The Interview – is it ok to laugh?

The_Interview_2014_posterThe recent controversy over the film The Interview has made me think about the issue of what it’s ok to write about – what is fair game in fiction?

For those who have been living in a cave for the last few weeks The Interview is a broad comedy which offers a fictional account of two inept TV journalists who travel to North Korea with a secret brief from the CIA to kill the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un. Spoiler alert on this next bit I suppose.

They do succeed eventually in killing Jong-Un – which makes this a film about the assassination of a real, living national President. And people have been racking their brains without success to think of a movie which takes this extreme line.

It’s funny, by the by – at least I thought so, it’s a perfectly good movie which would have made people laugh without controversy had it been about a fictional country, not dissimilar to North Korea. But is it acceptable?

If we were to take a strictly ‘freedom of speech’ approach then we would say that virtually anything that could be said should be allowed, unless it breaks an existing law, such as the libel laws or laws against hate speech.

On the other hand, some would say that making entertainment of the assassination of a country’s leader is so disrespectful as to be out-of-bounds, even if that country is, to say the least, not an ally. It’s also not as brave as it might first appear for the film makers, and Sony, the company behind them, to make a film about the killing of the leader of North Korea. He’s a figure of fun they may have thought, a pantomime villain, and his regime has nothing to recommend it, to Western eyes anyway – he’s fair game.

But would they have made a similar movie about the assassination of Russian leader Vladimir Putin who is currently not on the West’s Christmas card list? I think we know the answer to that. They would have been aware of the likely repercussions, politically, economically and so on. I don’t believe that film would ever have been given the green light.

What we can deplore I believe, is the response to the film. Destructive computer hacking and terrorist death threats are not a proportional reaction to the supposed slight involved.

People have been asking – what would the US have done if a movie had been made somewhere else in the world about the killing of the President of the USA? Or how would the UK respond to a similar movie about the death of the Prime Minister?

My view is that there might have been public protests outside the appropriate foreign embassy in Washington or London, though not as well attended as those we mount against our own governments on controversial issues. There would also of course have been endless media chatter – with angry editorials and forthright bluster in the Daily Mail in the UK and on Fox TV in the states. But would there have been terrorist threats or destructive hacking? I can’t imagine it to be honest.

Atelier_de_Nicolas_de_Largillière,_portrait_de_Voltaire,_détail_(musée_Carnavalet)_-002Because we have long enjoyed freedom of speech, we are used to seeing it exercised. There’s a phrase in an early 20th Century biography of Voltaire used to sum up the great man’s beliefs, it’s often wrongly attributed to him. It says:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That’s the modern West’s view, it’s our default position. But it isn’t the prevailing view in many other parts of the world, particularly those ruled by dictators who find free speech inconvenient. The content of The Interview may be acceptable to us – but it isn’t to them. We might wish North Korea would take a more benevolent view of the fictional slaying of their Supreme Leader, but that was never going to happen. They were always going to see it in the worst possible light and take whatever action they could to gain redress.

So it comes down to this I suppose – is the game worth the candle? There a lot of things in life you could say, things which would deeply anger and upset people, but are they worth saying? Are you achieving anything worthwhile by saying them? I don’t believe The Interview really takes a brave stand or adds to the cultural debate – I don’t know that it achieves anything it couldn’t have done by featuring a fictional dictatorship. So we can laugh at The Interview, we have that freedom. But there is a price to pay for the making of this slight, funny, throw-away movie. And the time to decide whether that price is worth paying is before, not after, you say something ‘unsayable’

What’s your view on The Interview and the controversy surrounding it? Do you think there are things which shouldn’t be written about? Let me know in the comments.

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7 thoughts on “The Interview – is it ok to laugh?

  1. I haven’t yet seen The Interview but I’m hanging out to watch it!
    I think (despite the specifics of the film) that it’s good to have controversial films in circulation, even if we don’t agree with what they say, it at least puts a point across in an effective way.
    I agree that the response would’ve been way different if it was a movie about assassinating Obama but who knows, maybe there’s some short films/stories/comics out there who have similar ideas.
    For us, this movie is humorous but to North Korea, probably very threatening, I agree that it’s hard to draw the line of how far is too far… but I guess we live in a society where sometimes, a line doesn’t really exist.
    Nice post 🙂

  2. I imagine most people in North Korea don’t even know of the film’s existence, Chris.I haven’t seen it either. That said, I am not sure there would have been so civilised a response to such a film about Obama. The Americans have their own ways of dealing with things which isn’t always visible to the rest of us. People they don’t like have a way of having ‘accidents’. Personally, I am a great supporter of free speech, but it carries responsibilities with it, and if people abuse that then things can get very messy. I wish they wouldn’t. To my own mind comes Geert Wilders here in the Netherlands. He is responsible for some very unpleasant attitudes and actions against foreigners here simply by his own insistence on being free to speak out about his own fears and prejudices. He has only spoken (as far as I know), but his followers have done some unspeakable things. As for Theo van Gogh, he ended up dead.

      • I’m sure you are quite right that people in North Korea don’t know about it Val – on the other hand they may have been fed some information about it as propaganda. Personally I don’t think it matters in our debate on what is and is not acceptable – in the end that has to be on our terms as part of our culture while considering the views of others. I agree that there have to be boundaries but where they are and who draws them is a vexed question.

      • I’m with you in this Vallypee. I think far too many people say far too much already. Freedom of speech, or courting controversy? Or even inciting bad feeling? I don’t know! What’s it all about…

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