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Making Sense Of The 'Zero Dark Thirty' Torture Brouhaha; Bigelow Pens Essay In Response

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 16, 2013 at 10:09AM

An aside, as I go through my news feed this morning... No it's not *black film* specifically, but it's an issue that I think affects all filmmakers regardless of race or ethnicity. 
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Zero Dark 30

An aside, as I go through my news feed this morning... No it's not *black film* specifically, but it's an issue that I think affects all filmmakers regardless of race or ethnicity. 

In short, I'm sure you're all familiar with the brouhaha over Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty - specifically, the debate over its depiction of torture used in the hunt for Osama bin Laden -  and the argument that the film's depictions of actual scenes of torture, suggest that the filmmakers endorse the use of torture; an argument I just don't quite understand.

In response to all of that, director Kathryn Bigelow penned an op-ed for the L.A. Times, addressing the criticism she's faced over the last few months, since the film debuted commercially, which was published on the paper's website yesterday.

Here's a crucial piece of it:

First of all: I support every American's 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind. But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen. Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time. This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

I couldn't agree more, and this feels like an engineered campaign against (or assault on) the film than anything that I'd call genuine concern or criticism by those who oppose it. 

Would those same pundits argue that every film depicting gun violence endorses gun violence? Or every film depicting rape, endorses rape?

What's even more important here is that this isn't some fictionalized account of American history like some other films released in the last 12 months; Mark Boal's screenplay was based on extensive research - interviews and firsthand accounts with intelligence and military sources, to start.

And does anyone still really believe that the US has never used torture as a means of extracting information, especially at times of war? Is anyone still that naive?

The film doesn't suggest that torture was the sole means by which bin Laden was found, but it was one of the many *tools* utilized.

As Bigelow adds in her essay:

It means it [torture] is a part of the story we couldn't ignore. War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences. On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices. 

Like I said, this feels more like a carefully orchestrated attack against the film and its creators, and I wonder if it's all rooted in the ongoing discussion about the depiction of violence in entertainment as a potential influence on violence in real life.

Or maybe it also all serves as a caution to any other filmmakers who are planning to tackle similar subject matter in future films.

I also wonder if it has contributed to the fact that neither director Bigelow nor screenwriter Boal was nominated for an Academy Award for their damn good work in the film - one of the best I saw in 2012. 

I liked its very matter-of-fact approach, free of any embellishments. Clearly, it was told from an American POV, but that's the angle the filmmakers chose, and I don't think the film took a particular stance, whether in favor of, or in opposition to a war that was taking place at the time (even though most of us were probably unaware of it, as we went about our daily lives). 

So I'm perplexed by all the noise, and the fact that Bigelow needed to pen this essay for the L.A. Times - that the depiction of an act in a work of art (film, TV, literature, music, etc) equates to an endorsement of it, is puzzling to me. I don't have to do research to state that history is loaded with works of art of all kinds that depict a wide variety of scenes of man at his best and at his worst. Should we now carefully go through each work (as well as those made from here on) and challenge their motivations?

Should you, as a filmmaker, be concerned about how this might affect the choices you make as you embark on your next project, whatever it is?

Or, has this all been fabricated (with the consent of the filmmakers) to generate discussion around the film, in order to tickle the curiosity of audiences who may have otherwise ignored it, with the hope that it will all positively affect box office?

Or am I just missing something...?

Read the full L.A. Times piece HERE.

This article is related to: Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, Harold Perrineau


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