In the wake of the Torture Controversy surrounding her film "Zero Dark Thirty" Oscar Winning director Kathryn Bigelow has posted a vigorous defense of her film on first amendment grounds in the L.A. Times.
First of all: I support every American's 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.Or to put it another way - "Don't Hate the Torture Playa - Hate the Torture Game."
But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.
The problem that Bigelow and "Zero Dark Thirty" has though isn't that she simply depicted "what happened" in regards to torture, or that as a self-proclaimed "lifelong pacifist" if her goal was to make a substantive point about the basic immorality and inhumanity of such tactics, the problem is that if this was her goal - she Failed.
Not that she isn't gung-ho now to draw a smiley-face on that failure. Particularly after other members of the Academy have called for a voting boycott of the film on moral grounds.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas) member David Clennon said last week he would not be voting for Kathryn Bigelow's film, which has been nominated for five Oscars, and urged others to snub a movie that he said "promotes the acceptance of the crime of torture, as a legitimate weapon in America's so-called War on Terror". Writing on the truth-out.org website, he added: "I cannot vote for a film that makes heroes of Americans who commit the crime of torture."So Sony claims that it would have been "irresponsible and inaccurate" to not include the fact that some of the detainees were torture.
In response, Sony president Amy Pascal said she was "outraged" that an Academy member would try to influence the voting process. "Zero Dark Thirty does not advocate torture," she said on Friday. "To not include that part of history would have been irresponsible and inaccurate. We fully support Kathryn Bigelow and [screenwriter] Mark Boal and stand behind this extraordinary movie. We are outraged that any responsible member of the Academy would use their voting status in Ampas as a platform to advance their own political agenda."
And it's clear that Bigelow's own defense has now become modeled on the argument made by Sony. That she and her film were just "telling it like it was", which is thier artistic right to depict and their responsibility to do "accurately".
Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.So you see, those who oppose torture have simply got it all wrong. "Zero Dark Thirty" doesn't endorse torture any more than "Halloween" endorses the mad rampage of a axe wielding serial killer. To depict is not to endorse. Except that what they depict isn't what happened.
This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.
In this segment from PBS we have an argument between journalists who've followed this situation for years, one (Jane Mayer of the New Yorker) arguing that the film is completely lacking in moral context, particular the very volatile arguments over torture and it's use that took place and another (Mark Bowen of the Atlantic, author of "Back Hawk Down") who argues that the film largely depicts the torture techniques as a failure.
And to be fair, there isn't any key information gleaned during the use of inhumane techniques in the film - the one key piece from that detainee comes over a bowl of food as he's being treated well --- but only after he's threatened with being tortured again as Michael Moore describes while defending the film on it's anti-torture bona fides.
There comes a point about two-thirds of the way through Zero Dark Thirty where it is clear something, or someone, on high has changed. The mood at the CIA has shifted, become subdued. It appears that the torture-approving guy who's been president for the past eight years seems to be, well, gone. And, just as a fish rots from the head down, the stench also seems to be gone. Word then comes down that -- get this! -- we can't torture any more! The CIA agents seem a bit disgruntled and dumbfounded. I mean, torture has worked soooo well these past eight years! Why can't we torture any more???To my mind this is slight-of-hand and bullshit because that didn't happen. If you're going to use your "artistic license" then you shouldn't use it to create a LIE. Oh sure, it's true that we didn't get the name of bin Laden's courier from KSM even after he'd been waterboarded 187 times - in fact, HE LIED TO US and said the courier was unimportant.
I think you know what happens next. In the final third of Zero Dark Thirty, the agents switch from torture to detective work -- and guess what happens? We find bin Laden! Eight years of torture -- no bin Laden. Two years of detective work -- boom! Bin Laden!
And that really should be the main takeaway from Zero Dark Thirty: That good detective work can bring fruitful results -- and that torture is wrong.
Much of the discussion and controversy around the film has centered on the belief that the movie shows, or is trying to say, that torture works. They torture a guy for years and finally, while having a friendly lunch with him one day, they ask him if he would tell them the name of bin Laden's courier. Either that, or go back and be tortured some more. He says he doesn't know the guy but he knows his fake name and he gives them that name. The name turns out to be correct. Torture works!
