II: 12 Questions for Travis Anderson

January 9, 2005 | 3 comments

The second four questions and answers from Professor Anderson:

5. What challenges has IC faced in recent years (both in connection to Hero and more generally)? Is there anything interesting about the International Cinema that doesn’t involve cultural or moral controversy?

ANSWER: Our biggest challenges over the last few years have involved political battles and venue issues. We were moved into the Varsity partly to free up large classroom space in the Kimball Tower and partly for political reasons—which it probably wouldn’t be right of me to discuss. But while a former theater would seem at first glance to be a much better venue for IC than the SWKT, which is essentially a medium-sized auditorium with a projection booth, it hasn’t turned out that way. The Wilk locks up earlier at night, so that costs us essentially one showing a day; and we lost Thursdays entirely so the WSC could have one night a week to rent out the theater (and this semester we’ll be losing one full weekend a month); and right from the start there were concerns about film selections and advertising, since the WSC lobby is a much more public space. Add to these issues a host of smaller problems, like curtains that don’t close and allow us to properly frame the screen during shows or protect it afterwards, a theater in which the projection throw (distance from lens to screen) was calculated without the drop-down acoustical ceiling, rendering all the lenses unusable without constant jury-rigging, an after-hours custodial staff less interested in cleaning the booth and emptying trash than in using the projection equipment to play video games, music from Jamba Juice (where the old snack bar used to be) competing with the film soundtrack, disputes over keys and marquee displays, etc., and you have a situation that is a constant source of aggravation. And for reasons I can’t fully explain, attendance has never been what it was when we were in the SWKT—though I’m sure all the above-mentioned problems are contributing factors. We originally had a theater space allocated for us in the new JFSB, but that was traded away to the college of social sciences in closed-door negotiations to which I was not party. And we were supposed to move back into the SWKT this year, but obviously that hasn’t happened. So, between dodging constant attacks over one thing and another, having no guaranteed venue and no major donors or heavy hitters persuading the powers that be of our value to the University, the future of IC is extremely uncertain at this point.

Another major obstacle we always face (though it has become a bigger obstacle now that we can’t edit at all) is trying to find quality films that are showable without any editing. You’d be surprised how many films we could show were it not for a single use in the subtitles of the so-called R-rated curse word (which, of course, no longer automatically triggers an R-rating—as is true of most of the stuff that used to trigger it). The hugely popular “King of Masks,” for example, is no longer showable because we now can’t edit out one use of that one word. Ironically, we now have to allow more mild profanity and sexual suggestiveness than we ever did before merely because we can’t edit them out, and yet, we also can’t limit our films to those with absolutely no such content or we couldn’t show enough films to even have a program. New films in some languages, like Spanish and German, are usually so profane that we can’t show them at all. And sex and nudity are, of course, much more commonplace in Europe generally than in the US—not just in films, but on billboards and store window displays, in TV programs and commercials, in magazine advertising, etc. So that eliminates most new European films. Until recently, films from the Middle East were almost all showable intact, since Muslim moral codes closely approximate BYU standards. But even that has begun to change. Every once in a while at a film festival I’ll find a really terrific film with no offensive material at all in it, but because such films usually perform poorly at the box office, very few of them are picked up by American distributors. A Scandinavian film called “Elina” and a wonderful documentary from Italy called “Neopolitan Heart” are two examples—they’re both great films, but have languished for several years in U.S. distribution limbo, and may never be commercially released here. So, keeping the IC program fresh while appeasing not only BYU’s editing policies but the radical right has proved to be another real challenge.

A third challenge we are constantly wrestling with is distributor unreliability. Most of the time when we have to cancel a film it’s not because of content concerns, as most people seem to believe; it’s simply because we can’t get the film. Either the distributor cancels because the film has been thrown out, has turned up missing from the warehouse, has been sold to another distributor, or has been legally pulled from distribution (as happened the last time we had “Nosferatu” scheduled). And sometimes the only print of the film turns out to be so deteriorated or damaged that they can’t send it, or (as happens fairly frequently with one distributor) they refuse to honor our booking because another customer (who will charge admission, and thus pay the distributor a percentage of ticket sales as well as a rental fee) has requested the film that week. Often, we don’t know until minutes before showtime whether a film actually going to show.

