I just finished writing this essay and so my ability to impartially judge it is impaired. Please critique.
A few things:
- The essay is supposed to use a recent controversy in the art world as a launchpad to explore the societal implications of censorship; specifically, does censorship help or harm our society? My argument is that knowledge is always better than ignorance, even if ignorance is in many cases more comfortable; and that censorship can only be of detriment, considering that it is the moral values of a small group of people, a system of values not necessarily representative of all who are subjected to the censorship, that is the determinant of what is and is not fit for public consumption, and which in effect leaves much room for corruption and abuse. Is this argument clear in the essay?
- "L'etat c'est moi" in English is "I am the state." I had to type it in French because the source I cited had it in French.
- In the paragraph concerning the misleading nature of the mainstream press, I was considering taking a headline from a well-known newspaper and breaking it down, showing how the title leads the reader to assumptions that aren't necessarily true. For instance, just to make something up: "Japanese Business Magnate Stifles Competition Once Again". This title leads the reader to assume that the businessman is intentionally harming his competitors, as opposed to just doing business (thus giving his character an immoral bent), and giving off the impression, from the start, that the guy is a callous and cutthroat businessman. Would this be more appropriate than what I've already written?
Thanks in advance to anyone who combs through and gives an honest critique. It will be much appreciated.
A woman is brutally raped, decapitated, and her headless corpse defiled; a baby is molested the moment it leaves the womb; a man unwittingly rapes his only son. These are but a few of the grisly, unsettling scenes contained in the notorious Serbian feature, aptly titled “A Serbian Film”; scenes that brought censure and censorship upon the film worldwide. Netflix refuses to host it. In Germany, the film had to be cut by thirteen minutes in order for its distribution to avoid violating German federal law. It is banned outright in Spain, Norway, New Zealand, and Australia. In the U.S. and Britain, it was until only recently available in versions cut by over four minutes. It isn't off the mark to remark that “A Serbian Film” offended quite a few people.
Many critics dismissed it as a cheap exploitation film, appealing to people's inexplicable yet undeniable attraction to sex and violence (and particularly their combination) to turn a profit. The director – first-time Serbian auteur Srdan Spasojevic – , however, states otherwise. To him, the film is an overt attack on the understated oppression of his government; a narrative representation of the intangible violations of personal freedom imposed upon Serbians by those who have usurped the state. “This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government,” said Spasojevic. “It's about the monolithic power of leaders to hypnotize you to do things you don't want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it's about.”(Kohn, par 7).
What is this hypnotism of which the director speaks? Is it some imperceptible coercion, brought about not through the use of force but by psychological manipulation on a mass scale? And if so, what does any of this have to do with murder or rape?
The invisible hand by which governments regiment their respective societies is not wholly unlike rape. “In the days when kings were kings, Louis XIV made his modest remark, “L'Etat c'est moi1.” He was nearly right,” begins the second chapter of Edward Bernays' seminal propaganda manual, Propaganda. He goes on to explain how printing and public education made possible the transfer of power from monarchs and aristocrats – who, prior to these liberating inventions, had a virtual monopoly on information – to the less endowed, and how information rapidly trickled down through the hierarchy, until anyone with a desire to learn could do so for the cost of a couple of books. This newly informed public posed a threat to those in power, as they were no longer blithely blinded to the nature of their dispositions. And so, as Bernays put it, “the masses promised to become king.”(Bernays, 47).
When faced with a situation in which their lofty stature is threatened, a government must take action to ensure that this threat remains a threat. Violence against its people is not an option, as this will brand it worldwide as a ruthless totalitarian regime, and thus mar the country's global image. They must, therefore, take a subtler approach. This approach is succinctly defined in the following passage:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
“We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”(Bernays, 37).
But a lack of physical violence does not mean all is well, as this pernicious form of control deprives all who unwittingly submit of the greatest freedom there is: the freedom to think for oneself. This deprivation, this psychic rape, is the underlying theme of “A Serbian Film”; and despite its exploitative veneer, the film carries a deep message about the unspoken horrors of autocratic regimentation. It is perhaps the film's deeply disturbing implications, more so than its overt depictions of gruesome violence, that stirred up so much controversy around the globe.
