Monday, 23 November 2015

Religion at the Cinema

So the Church of England is not allowed to show the #JustPray video of the Lord's Prayer as a cinema ad. The evergreen popularity of Star Wars would have guaranteed that it would be seen by huge numbers of all ages. The days before Christmas seemed an ideal time. But at the eleventh hour Digital Cinema Media (DCM), the company that manages advertising in the big cinema chains has said no. It would go against the policy of not accepting ads 'connected to personal beliefs, specifically those related to politics or religion'. It might offend people. (Did DCM make it clear at the planning stage that this was its policy? I think we should know.)

It's an intriguing debate. You'd expect this kind of thing in France where the Republic has a fiercely defended doctrine of laïcité which means that public space is strictly neutral when it comes to religion. Hence the annual rows about whether the Christmas crib can be displayed in the foyer of public buildings like the Mairie. We see it in this country too, though not yet with the same shrillness. Watch whether your town hall carries a sign wishing you a 'Happy Christmas' or 'Seasons Greetings' (with or without an apostrophe). See if your kids are allowed to perform in a school nativity play that focuses on an infant called Jesus.

People go to the cinema to be entertained, not offended - that's the gist. But there's a lot of cinema advertising that very much offends me. Far from being value-free, it's heavily freighted with all the bogus assumptions of consumerism. It tells me what I need, shapes my hungers, tempts me to spend money I don't have. It persuades me to buy into a set of values that is alien to my core beliefs. From fast cars and seductive fragrances to chocolate bars and fizzy drinks, the advert says: you must have this and have it now! Your humanity will be diminished if you don't! Here's where fulfilment and purpose lie! All deeply theological and filled with unconscious commentary on the human condition and the nature of desire. And DCM's policy statement about refusing to show anything 'connected to personal beliefs' is just naive. All advertising is about personal values and attitudes - it's precisely 'beliefs' that advertisers want to influence as they try to persuade us to buy their product!

But in an age of toleration (which I'm so grateful to have been born into), I do not have the right not to be offended. Nobody does. As a Christian, would I be upset if a cinema ad showed the Islamic call to prayer and devout Muslims streaming into the mosque? Or Jewish people at the Western Wall praying uttering the Shema? Or Hindus on pilgrimage to their sacred river? Of course not. I'd be glad to think that humane spiritual values were being promoted and the lives of other faith communities affirmed. What about atheists and their ads on London buses, 'There probably isn't a God, so get on and enjoy your life'? No problem. Let the argument happen, I say. It can only do us good to listen carefully to others, exercise free speech without fear, disagree passionately if we want to, and even take the risk of changing our minds. When Richard Dawkins says he's relaxed about the Lord's Prayer advert because people are big enough to cope with it, he's saying something important.

But even if I don't have the right not to be offended, it's proper to place boundaries on what is allowable in public discourse. Here's what DCM is possibly arguing. Western democracies struggle with this, and it's far from clear what crosses the line of acceptability and what doesn't. Threats to public or personal safety are the easier cases. Religion and politics are more difficult. The temptation is to draw the line too far in and exclude content that is not only harmless in itself but offers stimulus to thought and discussion. The effect is to infantilise us by being over-protective and parental. No-one is arguing that radical Islamist propaganda or promoting the political programmes of far right extremists should be showed on our cinema or TV screens. But who is going to place the C of E's gentle Lord's Prayer video in the category of the deviant and dangerous, to be suppressed at all costs? Does DCM not rate the intelligence of the viewing public very highly?

It's dug itself into a hole here. No doubt DCM is trying to be even-handed and respond consistently to endless requests to promote this or that ideology or creed. And of course it's free to show or not show whatever it wants. But it hasn't done the calibration carefully enough. Maybe the religious landscape is too mysterious to navigate. Then their leaders need advisors who can help them become more literate when it comes to faith. But make no mistake. By not showing the Lord's Prayer, they are making a clear statement about the beliefs and values that they do wish to promote. And because they are in control of what we see, that removes from us the audience the chance to make up our own minds.

