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Market Failure? The Human Rights Watch Film Festival Tells the Truth

We are often led to believe that the American public is generally uninterested in the outside world or challenging social and political topics, and that the content of our mainstream media simply reflects that apathy. Through the mantras of the “market” and deregulation, we are told that what the mainstream gives us is what we collectively want. Our television system, for example is based on a “democratic” rating system uncolored by bias or the meddling intellectuals who impose public interest regulation on programming. European television on the other hand, is encumbered by content regulation that mandates “public interest” programming, rendering it disloyal to the essential “freedom” of the market and, by extension, to our freedom of expression. Just look at the choice we have, it is often said, we are the envy of the world!
Audiences Are There

American television formerly consisted of a few networks that operated with a tradition, albeit a tepid one, of regulation that protected news and documentaries. Now it exists as a panoply of almost wholly content-deregulated media outlets, and TV’s unrelenting commercialism has taken a toll on issue-oriented programming. A survey of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF) this past June shows that films that tackle challenging foreign and domestic issue are largely unsupported and unseen in the United States, whereas they occupy a prominent position on European television. But if the audiences at the festival are any indication, there is actually a huge desire in America to see films critical of the status quo.

The HRWIFF program is exclusively made up of films that deal with social and political issues around the world, confirming the inherent power of this medium of expression: It can threaten the scions of corruption, reveal truths, and ideally help rectify at least a morsel of injustice. In a less dramatic way, the films can educate a voting populace about critical domestic and international issues. According to Bruni Burres, Director of the HRWIFF, in the two weeks of the festival all but perhaps three or four of the evening programs (early as well as late shows), and almost all weekend matinee shows, were sold out, with standby lines that were “intense and long.” Burres also notes that at this year’s festival there was a wide spectrum of age groups as well as a more ethnically mixed audience than ever before.

A Stunning Contrast

And while more than half of the 33 films/videos featured in the 2002 HRWIFF will air on major European TV channels, at this point it is guaranteed that only two, maybe three, of these films will be on American television, despite its surfeit of cable outlets.

Audience Q & A after many films in the festival inevitably focused on the issue of distribution and where the film could be seen in the United States. Often the answer was that the films could not be seen on U.S. television but were indeed broadcast on the big television stations in Europe. Andrea Holly, director of outreach and public education for the festival, said that during the HRWIFF’ traveling festival, people were dismayed about the lack of access to these films here in the U.S. and were surprised to learn that they were seen on European TV. To add insult to injury, according to Burres, 60 – 70% of the films in this year’s festival received funding from European television or programs administered by the European Union. Meanwhile, only a measly one or two got funding from U.S. public television or the Soros Documentary Fund.

Films of American Importance Unseen in America

While film topics spanned from the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan to human rights abuses in Africa and Mexico, a couple of the sold-out ones in the festival had to do with controversial issues in the United States as well as its past foreign policy. As John Osman, director of Justifiable Homicide—a thoroughly documented expose of an NYPD killing of two Latino teens—said of trying to get the film broadcast or distributed, “we sent the cut to many broadcasters and they all turned it down. Their response was, as we gathered it to be, ‘too risky,’ even with the fact that they said they liked the film.” While there might be some hope with the coming round of the PBS series POV (one of the only TV outlets for independent docs in the U.S.), the film has already been acquired by Channel 4 in the U.K., which is equivalent in stature to an American network. Nevertheless, Osman feels that the films in the HRWIFF “not only encourage newly emerging filmmakers to embark on difficult but important topics, but their selections also build a particular consciousness amongst people and how we think. If we think about the influence mainstream media has on our thought processes, I think the films at HRWIFF counterbalance what we have been fed.”

Eugene Jarecki, Director of The Trials of Henry Kissinger, a film that was sold out at every showing with twice the theater’s capacity waiting outside for stand-by tickets, says that the BBC was interested in the project from the start and that “thanks to them the film was possible.” Jarecki knew the film, which explores accusations of war crimes connected to Kissinger and American policies, would be a hard-sell in the United States, and that “after 9/11 and the government’s messages of encouraged patriotism, whatever interest there may have been in the film surely vanished.” The BBC used the film to launch a new channel in the U.K., an act that Jarcki regards as an indication of U.K. TV’s dedication to worthy programming. So many European countries then bought the film that the U.S. now “seems like the only place this film cannot be seen on TV,” says Jarecki. This “is not surprising,” he laments, but still “very sad.”

