Censorship Of 'Exodus' Raises Fears of Proxy Media War
Hard on the heels of North Korea’s outraged response to ‘The Interview’, authorities in Morocco, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have banned ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, Ridley Scott’s latest biblical epic depicting the life of Moses.
Citing historical inaccuracies, all three countries take exception to the movie’s contention that the Jews built the pyramids and that an earthquake caused the Red Sea to part, allowing Moses to lead his people to safety.
Trouble is, if countries start blocking movies for getting their facts wrong, and leaders who feel insulted do the same, then theatres around the world will soon be half empty. And we could stand on the verge of a cultural war.
Such aggressive responses to humor and narrative imagination have a long history. For example:
1 Cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad
In late September 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad, most of them in a benign way, but a couple more mockingly: one showed a man with a bomb in his turban and another showed Muhammad urging Muslims not to martyr themselves, saying ‘Stop, we’ve run out of virgins’ (referring to the traditional reward for Islamic martyrdom).
Within months, Danish embassies across the Middle East and elsewhere had been attacked, leading to multiple deaths. Riots in Nigeria led to more than 100 killings and both the editor and the cartoonists received death threats. Some countries imposed boycotts on Danish goods.
There was a more modest reaction to the depiction of Muhammad in a teddy bear outfit in an episode of South Park in 2000, in which he was summoned by celebrities to meet them on the grounds that his ‘goo’ would make them immune to ridicule. Death threats to the show’s creators Matt Stone and Troy Parker convinced the broadcaster Comedy Central to censor parts of the episode dealing with the Prophet.
2 Protests against Monty Python’s Life of Brian
On its release in 1979, Monty Python’s Life of Brian caused an uproar in the Christian community, with senior church leaders condemning its depiction of Christ’s life (missing the point that it was a satire of biblical epics and in fact showed a young Jewish man called Brian). Altogether, 39 local administrations in the UK banned the film or imposed an ‘18’ certificate, effectively preventing its distribution.
Countries including Norway and Ireland banned the film altogether, while screenings in New York were picketed by both rabbis and nuns. Some of the bans lasted for decades, stretching into the 21st century, by which time Life of Brian had been widely recognised as a comedy classic. Some Church of England clerics now show it to young people as part of religious education courses and it has been voted the third-funniest film of all time, behind Airplane! And Spinal Tap.
3 Hitler’s response to The Great Dictator
When Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece ‘The Great Dictator’ was released in 1940 spoofing the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler, it was immediately banned in Germany and the occupied states of Europe. This ban remained active in Germany until 1958 and in Franco’s Spain until his death in 1975. In Italy, the full version including scenes satirising Mussolini’s wife, was not shown until her death in 2002.
But Hitler himself was a Chaplin fan and arranged a screening of the film during World War II. His reaction was never recorded.
While Chaplin’s motivations were to ridicule Hitler’s despotism and anti-semitism, the film was actively encouraged by both the US and Allied authorities: Franklin D Roosevelt sent a representative to Chaplin’s studios to urge them to continue with the project. Rooselvelt himself turned up at the movie’s premier on 15 October 1940.
‘The Great Dictator’ was Chaplin’s biggest box office hit.
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In many ways, the Sony hack contrasts with these examples: unlike perceived insults to Islam, there is no widely supportive global population behind North Korea; unlike Life of Brian, this was a personalised, rather than an ideological attack and in the case of The Great Dictator, Hitler was already taking plenty of punitive action against the Allies, without adding a movie to the list of grievances.
In the case of Egypt, Morocco and the UAE banning ‘Exodus’, it looks more like political posturing than anything related to ideology or personalities.
What is alarming is the prospect of entertainment becoming a new proxy battleground in a conflict between East and West, developed and developing economies, in which media companies suffer at the hands of over-zealous censors acting out of political motivation.