9/13/07

168 Project Rules Debate: Profanity

So anyway, we are wrestling with what the obscenity policy should be for the 168 Film Project and Festival for 2007-2008. Among all the other details, it seems like just another item, but there is way more at stake than meets the eye. We have two options, keep the status quo, or adopt a zero tolerance policy for 168 entries.

Here are my thoughts on the subject

There are many concerns and real dangers of public perception and clarity of vision on the following fronts. Censorship, Legalism, becoming irrelevant as Christian Pariahs, Loss of interest from filmmakers, being uncool, losing our edge.

I realize that having a zero tolerance policy for profanity could be a deterrent entries. While these risks are real, we have to fix our gaze on our mission and further define what we stand for and what we will accomplish. The gospel is offensive enough to many. I would rather be offensive in this respect, rather than in the acceptance of base language.

For me it is not about being cool and having an easy time in the present. It is and has always been about changing the status quo and the end result. To leave it up to the artists entering the 168 Competition sounds great on paper, but I have seen the results of having an ambiguous (or fuzzy) deadline. It sends a fuzzy, lukewarm message.

The "no gratuitous sex, language, violence and no blasphemy" policy has served 168 for 5 years, but with our growing visibility comes an influx of worldly Christian and secular filmmakers that will drastically alter what is submitted. We need to plan for this lest we become just like any other film competition and festival. We will look worse for having an ambiguous guideline because when we do reject a film, it looks arbitrary and capricious.

This year's entries included the words "S---," "nig---" and other words. These cannot be allowed in the contest, period. There are logical, practical and scriptural reasons for this as follows.

These terms are dehumanizing and contrary to our mission to let the art speak, vs. the cliche reaction of a scandalous expression for effect. This is not acceptable, because we are called to a higher standard.

We are not looking to fit into the Hollywood mold, but rather to break it and lead in a new direction. Pleasing an audience of one, the Creator is our standard and it is not right to put comfortable standards in place of His.

We in L.A. sometimes suffer from an insular perspective from the rest of the country in that we will tolerate more offensive content and compare what we allow to what the media allows (ie. Well, it's no worse than what you see on TV).

We as artists lean toward artists rights. As I said at the festival, we need to also consider Audience Rights. This is why we had an alternative screening for children (during the 168 Film Festival 2007) for some of the more intense films. One of my PROUDEST moments of the whole festival was seeing 12 young children out in the lobby watching children's films.

There is a trend that waxes and wanes in all artists. The "edgyness" of our art is always a line to walk. The studios are often pretty good at regulating their words because profanity is PROVEN TO REDUCE BOX OFFICE NUMBERS.

For a good read, see the 1992, book by Michael Medved called Hollywood vs. America- Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values.

Here is a picture you would know little about, not having spent time in the trenches of the struggle of preparing for a film production competition and festival.

After the entries have been turned in, the filmmakers get to rest and the 168 staff has to go into action. Deadline after deadline is met as the films are judged and arranged into screening blocks. Any delays are very costly to a contest such as ours which depends on having speed and results from a minimal paid staff.

Behind the scenes, a fuzzy language rule often creates a huge disruption in our post production workflow. Here is the progression of a content offense passing through the system.

1. We have to see the offense first. 2. Then we have to decide what to do about it. 3, Then we must contact the often very emotional filmmaker, who wonders why we can't see the necessity they have for "talking the way these people do," or "being real." 4. Then we have to disqualify the entry or allow an edit. Then we have to monitor the edit so the rules are observed and they get no more time than other entries. All of this back and forth takes huge amounts of time and emotionality. On simple fact is that WE DON'T HAVE TIME NOR MANPOWER FOR THIS.

The desire to be cool and "edgy" is really a "cop down" to the standards of today and a rebellious gesture towards biblical standards. The justification of offensive words by Christian filmmakers is weak. Yes, it is true that many people do talk that way, but many more do not, especially Christians, who are our core audience. We need to have a good reputation first with God, second with Christians and the church and third with the crossover secular folks who see that there is something different about 168.

168 cannot just pretend and play at the truth of the Bible and slap a Christian label on it. All need to see that we have rules and that we stick to them. If we allow fuzzy standards in language, then we really don't have a standard at all and we will get worse as an organization, not better. The drip, drip, drip of just a little language (at first) WILL ruin what we have built in these six years of the 168 Project.

Having fuzzy standards sends the wrong message to filmmakers, who are forming (or unlearning) previous standards of their own. Fuzzy standards encourage them to push the envelope that we are trying to repair.

When the question of appropriate content was first considered by Hollywood in 1922, Will H. Hayes was recruited to head the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, to blunt the power of local standards boards. Under Hayes, the motion-picture industry adopted the Production Code, which held that "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it."

Without other standards, it really does come down to a First Amendment right in defense of artistic freedom. But, we are bound by the clear and concise rules for Christian expression.