(I'm tempted here to add something about the profoundly theological character of cinema. Film is a rich resource for theology and spiritual reflection. In particular, Star Wars has given rise to a large and fascinating literature about human destiny and redemption. The big cinema chains have never fought shy of showing films about religion. Cinema is a space where there is deep and passionate engagement with religion both explicitly and in more analogical and metaphorical ways. So DCM is out of step with its own medium.) 

To me, being infantilised is a lot worse than being offended. And in hard cases, I'd rather take the risk of including rather than excluding. I know that precedents haunt all decision-makers. But DCM is being needlessly risk-averse. So I hope it will have the courage to change its mind about this innocent little film. To treat us as grown-ups won't be the end of civilisation as we know it.

9 comments:

  1. Michael, DCM have not said much about their reasons beyond stating their policy. However, if I was running those cinemas I would, right now, be concerned about anything which might tempt Islamist fanatics to make a cinema the site for an atrocity. 'Not giving offence' might be code for not taking the risk of having the public shot in their seats. Given how many Christians have been targets in the Middle East, it is perhaps only a matter of time in the West. Cinema customers are relatively easy targets - remember the 'The Dark Night Rising' shooting in the USA . Just a thought. Sorry to be glum. Best wishes, as ever, Ivor

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    1. I sympathise, but if we followed this logic and made decisions based on fear, the terrorists would have won. The same goes for all non-radical-Sunni places of worship including Christian churches, especially those with a high public profile like cathedrals. We might not want to travel on a train behind a locomotive named 'Durham Cathedral' in case it was targeted, or a bus that carried an advertisement for Alpha Courses. In any case, Daesh have just as big a quarrel with consumerism, diversity, political debate, and sex and nudity all of which would make cinemas ready targets for Islamic terrorists because of the content of the films they show! All organisations have to be shrewd and intelligent in the way they respond to the threats we all face. It's a huge challenge for all public-access buildings but I doubt that this was in the minds of DCM when they refused the CofE ad. The argument that equality and diversity must exclude religious debate in public places has been adduced for decades now. It is wholly in the tradition of laïcité as now interpreted, but in my view that's not at all in the spirit of the Enlightenment which did not want to exclude religion, but simply to give equal space to those of different religious traditions without privileging any one faith in particular. So to my mind, DCM is simply exhibiting a kind of disinterest that is not worthy of cinema as a great cultural institution. Will the Tyneside Cinema perhaps show us a more excellent way?

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  2. Perhaps when churches stop refusing Yoga classes and gay marriage for example then they will be better placed to complain about constraining freedom of expression.

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  3. Thank you for this fantastic response on this topic, very well put. Well done.

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  4. An interesting concept that of having a right not to be offended, because I'm not offended by the refusal to show the advert, just surprised that anyone today could be so protective of others right to not to be offended, that they set out to offend millions while doing so.

    I've seen a variety of views expressed about this topic, many bordering on outrage to others with a wry smile at the Church being at the centre of so much free publicity. Wiser people will no doubt pronounce of this, but as the advert is freely available to view on youtube, hopefully, hundreds and thousands, will view it, just to see what all the fuss is about. :)

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  5. I note you say "At the eleventh hour" but the sequence of emails published here (http://archbishopcranmer.com/cinema-lords-prayer-ban-was-a-retroactive-policy-to-chuck-the-church-of-england/) show the Church being told by a DCM representative as early as 3 August (that is, less than a week after Rev. Arun Arora had told the agency the CofE were proposing to go ahead)

    "Mate, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news, it looks like we’re going to be unable to carry your ad in our cinemas. Really sorry about this, as I know a lot of work has been put into the planning of this from both ends and it’s a really disappointing outcome for both of us. We initially thought it would be fine as long as the BBFC and CAA approved the copy (which would be more than likely). However, after our exhibition team spoke to our exhibitors themselves, Vue, Odeon and Cineworld have told us that they can’t carry any ads of a religious nature. It’s similar to the rules about political advertising- basically the exhibitors can’t be seen to have any manifesto or motive of their own, be it political or religious. Our hands are tied by these guys so it’s a massive shame and I’m pretty gutted about it, apologies again for any inconvenience this has caused."

    So I'm not sure why the Church has only just started making a fuss about it. They've known for three and a half months that the ad wasn't going to run, and they've known that the reason was a blanket prohibition on political and religious advertising, not any specific objection to the content of the individual ad.

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