Human beings prefer comfort. Naturally. One of the common themes of humanity is the constant search for a better life, a life of emotional and material well-being; the billions of dollars spent per year on higher education is a testament to this. And once this comfort level is attained, most are loathe to relinquish it, for any reason – even knowledge. Blind eyes and deaf ears are the best insurance against distress, and the ease with which any one person can ignore the unpleasant aspects of his or her society allows such ignorance to thrive. Governments and their corporate associates make it as easy as possible for us to remain unaware of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and that they are doing anything at all worth notice besides, of course, valiantly serving their citizens and customers. This atmosphere of illusions, while fully exploiting humans' natural tendency toward placidity, does succeed in keeping civil affairs comparatively quiet. Some (mainly bureaucrats and the commercial entities who serve them) argue that the forfeiture of self-control is both validated by the peace that it brings and necessary; that the common citizen is incapable of serving his or her own needs, and requires an elite assembly to look after them. And it seems most citizens tacitly agree. Maintenance of luxury is, for many, of a higher priority than self-determination.
A prevalent problem, indeed; and just the issue that Spasojevic addresses in his debut film. According to a report on censorship within the Serbian media, “Soft censorship can cause pervasive self-censorship that restricts reporting while maintaining the appearance of media freedom.”(Lansner, 4). The constricted market for breaking news has created a scarcity of funds for the over one thousand media outlets, public and private, who are now engaged in a bitter game of survival of the fittest, fighting to survive in an environment where “safeguards against monopolies and a framework for free competition are very weak.”(Lansner, 9). Media companies, facing an apathetic public numbed to executive corruption, and who spend less money on newspapers and more time watching television than the populace of any other country worldwide, are almost entirely dependent on extrinsic funding to operate. This puts the Serbian government and state-owned business in an advantageous position: they, with the aid of a minimum 10% personal income tax rate (Tax, 7), have the sole power to determine which outlets survive, and which wither and die from fiscal starvation.
Between two media outlets – one that reports favorably upon the government and one that reports the facts – it is simple to ascertain which shall receive assistance, and which shall not. As stated in the report on Serbian media censorship, “Most public funds that reach Serbia's media are distributed arbitrarily and in a nontransparent manner, without clear or measurable criteria, public procedures, or controls. These funding methods are drastically undermining free competition in the media industry. The most prominent forms of state intervention in the media sector are instrumental in translating financial power of state bodies and organizations into political influence on media content.”(Lansner, 12). This is troubling information, as a politicized media is more insidious than no media at all. In a state-imposed communications blackout, the citizens are at least aware that they are being deprived of information; the victims of indirect censorship have no such benefit. They receive the news, convinced – because they want to believe – that the information they are receiving is legitimate, and that they are now informed citizens, well aware of the machinations of those behind the ruse. Of course this is never true, as the only information worth having, at least as pertains to governmental affairs, is that which governments try their best to hide.
The media situation in Serbia is not unique. Citizens across the world are or have been the victims of government propaganda; this includes supposedly developed countries such as the United States and those in Western Europe. This is evidenced by the following exposition, referring to the use of propaganda against the citizens of the United States and Great Britain prior to the first world war: “...it was not until 1915 that governments first systematically deployed the entire range of modern media to rouse their populations to fanatical assent. Here was an extraordinary state accomplishment: mass enthusiasm at the prospect of a global brawl that otherwise would mystify those very masses, and that shattered most of those who actually took part in it.”(Bernays, 11).
And in every instance when a citizenry discovered themselves as the targets of mass manipulation, they were outraged. There is evidence of this in the form of the term 'propaganda'; a word that, despite its relatively innocent origins, is now a universal pejorative.
Such was the reaction of Spasojevic, who responded with a vicious backlash against his government's attempts at thought-control with his widely censored debut. The film revolves around former male porn star, Milos, who, while hot property in his younger days, is now a bit washed up. He has money stashed away from past productions (which continually declined in quality), but not enough to support himself and his family until their expiration. An old industry friend informs him of a lucrative new gig: a lavish production produced by an eccentric billionaire, Vukmir, that promises to pay a salary that will carry even his five-year-old son to the grave. Initially reluctant – as the sole condition of the contract is that he is denied access to the contents of the script – Milos eventually accepts, unable to resist the exorbitant pay he is promised to receive. He soon realizes the gravity of his mistake, as he is thereafter forced by threat of mortal violence to torture, rape, and kill a number of women and children (including his own five-year-old son, in an especially disturbing scene), and is drugged, raped, brutalized, and psychologically tortured all the way through to the film's acutely distressing climax.
The characters in “A Serbian Film” are abstracted representations of the relationship between the Serbian people and their government. Serbia is a new democracy, having shed its Communist ideals only a little over a decade ago. A hopeful public, eager to rid their country of incessant inter-warfare, widespread poverty, and Soviet-style corruption, these long-conflicted Serbians wanted only the opportunity to live freely in an open society, where individualism flourishes and personal aspirations are not stunted by rampant bureaucratic greed. They were granted none of this. Instead, they were transitioned into an environment in which “free-market competition is absent...due to the state's interference and systemic corruption”, and where “democratization of the media system...was more a function of the new elites' political will than an intrinsic evolution as part of overall democratization.”(Lansner, 9). In short, their hopes were shattered. It is no wonder that many of them slunk desolately into their armchairs, drowning out their misery with the mind-numbing opium that is broadcast television.