6. One T&S regular wrote: “My experience at BYU was a positive and productive one: the school prepared me well for my graduate training, immersed me in Mormon thought, and provided a host of social benefits, as well. It is ironic, though, that the two highlights of my BYU experience were Study Abroad and International Cinema. IC was and is one of the pinnacles of the BYU landscape, and I saw literally hundreds of (free!) films in the SWKT auditorium. IC introduced me to the world of art film, and to countless imagined worlds, and I was a loyal and devoted fan. I cringe when I hear of the encroaching limitations, and I’m not exactly sure why the offense-level among the student body is rising. If IC is forced to give up its challenging programming, can individual professors and seminars can take its place? Maybe it will be easier to negotiate with students on a smaller scale and with more personal conversations; on the other hand, maybe individual professors won’t be willing to take the risk of an “anonymous” letter of complaint. I don’t think you can count on artistic or academic freedom anymore at BYU, at all. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist—it clearly exists, and many smart and interesting people thrive at BYU—but the administration has long taken the view that BYU is more about the Church than about learning, to the extent those worlds collide.”

Another regular responded: “The University has long taken the view that BYU is not only about learning, but also about the Church. That’s quite different . . . . Besides, this problem with IC, a genuine problem, has everything to do with political pressures of various kinds and little to do with how learning and faith relate to each other at BYU.”

Do the challenges faced by IC involve a conflict between learning and faith?

ANSWER: The answer to the last question is almost always “no.” Of course, as I have pointed out already and as is clearly visible to anyone who observes the situation carefully, there are those who wrongly use religious arguments as an excuse to complain, but very few—if any—of our challenges involve genuine conflicts with religious belief. In fact, since the Honors Program started soliciting responses from students about IC films, virtually all of them have praised the program for providing faith-enhancing experiences.

This doesn’t surprise me (or most IC regulars, I suspect) because I myself find many of these films (at least, among those that I can choose with criteria in mind other than simply the required foreign language in mind) to be faith-promoting—in all kinds of ways. Just the fact that a good film can allow you to glimpse worlds and cultures not your own, and most often through the eyes of characters who face hardships and challenges, both physical and spiritual, far in excess of what we typically suffer, and do so with courage and dignity and integrity, fosters a genuine faith and optimism in the human spirit, and a desire to be more forgiving, tolerant, and generous. And if what the scriptures teach us about charity and ethical responsibility is true, which I believe it is, then such experiences are very valuable gifts indeed. Which makes it all the more ironic that some people can become so focused on condemning a little profanity, or the sight of two children bathing together, that their zeal for finding something bad blinds them to everything good.

That false and malicious accusations result in ever stricter policies and criteria I think is due neither to a rising sensitivity level among students nor to careless programming judgments (since media use and material have never been as cautiously considered and monitored at BYU as they now are, with no significant decrease in complaints from the student body and community at large). Rather, they are due, I think, to more direct ecclesiastical involvement and to an ever increasing paranoia among faculty and decision-makers. While in practice very few teachers I know here have ever had an academic freedom problem, many of those who did have one were reportedly treated so callously and harshly that it has had a chilling effect on most everyone else—the predictable result being that faculty here have become increasingly unwilling to take any risks at all, even concerning issues that years ago wouldn’t have been considered instances of risky teaching, but simply responsible pedagogical practice. A case in point is a discussion I had a while ago after a screening of “Microcosmos,” when a faculty member from the biology department thanked me for showing the film and then proceeded for nearly half an hour to rhapsodize about the wonders of nature and to lament what he called the frightening interrogation someone in his department had recently experienced from some authorities over the evolution issue. Whether or not the picture among his colleagues is really as bad as he painted it I have no way of knowing, but the point is that he quite clearly thinks that it is, and thus, feels not only unappreciated but at considerable risk. And I know of several similarly unsettling episodes among faculty and staff over media-use issues, publications, etc.—even in the law school. So, in the case of movies, will individual professors risk showing in class what can’t be shown at IC? Some do, but most of the professors I know who use film in their classes, even some of those in the Theater and Film Department, where a thorough education in the history and achievements of film are a professional requirement, say “no,” since they suspect (even if those suspicions are false) that a dispute might cost them their job. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been times when disputes arose that were handled with fairness and great charity, but for whatever reason those situations haven’t been talked about or otherwise publicized among the university community, so they haven’t done much to alleviate the distrust. And I also wouldn’t deny that over the years there have been poor faculty or department decisions that justly deserved some serious reflection and maybe even rebuke. There almost certainly have. I can say that since I became director most members of the administration have been very fair-minded and supportive of me as a faculty member and of IC as well.

In conclusion, despite the occasional problems, I know of no faculty anywhere on the planet who try as hard as most BYU faculty to nurture student’s faith and avoid offenses. And I’m happy to say that many past and current administrators here (like Todd Britsch, John Tanner, Scott Miller, John Lamb, and George Tate, to name but a few) are among the finest people and teachers I’ve ever met anywhere. So, I trust that despite many of the sad incidents that marred the last administration, the future of BYU in this regard is on the upswing—at least to the degree that such people as these are able to exercise any influence.