The rapport building techniques they show in the film that scene which provided us with even the smallest bit of information happened before torture, it was FBI Agent Ali Soufan who by simply talking to abu Zubaydah like a human being was able to discover the identities of Jose Padilla and KSM in the first place. After he was waterboarded Zubaydah dried up as a source.
It's not the case that these guys gave us anything worthwhile after being tortured - even when we treated them well because by that the their trust in us is destroyed. Once you've crossed that rubicon, you can't go back and get someone to believe what you say or promise anymore.
Here's a more substantive discussion of Zero Dark Thirty involving both Jane Mayer and Ali Soufan.
Here are what actual interrogators, including Matthew Alexander say about the use of Torture.
The truth about torture isn't a debate about whether is works or doesn't work - the truth is that it generates false confessions and lies. And further if we were already getting good information via Ali Soufan - WHY did they start using torture in the first place?.
It was through torture that Ibn Sheilk al Libi claimed that Saddam Hussein has helped train the 9-11 Hijackers. That was a Lie.
So if Boal and Bigelow were trying to "courageously" show the horrors, immorality and failure of torture - then they themselves are the ones who FAILED.
Yet, I'm sympathetic to their dilemma. They wanted to tell this complex story which involved all these years and all these sources, but the fact is that the story of America's Failed experiment with torture which was fostered in a desire to get information on Saddam Hussein that didn't exist - to get FALSE CONFESSIONS - still has not been told. Not by Boal, not by Bigelow, not by anyone.
Kathryn Bigelow has been on many televisions shows and has tried to cloak her presentation of the hunt for Bin laden in artistic and courageous terms - but I'd really like to see is Bigelow and Boal being interviewed/interrogated by Ali Soufan and explain to Him that their movie is "accurate" and how not showing torture would have been "irresponsible" - when the fact is they FAILED to show what really happened.
They may have made a great movie, they just didn't make a true one.
10:49 AM PT: And it gets worse when not just the Studio and the Director - who both have their own self-serving reasons to come up with excuses for showing Torture that Didn't happen - now we have a group of 9-11 Families saying that critics of the movie are engaging in McCarthism.
As a group of 9/11 families sharing a rare moment of justice and elation in the viewing of a film chronicling the search for and ultimate death of Osama Bin Laden, we find it deeply disturbing that some of our elected officials want to discourage other 9/11 families and the public from seeing this outstanding film. Politicians who have criticized the movie and made misleading claims about it, stand in the way of engaging a public dialogue for a stirring film which invokes feelings of patriotism and perseverance and honors our military, our country, and the victims of 9/11.I think that just as the movie has the artistic license to use composite characters to summarize and simplify complex events for public consumption - that people, politicians, critics and members of the Academy have a right to point out that they have Distorted the Truth by doing this. It's not really the case that people oppose displaying the fact that torture was used, it's that they show it inaccurately. In fact, according to Ali Soufan, they make it seem even more brutal than it actually was. Bigelow and Boal are trying to have it both ways, they fail to have the argument both pro and con that actually took place in real life over these techniques, they just show them and walk away and let people make their own inferences. I suppose you could call that "hands off" film-making that gives the audience some credit for making their own decisions - however when you do that, you really shouldn't complain when some people come to a conclusion that's different from the one you now claim - under pressure - to have been trying to make all along.
We are greatly concerned that a few pundits, “film critics” and elected officials are badmouthing this movie because of the water boarding scenes and because this film directly confronts the enduring terrorist threat.
We feel this is history – like it or not -and no effort should be made to rewrite or censor it for political correctness. Certainly there should be no organized boycott or suppression of films based on political differences. The word for that is “censorship.” How bizarre that members of an industry that suffered so much during the McCarthy era would even consider doing this to their own members!
The use of the term “torture” by elected officials in hopes of dissuading people to endorse or view this film is antithetical to what our government should be all about.
If the movie started out saying that was a "Dramatization" and "Composite" of various events rather than "Based on First Hand Accounts" - we wouldn't be having this argument. But it doesn't, and we are.