Executives and Audiences

Jarecki, however, maintains that “The HRWIFF showed that there is an audience and hopefully that may inspire broadcasters.” Adding that the U.S. system has increasingly become a slave to one commercial master, Jarecki points out that, in contrast, there is a mandate in the U.K. television system to deliver content about real issues – that is what owners of TV sets pay their “TV License” for. If the BBC didn’t deliver intelligent and challenging commercial-free programming, “they would be in a crisis with the public,” whereas in the U.S., “the public is charged as too stupid, too fragile, or as too much a fan of basketball.” Jon Osman also agrees, stating that “there are plenty of viewers out there who are fed up with programs that are cliché, mundane, even unstimulating and are thirsty for something that may engage their intelligence.”

Stephanie Black, the award-winning film maker who made a buzz at last years HRWIFF with Life and Debt, her film about Jamaica and the IMF-World Bank imposition of structural adjustment, calls the HRWIFF a “great, well-organized and well-publicized festival that is doing its job. But it’s up to the people next in line to pick up these films up and do their job.” Black goes on to say, “Without a doubt, there is an audience for independent documentaries.” She holds out some hope for the Sundance Channel’s planned all-documentary cable outlet, but finds it frustrating that PBS’s POV can only accommodate 13 slots a year for independent documentaries.

Since the HRWIFF shows that people will go to theaters to see documentaries in a community environment, Black wants multiplexes around the country to dedicate a small theater to show socially-oriented films. Black also pointed out the great difficulty in getting theatrical release: “The channels of distribution are not clear until the audiences are there. I believe I got theatrical distribution for Life and Debt only because I first got my film shown at Cinema Village and proved there was an audience.”

Bruni Burres says that while there is an ever-growing audience for the films in the festival, both on U.S. TV and in theaters, “they need individual attention, good distributors, some foundation money for self-distribution, and some TV execs willing to take a chance and expand their audiences.” She believes that with the right kind of marketing, 10 – 12 of the works featured in this year’s festival could have a real home on US television, as well as a life in both the college campus and art house theater circuits.

A System of “Market Censorship”

The favorable reactions to the works at HRWIFF and elsewhere suggests that in depriving us of seeing such challenging fare, our broadcasting system is essentially cheating us. While on the surface this could be explained by U.S. TV executives’ apparently low opinion of the needs of U.S. audiences, there may be something more nefarious at work.

We may all want the “freedom to choose,” but the rhetoric of the market ideology that drives American television hides the actual imperfections of mechanisms that measure “what the people want” through ratings. Most statisticians and social scientists will acknowledge that accurate audience measurement through the current ratings system is a chimera. But because of our television system’s unrelenting commercialism, ratings have become the convenient currency that is used to determine advertising rates. This system then goes largely unquestioned while the absence of content regulation allows programmers to bypass controversial social and political programming that may be “too risky.”

What the current process amounts to is both a conscious as well as unconscious form of ideological censorship. And rather than censorship by the state, which is rather easy to notice, American television has fallen victim to something more nebulous but just as constricting: “Market censorship.” Due to both blind adherence to a flawed ratings system and the pressure of advertisers and corporate owners who reject controversy, TV’s critical potential is not only seen as anachronistic but inherently threatening. As Lawrence Rees, a high-level programmer at the BBC, once said: “The idea that you think that by putting entertainment on it you are not making a political act is wrong. It’s a hugely political act to take information and factual programming off television. Because to do that, I believe, denies people the opportunity to be educated in a more sophisticated way than they could otherwise be.” Perhaps, then, the solution is something anathema to the “free market” system, except in times of crisis: Regulation in the public interest, in the name of genuine democracy.

The Trails of Henry Kissinger will have a run this September at the Film Forum

Life and Debt will show at BAM/Rose Cinema this fall

Justifiable Homicide will be in the NY International Latino Film Festival in August


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