7. During the mid to late 90’s IC was targeted (along with the film dept) by several very vocal zealots, purporting to represent the community at large, who demanded that censoring and programming decisions accord with their own radical views. It was also around this time that the Church took a more active role in leading BYU (e.g., a GA as President), and that there was a fairly widespread re-evaluation of BYU curriculum and media-use standards. And it is also well known that BYU is very sensitive to the demands and expectations of its big-money donors. What role do such zealous influences play in IC decisions, and have complaints or concerns about IC ever risen to the level of the university president?

ANSWER: My sense is that zealous radicals and donors both play a big role in university decisions, unfortunately. Even when they’re not directly involved in an issue, policy always seems to have them in mind. And complaints about media use at BYU (and I suspect this is equally true of other issues, of which I am unaware) have risen far beyond the university president.

At one point there was a right-wing faculty member who made a lot of very vocal and contentious criticisms—not just about IC, but IC was a frequent target. And the single biggest critic of IC and the Theater and Film Department (and most recently, of the BYU Library film program as well) has been a former university employee who, I am told, was fired for sneaking away from his job and into IC screenings while still on his timecard—in order to see, over and over, the very movies he then complained were so offensive. He has written numerous letters to the editor of various papers falsely accusing BYU of showing (and forcing students to watch) sexually explicit films and other offensive material. And of course, even though such accusations are patently untrue, the papers (even the Deseret News and Daily Universe) print them because, as I was once told by a Daily Universe editor, “Controversy is news, regardless of whether or not the controversial claims are false.” This guy’s exploits have been strange and psychotic enough to provide the script for a TV movie. Don told me that one year, for instance, this person made (and duplicated at considerable cost enough copies to send to numerous church leaders) a videotape which contained nothing but out-takes of every profane word, glimpse of nudity, or other potentially offensive material that he anticipated would be edited out of the films IC was scheduled to show that semester—apparently in order to demonstrate what he considered to be the degenerate nature of the scheduled films. I have personally seen letters of complaint he has written in which he reproduced, enlarged, cropped, and painstakingly framed nude scenes to illustrate his points. Clearly, someone who was really offended by such material wouldn’t spend so much time looking at it and fiddling with it, so I think it’s pretty obvious that in this case the anti-pornography sword is being wielded in order to justify a craving for, and possibly an addiction to, the very material he purports to condemn. But rather than respond with denials or counter-accusations, the University has tried to take the high road and simply appease or ignore him.

When I became director I would myself often wonder, “Is this one film worth a skirmish that might jeopardize IC and tarnish the University’s reputation? Probably not.” So I would pass on it even though I thought it was a good film. But I have come to believe, after learning to my astonishment that there is nothing that won’t offend someone no matter how careful you are, that failing to fight all these little skirmishes has the same result in the end as losing one really big battle—you risk losing the entire war. So, I’m no longer sure that catering to such people at all is ever the right thing to do.

8. Is there a drift toward more explicit language, sex, and/or violence in filmmaking worldwide? What’s the best mechanism for understanding this drift? (Desensitization?) Will it be reversed?

ANSWER: Yes. The shock (and allure) (and market value) of the new. Not in the foreseeable future.

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3 Responses to II: 12 Questions for Travis Anderson

  1. danithew on January 9, 2005 at 1:03 am

    And of course, even though such accusations are patently untrue, the papers (even the Deseret News and Daily Universe) print them because, as I was once told by a Daily Universe editor, “Controversy is news, regardless of whether or not the controversial claims are false.�

    This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard the Deseret News is stubborn in retracting the truth or publishing falsehoods just because it’s interesting or palatable to its readers.

  2. Wilfried on January 9, 2005 at 9:38 am

    Fascinating answers, Travis. Thank you so much for this open and enlightening information. I guess we need to do more at BYU to openly express our appreciation for what IC does. Somehow we must help to counter the damage done by the one or two individuals who, indeed, are probably more mentally disturbed than caring about morals and education.

  3. Adam Greenwood on January 10, 2005 at 11:56 am

    For me, part of the appeal of the IC in the SWKT was the sense of discovering a little tucked away gem, and the odd feeling of seeing the daytime SWKT transformed into this moviegoing arena at night.

    Putting IC in the Varsity is all wrong. It (1) makes it into purely an entertainment venue, (2) by giving the IC its own space, gives it a too weighty prominence and sense of expectation and (3) mixes the IC with all the incompatible meanings and legends that have come to be associated with the Varsity. I’ll bet that even current students have heard about what the Varsity once was.


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