This slippery slope that started the deconstruction of the envelope of decency in broadcasting has lead to the foul mouth kids of "South Park," the twisted sexuality of "Adult Swim," and the disgusting rhetoric of comedians and buffoons like Howard Stern. One must ask, do we want to contribute to this or to make a break from it and do a new thing?

Here are some relevant scriptures.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, think on these things. (NIV)

James 3:9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11Can both fresh water and salt[a] water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (NIV)

Ephesians 5:3-4
8But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these, anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. (NIV)

Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature, sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.[b] 7You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these, anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (NIV)

And there is also the passage concerning offending "the weaker brother." This has to do with modifying what we want or say to avoid quarrels and dissention.

I remember going to dinner with a good vegetarian friend and callously ordering a big steak. Why the MEDIUM ordered steak came RARE, I don't know. It was very uncomfortable for both of us as I gobbed down the dead cow.

One Christmas I watched the movie "Ghost Story" with the family. It's a great story with Fred Astaire and George C. Scott, but there is this really bizarre and gratuitous SEX SCENE in the middle that just made all of our jaws drop on the floor and caused us all real discomfort.

Planning to avoid embarrassment like this is healthy for 168 and for filmmakers. Rules are good. They can always break them later if they must.

The words of an 80's band seem to apply to this question of language. "We didn't use cruel words to navigate cruel seas." (The Stranglers).

Here's a challenge to writers: can you tell the story in an interesting way without the language? Without the cop out of scandal and offense? If you can, you are truly a good writer. You will go far and your work will have a more lasting, endearing quality for it.

Peace,


JDW

5 comments:

Daniel Rhoten said...

Isn't your whole premise taking verses and themes from the Bible and making films out of them?

If what you're saying is true - then pretty much the Bible itself should be thrown out to be used as a form of media and storytelling. It's chock-full of sexual immorality, cussing, extreme violence, racism, drug use, witchcraft, etc...

The reality, if it is not shown to be cool or an end, but shown to be examples of evil, is not only allowable, but necessary. It gives people a sense of what redemption, salvation, reconciliation, righteousness, confession, and forgiveness truly means to us.

Can these things be used in excess or in glorifying the sin? Yes. Can we go too far? Yes.

My hopes are that 168 will reconsider, or rewrite this rule according to a more Biblical standard; and not alienate such artists who are grittier and have intentions of reaching those in life's dark gutters because of a word or phrase that makes mainline Christians uncomfortable.

John David Ware said...

Daniel,

Thanks for your post.

I think you misunderstand. I am not advocating a sanitization of the subjects of 168 films. I want the gritty stories to be told, but leave out the language and gratuitous sex and gore.

Yes, the bible describes all kinds of immorality, but it doesn't dwell on it. I am not aware of swearing either. If there were a clear cut answer to this and a line that never got crossed that we could all agree on, then we would not need to make these kinds of rules. But, what is gratuitous to one is "necessary" to another. And there is always someone who needs to feel "edgy" to be heard.

Rather, I submit to you that your message will be heard by more people by excluding the aforementioned elements. Will people really tune out from a great story if there isn't enough profanity?

Your creativity is not limited by "no rules." Rather, it is heightened by it. Rules make you find new and creative ways to express yourself, vs. the easy shock factor of foul language.

Not to mention the biblical admonition not to offend the weaker brother.

Artists who are not capable of describing the "dark gutters" without dragging us through the sewage therein are not being creative enough.

A perfect example is "American Beauty." It was a great film that felt it was necessary to wallow in gratuities to carry it's point. We were dragged through the mud for 2 hours and then there was a nice bandaid of hopeful banter thrown on at the end.

There is always good and bad, else life's decisions would be easy. Meanwhile, the drip, drip, drip of the depictions of the ugliest parts of life continues to the point where we are today (see "Hostel" and "Saw").

The fact is that the bulk of the 168 audience is Christian. The real audience is God. I do not think God wants us to lower His/our standards to reach the gutter. In a very real way, the means are the end.

Janis Miller said...

John:
I want to commend you about the decision on no profanity in the movies that are in the festival!! Your words in your blog says it so well. The decision should also "stretch" those artists who think they can only use ungodly ways of expressing themselves, to be more "creative". They will most likely surprise themselves how they can make it happen without the disgusting ways some people (not everyone) feels they need to express themselves. I have been uncomfortable with other "spiritual" film festivals but was not embarrased when I worked on 168's festival. You deserve a decision emmy.
JM

Christopher said...

John,

I thoroughly agree with your decision and am proud to participate as a filmmaker in the 168 Hour Film Project.

Many Blessings,
Christopher Shawn Shaw

Anonymous said...

Boundaries do increase creativity.

Anybody who has a question about a fuzzy issue should clarify with 168 during the writing week to avoid the drains of time and emotions during production and post.

Great thoughts, all.