“Beware, censor, look at this throbbing hand of a woman in the foreground, look at that dark eye, this sensual mouth; your son will dream of it tonight, and thanks to this he will escape the life of slavery that you have destined for him. (… Censors) do not recognize the all-powerful, liberating virtues of dreams, of poetry, nor of the flame that burns inside all hearts that are too proud to bear comparison with a pigsty. Despite their scissors, love will triumph. Because cinema is only an instrument of propaganda for higher thinking.” *
This sensual warning from Robert Desnos, published in 1927, describes how, in all spheres of life – public, collective, private, intimate, fantastical – there exist conventions, prohibitions and taboos. The histories of institutionalized censorship and that of the arts are intertwined like two winding vines that climb up the social stock.
As the judicial branch of what society rejects as dangerous for its survival, censorship by the State rarely makes a mistake. In the middle of the twentieth century, for example, it carefully tried to defuse three of the most explosive and methodical films in terms of the future of forms: René Vautier’s anti-colonialist tract Afrique 50 (1950), Jean Genet’s erotic visual poem Un Chant d’amour (1950), and Gil J Wolman’s kinetic sound installation L’Anticoncept (1951). The first two were shot illegally and banned, and the third was censored on the grounds of ‘imbecility’. René Vautier was sentenced to one year and one day in prison for making Afrique 50. The fearlessness and inventiveness of these filmmakers (aged respectively, 22, 30 and 21) gave cinema three formal bombs, all three inextricably political, erotic and artistic. We could summarize the aesthetic history of the twentieth century by analyzing both the apparent differences and the deeper similarities that unite this sublime involuntary triad. Armand Gatti and René Vautier often competed to see which one of them had suffered the most from this violent honor of censorship, and both of them would win: René Vautier because he had the highest number of banned films to his credit, and Armand Gatti because his work had been banned in the largest number of countries. In addition to these high political deeds, there is an allegory often recounted by René Vautier. In 1973, after he spent 31 days on hunger strike in order to obtain a screening license for Jacques Panijel’s Octobre à Paris (1962) – a secretly filmed document showing the massacre of Algerian demonstrators by French police who were carrying out the orders of chief Maurice Papon – the film was granted its license. In fact, it was granted the license on the ninth day, but René Vautier demanded more; that the censors justify their decisions. “On January 27th 1973, the 27th day of the strike” **, at the hospital in Quimper where he was bedridden, René was visited by a mysterious official who sat at the end of his bed and calmly explained to him that his victory had little meaning and was only part of a bigger failure, since the political censorship was nothing in view of the economic censorship.
Today, in this time of serious political, cultural and spiritual regressions, there are at least four kinds of censorship that are felt even more heavily by artists: political censorship, which is subject to legislation; economic censorship, which is informal; censorship by civil society, which continues to gather momentum; and self-censorship, which combines social norms and psychological detriment. As far as form, content and all type of elaboration is concerned, the works become syndromes, not only because they are confronted with the limits and aporias of their time – as was the case with Les Fleurs du Mal, which was prosecuted for “contempt for public morals” – but also as testing grounds for the will to power of the other, more and more frequently becoming hostages to this show of force that seeks to test and reveal the weaknesses, indecisiveness, and nullity of collective structures: a gallery, a museum, a nation, and societies that claim to defend the freedom of expression. This is why we have consulted eight artists who are among the bravest of our time, who have proven themselves in the face of oppression, repression and censorship in several countries and in diverse political situations. We spoke to the following artists (in alphabetical order):
Ing Kanjanavanit, aka ‘Ing K’, filmmaker (Thailand)
Bani Khoshnoudi, visual artist, filmmaker (Iran)
Jocelyne Saab, filmmaker, visual artist (Lebanon)
Tan Pin Pin, filmmaker (Singapore)
Their political relevance, their bravery, and sometimes their ingenious ways of defying censorship or carrying out attacks rather than playing defense or being forced to go through hazardous situations, offer us many restorative, healthy and even exhilarating models. It should therefore be known that this blog is devoted mainly to exploring the offensive power of images.
As the great filmmaker and activist John Gianvito has asked, “If films have no power to change the world, why are so many of them still banned in so many countries? Why were such concerted efforts made to squelch Salt of the Earth (1954) at every point in its production? Why is Jafar Panahi under house arrest? Why was Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen sent to prison and tortured? Why was Raymundo Gleyzer “disappeared”?”***.
* Robert Desnos, Le Soir, March 19th, 1927, quoted by Jean-Luc Douin in Dictionnaire de la censure au cinéma, Paris, PUF, 1998, p.124.
** René Vautier, ‘Ma peau dans la balance’, Caméra citoyenne, Rennes, éditions Apogée, 1988, p.5.
*** John Gianvito, ‘La contemplation productive’, Cahiers du Cinéma 676, March 2012, p.81.
English translation: Brad Stevens / Coproducer: Institut Universitaire de France
Illustrations and quotes: © each author.