are to survive.

In art school it took me a while to realize I had this freedom, I still had this idea of what I should be making, not sure where it came from, but wanting to be ‘good’ and ‘do the right things’ expected of me. But in my third year I made a project outside the curriculum, a film where I was completely free. I spent all my money on it: working extra didn’t feel like a burden, this film was wholly luxurious to make, in my mind. It was completely uncensored as I wasn't under any obligation to show it to anyone, ever. It was a naïve but not a pretentious film, because there was no reason to pretend something to myself. As it happened it was the first of my films to have had any kind of success: To She in Me. It was raw, young and immature perhaps, and I still blush and feel naked if someone mentions that they have seen it, but it was honest.

The artist as entrepreneur is prone to censorship

In capitalist democracies there is no one who decides what can and can’t be made, but it's very hard to make things that don’t generate money, so there are many films that simply will not get the chance. In Sweden there is a tradition of valuing art and films in a different way than by their commercial success and mainstream popularity, but these other values are under threat with new cultural politics and artists being more and more forced to work as entrepreneurs.

I find this a very scary notion, and we have to understand that silent censorship is a result of such policies.

At one screening of To She in Me at the Zebra Poetry Awards in Berlin, almost a decade ago, I met Avi Dabach, a wise Israeli filmmaker and video artist with whom I first discussed this issue and who later became a dear friend.

I wanted to share these thoughts with you, so I phoned Avi in Tel Aviv and asked him to remind me of that conversation we had years ago in Berlin.

MajaCan you remind me of what made you realise how so-called 'free democracies', or to be more precise, 'free market societies' lead to censoring of filmmakers?

Avi: It was a Jewish filmmaker, Hertz Frank, who was born in Russia and made many films during the Soviet era. For many years he managed to touch on very sensitive subjects and somehow get around the very rigid censorship enforced by the Soviet government. In the 1990s he moved to Israel. Despite the fact that there were no official censorship laws stopping him to make his films here, he didn’t manage to make anything. He could not fit into the commercial culture in Israel. I heard him speak once and he said it was easier for him to make films, even subversive films, in Soviet Russia, than to deal with the commercial TV in Israel. In a way he even preferred the Soviet censorship – since here, in a capitalist democracy, he was forced to censor himself.


Avi Dabach

Of course this does not just apply to him, but to most people in the industry. Even those who make decisions about funding are affected, since they are slaves to it as well, in one way or another. They have to make money out of the films, so they will not suggest topics that won’t generate money. For example, they will refrain from styles that are not popular and films that delve into a subject too deeply will also not receive funding, because they cannot be sold to a large commercial audience.

MajaHow does this affect the filmmakers?

Avi: In free democratic societies people end up censoring themselves because they know that some films will not get funded. Your film for example, which isn’t following a traditional commercial structure, would not get funded here. I know it was hard to get it funded in Europe as well, but it would not have been possible at all here in Israel, because here it’s even more capitalist like in the United States. 
No one says you are not allowed to make non-conformist films, it just doesn’t happen. There are some crazy people who make them anyway, but the rest want to survive so they don’t touch these subjects or styles.

MajaHow does it affect you?

Avi: I experience this silent censorship all the time. People often say my films are interesting and important but since they are not going to appeal to the masses they don't have much chance of getting funding. So again, with no one officially deciding that experimental or controversial films can’t be made, there is actually a very narrow choice of films that can be made. And this applies to music and other art forms as well.

MajaBut can’t this be seen as a democratic selection process? If enough people are interested and prepared to pay for it, the film will make money and can be made. If people are not interested, why should the artist get to make it, especially with the taxpayers’ money?

Avi: This is a question that goes back to ancient Greece – the origins of democracy. The state funded the plays and the actors. So, the tickets were cheap or even free for the poor. In some cases I think they even paid the audience to go and see the plays because it was seen as a value to society that citizens were educated to be an active part in the political and philosophical debate. We know there was great art made during this period, and this is just one example.