Milos, along with all of the women and children he was forced to victimize, represents the Serbian people: a people striving toward a lifestyle of freedom and dignity, only to be repeatedly raped by those in a more propitious position. Vukmir, the ominous sadist catapulted to the heights of ecstasy at the sight of human suffering, represents the new Serbian regime – callous and ravenous, a ruthless psychopath with depravity in his blood and a taste for all things inhumane.
The film's ending presents a perceptive metaphor that contains a chilling significance: are we – the willing objects of deception – equally responsible for the debasement of our societies? Do we, in our relentless pursuit of comfort and peace of mind, allow such corruption to flourish? These are pertinent questions, the ignorance of whose answers is made easy by the cunning use of mainstream media by politico-commercial interests. In the American mainstream press, for instance, the only condemnations of government officials on public access media are highly superficial: moral lapses such as infidelity, drug use, and the like. Nothing of real consequence is reported upon until an independent newsgroup digs up something serious and circulates it on the web – that ultimate instrument of information liberation; then mainstream outlets, aware that if they fail to address the issue in their broadcasts the omission will be noticed, discuss the issue, at this point having nothing to lose. Outside of these ostentatious displays of honest journalism, mainstream media are more likely to report upon the vices of celebrities than those of public officials.
There are, of course, alternative sources of information, whose sole purpose is to deliver the truth to all those willing to accept it. But this is where the will of the citizens becomes a vital factor: if they choose to ignore information that could potentially disrupt their pleasant views of how society operates – views gladly fostered by the journalistic benefactors of political image – in order to retain their state of emotional comfort, then the fault of ignorance lies entirely with them. When all is considered, it is the individual's right and responsibility to stay informed, whatever the emotional cost of this may be.
Regardless of individual ignorance, however, governments must still be held responsible for what cannot be considered anything but purposeful censorship, in that those subjects that are – on the word of a narrow, ill-representative segment of the population – conveniently branded as obscene are simply omitted by those sources of information which, at the core of their philosophy, are meant to provide us with the necessary knowledge for self-regulation – the crux of any democratic society. When this information is skewed, altered, or presented in a misleading way, the fundamental purpose of public media assumes a sinister new form. No longer is it the honest, responsible, vigilant distributor of crucial information, but a tool of government deception; and if we, as a world citizenry, genuinely wish to live in a democratic society, it is imperative that we, by means of exercising the autonomy with which we are all endowed and well able to practice with sufficient intellectual effort, resist all attempts at indoctrination by those who wish to mold our minds. Only with this concerted effort can we hope to build and maintain a world civilization that can by any standard be considered free.
“A Serbian Film” shocked audiences around the world with its depictions of brutal violence and its abrasive political themes. This is just what the writer-director intended. In his creation of this harrowing film he made a statement, loud and strong, against censorship of any kind, wishing to tell the world of the pernicious effects of the Serbian government's indoctrination of his people through the use of media manipulation, and to warn us all of the capabilities of our own ruling bodies to do the same. The social message of his debut was missed by many who, instead of appreciating such a passionate indictment of underhanded government oppression, saw only pornographic exploitation. As one British film critic said: “...it is worth pointing out that the BBFC's decision is symptomatic of a general reluctance among certain British institutions to consider film as art. It is because the British censors can only see cinema as entertainment that their understanding of 'A Serbian Film' remained shockingly literal, and that they misconstrued the film as a violent spectacle, instead of seeing it for the denunciation of violence that it very clearly is.” A damning quote. The surface violence of the film is less troubling than its belligerent political statement, simply because, while the graphic, often over-the-top bloodshed on display is a distant fiction, an exception to everyday reality, government indoctrination through the quiet manipulation of the press is a constant threat. It is this uncomfortable aspect of our societies that Spasojevic meant to convey, and framing his admonition in the context of the depths of human savagery was the most effective method by which he could convey it. And it worked; the world listened. Yet the censors and those with like minds refused to absorb the film's message, and, seeing only its blood-stained facade, accused it of promoting primitive savagery. Grievous transgressions require violent denunciations, but, on account of all who choose comfort over clarity, it is often the denunciation, and not the iniquity itself, that is mindlessly labeled obscene.