North Korea Gives U.S. a Needed Taste of Censorship

Jason Merritt / Getty Images

Jason Merritt / Getty Images

Those Americans who were planning on seeing Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview in theaters this holiday season are out of luck. After Sony Pictures was hacked by the Guardians of Peace — a group which insisted the film not be shown and threatened terrorist attacks and was eventually connected to North Korea — Sony chose to cancel the film’s release. The decision was of course highly criticized, with Sony defending itself by saying that theaters were refusing to show the movie before Sony ever pulled out.

The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor made the point that The Interview is certainly no Great Dictator, and Rogen and Franco, even combined, are hardly Charlie Chaplin. He points out that “mocking North Korea is easy” while mocking Germany prior to 1940 “was relatively daring.” And while Chaplin’s film could be goofy, it had quality, meaning, and intent missing from The Interview. But that admission aside,  I’d argue that the fact of the matter is The Interview, Sony, and North Korea have given Americans a very real, rather meta censorship experience. And yes, wouldn’t it be great if we talked about something being censored that might actually matter — or even just deserve more than 1.1 stars on IMDB? (Sorry, Seth Rogen.) However, The Interview got the ball rolling and the conversation started, and that’s possibly more important than the film ever could have been.

What better way to remember the kind of control and censorship North Korea citizens are subject to — not to mention human rights abuses — than to get an infinitesimal, microscopic taste of content management ourselves? Of course, it’s very different to have a media company choose not to release a production it owns, than to have a government refuse to allow a film to be shown. President Barack Obama himself said “I wish they had spoken to me first. I would have told them, do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks,” and said that while he sympathized with Sony as a company, “we cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship.” “I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco,” he said. So while our democracy isn’t banning the film, the fact that a work of fiction has caused another nation to introduce theatergoers to its governmental practices, however indirectly, is interesting. America has had, and continues to have its own privacy and censorship problems. News crews in Ferguson, for example, were hassled by police. Concerns that members of the press may be monitored or hacked are much more legitimate and pressing in today’s society.

But those types of things don’t get the overwhelming attention Seth Rogen’s film has gotten, and certainly not the attention it’s cancellation has received. Sony has announced that it’s looking for ways to show the film, though it’s still uncertain how that will happen. For a while, it was thought Sony might make it available for free on Crackle, a media streaming website it owns, however it would be unlikely to make money that way. And according to Sony CEO Michael Lynton, it’s been something of a challenge to find a website to release it on. “We don’t have any takers — neither on the video demand side nor on the e-commerce side. People have been generally fearful about the possibility of their systems being corrupted,” he said in an interview with NPR, but emphasizing that “we would very much like that to happen.”

So while Richard Corliss of Time may be right to say that “if you’re hoping for any cogent political satire here, then the joke’s on you,” the film doesn’t have to be a quality piece of ingenious political commentary to remind us why censorship is so terrifying and frustrating and dangerous. Most people can take the sudden cut of the comedy from theater’s “coming soon” lists and unpack that into a rather disturbing reminder of what it would be like if other things were taken away like that because a government — ours or anyone else’s — said it was a bad idea.

Even those who think no further than to recognize that something has been taken away from them at the whim of another, and that it’s frustrating, are experiencing something so many people in so many other countries experience a million fold. The problem is suddenly much more accessible and clear to many who might otherwise be apathetic or uninterested.

The Human Rights Watch reminded people December 22 in what can only be described as a “shame on you!” post, saying “Rather than lamenting censorship, Hollywood personalities could spend their energy campaigning to bring those responsible for atrocities there to justice,” said the organization in its daily brief. Why not both? I think Pussy Riot might agree that censorship is a laudable focus, one of many that need attention.

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