August 1, 2009
The Canberra Times
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Censors sweeten the fruit

Censorship of art inevitably backfires. It’s a pity Chinese Government officials here in Australia haven’t worked that out yet. Their attempts to silence a Melbourne film-maker, along with considerable efforts this week to intimidate the director of the Melbourne International Film Festival, MIFF, have backfired beautifully.

But first, here’s a little parable about film censorship. The new artistic director of the Canberra International Film Festival is Simon Weaving. Film-makers around town know Simon well, and some of you will be familiar with his film reviews and occasional features in The Canberra Times. Like many of those passionate about the power of film to transcend and inspire, Simon was smitten from a young age. He tells a charming tale of when he was a kid at school in England.

He one day wandered past his local cinema and saw a noisy crowd of protesters shaking placards. They were followers of the moral crusader Mary Whitehouse and her Festival of Light, on a rampage to wipe out the filth on English screens. That day the film in their sights was The Exorcist. Being just a kid, Simon admits he had no idea what the film was about. But thanks to Mary and her noisy gaggle of chanting protesters, he was stung with curiosity. “If there was something up on the screen that caused this much fuss – man, I wanted to see it!” And he did. Of course. As Simon says, “We are all wondrous creatures who delight in novelty and controversy”.

It is that same universal curiosity that’s led to sell-out screenings in Melbourne this week of the documentary 10 Conditions of Love, about Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader of the World Uighur Congress. Until now, most of us had never heard of Kadeer. We didn’t know how hated she is by the Chinese authorities, or that they call her a “terrorist”. Nor have we known – or cared – much about Uighurs: the Chinese Muslim minority who claim to be brutalised by Han Chinese. For many Australians the bloody Uighur uprising early last month was just another news item, albeit a shocking and violent one. Once Chinese soldiers stormed the north-western province and cracked down on the protesters, the news stories dried up, and the Uighurs were almost forgotten.

But now, thanks to the foolish efforts of the Chinese Government to silence dissent, we’re all going to hear a lot more about both Kadeer and her campaign for Uighur justice. And I suspect this feisty little old woman will win over many more hearts and minds than she ever dreamt possible: simply because China has tried to thump the fist of censorship.

The documentary about Kadeer is by first time film-maker Jeff Daniels. Seven years in the making, it slipped quietly into the Melbourne festival’s program. Although the recent Uighur unrest gave it the sort of edgy currency that festival programmers delight in, it wasn’t until the festival’s executive director, Richard Moore, received a terse phone call from the Chinese consulate in Melbourne that he realised just how “edgy”.

The caller, a Mrs Chen, urged Moore to remove the film from the program, and told him he had “no reason to justify” its inclusion in the festival. Moore stood his ground, and refused to be intimidated or bullied. He insisted the film would be screened and the public could make up its own mind about Kadeer and her Uighur cause. Since then, the festival has had seven films withdrawn by Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese directors. According to Moore, none of the directors has been prepared to say why they’re pulling out.

Given the festival opened last week and has another week to run, those sudden withdrawals had the potential to cause chaos. So too did the hacking of the festival website, which caused Chinese flags to pop up continuously, and online ticketing to melt down. But rather than turn audiences away, the Chinese action has had the reverse effect. Ticket sales have never been stronger. And Kadeer, who arrives in Melbourne next week, will be hailed as an underdog hero. She’s already been invited to Canberra to address the National Press Club on August 11.

Open discussion and debate is a fundamental tenet of any liberal society. As such, freedom of speech is not negotiable. It’s a great shame that China, once again, has failed to understand that debate is in fact transformative, and indeed progressive. Societies that inhibit introspection of themselves are ultimately doomed. The human spirit will always triumph over state-enforced silence. Thankfully.

And thankfully, too, film-makers the world over remain courageous and defiant, despite the threat of censorship – or worse. Film festivals are there to support them and their efforts, and to encourage a discursive response. Perhaps the last word should go to Melbourne film-maker Daniels, who this week watched his documentary go through the diplomatic wringer: “Considering the Chinese Government’s recent demands to silence my film in Australia I am not surprised so little is heard of the Uighurs’ plight. But I have the privilege of living in a society that finds strength in dissenting opinions”. May Australia ever be so.

Virginia Haussegger presents ABC television news in Canberra, and is the president of the Canberra International Film Festival, which runs from October 28 to November 8, 2009.

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