MajaIsn’t it a bit elitist that someone should decide what is good for the people to see?

Avi: As long as it costs money to make films, someone will have to decide. Internet is changing this to a degree, but TV and cinema are still more powerful in order to reach people who are not already actively searching for information about a certain topic. TV is more and more influenced by the new media but the new media are still a mystery; how will they affect film and art, are they more democratic or an illusion, and giants like Google will be the new dictator?

MajaI suppose films that make money will always find ways to get funded but films that are made from a minority perspective or challenging the mainstream, will always have this problem – breaking the norms, they might not appeal directly to the masses who create these norms. That is not to say different perspectives have no value to the masses. Apart from the danger of losing the diversity of perspectives, what do you think is the price we pay for narrowing the production possibility to only commercially successful films?

Avi: It makes the films more and more shallow. If films are made so everyone can understand exactly what is going on all of the time – no matter if you start watching it somewhere in the middle – you can’t have any depth. In TV, the aim is to be interesting for as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, and not switch channels. So, films have to be made that way. A lot of good art that we value today has been made in conflict with the mainstream and not been understood by anyone until later in history.



MajaBut is this the taxpayers’ responsibility? Artists who have gone against the status quo of their time have rarely been celebrated by their contemporaries or made any money from their art. Perhaps that is the price you have to pay as an artist or a filmmaker, knowing that you live according to a different value system?

Avi: Cinema is different because it costs a lot to produce. If we want freedom of speech and artistic quality in cinema, the funding boards who are essentially deciding which films can or cannot be made have to consider what is valuable for the audience and culture as a whole beyond the economic value. It’s a dilemma. If the Israeli film board funds too many political films, or films that will not get a big audience they might risk support in Israel. The state of local cinema was very bad 15 years ago, nobody came to watch it. So I can understand their fear, but the market today is different. Funders should be more brave, they should adjust and lead the change.

A lot depends on education. When I teach cinema I have a responsibility to open the minds of the students to expand the spectrum of the films they watch. As a filmmaker I have the same responsibility to give these tools to a wider audience. It happens in any art form; if we are to enjoy more complex music, we need to be exposed to it. With cinema it is more complicated because most people refer to cinema as entertainment, not as art. They are open to literature and poetry and philosophy, but when they see a movie they are usually expect to have a good time.

MajaSo it’s a bit like junk food; you crave it until your body gets used to more substantial nutrition?

Avi: Junk food is the perfect metaphor. Nobody is forcing people to eat McDonald's. A lot of people prefer junk food, but does it make it healthy or nutritious?

Maja: In a culture that is more and more influenced by the market, do you think it is getting harder for artists and filmmakers to make films for different reasons than purely economic motives? For example, major European cities where artists used to live cheaply have become gentrified and too expensive, so the artists have to choose to either become commercial and earn more money, or move. Is there any space left today?

Avi: I think that new media give new space, but it's harder there to get to a wide audience. It might change. I don't really understand why J. L. Godard managed to make all his films in the 1960s and communicate with a large audience, but almost can't finish a film today, and screens them mainly at film festivals?  

MajaWhat do you do in order to not censor your work?

Avi: I'm trying to pick subjects that will both answer my interest, political and artistic beliefs, and that also have a chance to be commercial in a way. Today I'm working on a new project that intends to communicate with a big audience, so it's not easy. But first I chose the subject and my point of view on it and only then think of how can I sell or fund it.

MajaSo what changes in the economic system do you think are needed to keep the diversity and quality in films?

Avi: I don't exactly know. I'm not in favour of going back. Of course, I don't want to lose the relative freedom of a liberal capitalist democracy – I don't prefer to create in a Soviet society... But things have to change and progress to a more balanced system. I don't suggest wiping everything and starting from the beginning.

Godard said in one of his films that "humanists don't start revolutions, they build libraries..." In a library you don't burn the old books, you write new ones.

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