An open letter to Prime Minister Harper and Minister Verner

0 Posted by - March 4, 2008 - Blog, Policy, Screen
Policing Cinema

Policing Cinema

An open letter from educator and former Film Studies Association of Canada president Michael Zyrd, regarding Ottawa’s proposed censorship bill:

Dear Honourable Prime Minister Harper, and Honourable Minister Verner,

I write with extreme concern about the proposed Bill C-10, and the ways that it would enable de facto government censorship of film and television.

According to a story in the Globe and Mail:

“Bill C-10, currently at third reading in the Senate, contains an amendment to the Income Tax Act which would allow the Minister of Canadian Heritage to deny eligibility to tax credits of productions determined to be contrary to public policy,” Charles Drouin, spokesman for Canadian Heritage said in a statement. “… Upon royal assent of C-10, the Department of Canadian Heritage plans to update the eligibility requirements for the [Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit] program.”

As an educator and researcher of artists film and video, I know that artistic freedom and the free play of ideas–including those deemed “contrary to public policy”–are vital to a vibrant democracy. Although the balance between free expression and the public good is, and has been, a point of contention in all democracies, experience has shown that attempts at “content control” by governments rarely work–or they create the unacceptable conditions we are familiar with in dictatorships.

On one level, Bill C-10 is not overt censorship as it merely proposes to add another set of criteria to judge applications for public funding. However, as a scholar of film history, I can see a very clear precedent in the proposed mechanism for this policy. The review by a panel set up by CAVCO, the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office, seems very similar to how the notorious Production Code Administration was run in the United States from the late 1920s until it was overturned in the late 1950s. The PCA was set up by Hollywood to avoid overt state censorship, but had the effect of stifling creative expression in Hollywood and dumbing down filmmaking in name of controlling “content”. The PCA rightly earned the ridicule of both the film industry and the public, and this provision in Bill C-10 deserves the same shame. Finally, if the subsequent report in the Globe and Mail that lobbying by an evangelical minister was a factor in this provision in the Bill, the parallel with the PCA is complete, as it was sparked by pressure from the National Legion of Decency in the 1920s. Narrow religious dogma has no place in state policy.

That such a provision should be introduced when Canadian feature film production has achieved international recognition–in part because of relatively strong arms-length government funding–is puzzling. I thought that conservative governments preferred not to interfere in the organic functioning of industries. But this Bill, and the negative publicity that it is generating, will embarrass Canadian film in the eyes of international filmmakers, and put a chill on both filmic expression and international investment.

I must also say that, as a voter, this legislation does nothing to contradict the popular perception that this Tory administration is a top-down government that is attempting to legislate public morality and interfere unnecessarily with people’s freedoms.

I look forward to your response.

Michael Zryd

(Image: book cover of “Policing Cinema”)

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