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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

on campus
My alma mater here in St. Pete inaugurated a bi-weekly film series last year, dubbed “International Cinema at Eckerd College”. I attended a few showings, mostly for the movies themselves, but partly just for an excuse to visit the old campus again.

International Cinema is kicking off a new season this coming Friday with a screening of Fahrenheit 9/11. I got the notice from the program director, Professor Nathan Andersen, last week, and didn’t think anything of it. (You might wonder how Michael Moore’s flick qualifies as international; that adjective was pretty loosely applied last year, with movies like Kill Bill: Vol. 1 making the cut. Since Eckerd’s student body is fairly international, I think American movies generally fit into the theme.)

Today, I got an email from Professor Andersen. Apparently, some people on the mailing list took some exception to Fahrenheit 9/11 being shown, particularly at this time and place. Enough people expressed concern that Andersen felt he needed to offer a general explanation.

With his permission, here’s Professor Andersen’s email on the subject:

What controversy? — A note from Nathan Andersen (program director, International Cinema at Eckerd College) on the selection of this film:

I often get feedback from enthusiastic audiences after the films I show in the series. But this time, I’ve received feedback beforehand. Several (more than three) have expressed the concern that at an institution of higher learning we should not be presenting what they describe as “biased” or “ideology” or “propaganda.” The worry was that there might be a political agenda in showing the film, and that the film does not represent the diversity of political opinion that exists on campus. Although I have responded to a few individuals expressing these concerns, I would also like to publish a version of that response here for anyone who may share similar (and quite understandable) concerns.

The first point I’d like to make is that the films shown in the series are in no way intended to represent the views of Eckerd College, or even of myself. They are not part of the college curriculum, and it is not a requirement for students to go to any of the films in the series — although there are students in film classes who are expected to attend some of the films, they in general have a choice in which films to attend. The film series is designed to be one among many possible extra-curricular events available to students on campus. Other extra-curricular events on campus include, for example, religious ceremonies and meetings, lectures that represent a range of convictions on a range of topics, political gatherings of all kinds, including meetings for the Young Republicans, parties, concerts, and other events on campus — and none of these are explicitly endorsed by the college as representative of views students should accept. The decision about which films are included in the film series are made by me, in consultation with other interested faculty members and students, and are emphatically not the result of an administrative or faculty-wide choice about curriculum.

The general guideline that I use in making decisions about what to air in the series is contained in the initial proposal that got it started. According to that proposal, International Cinema was designed to show “critically acclaimed and important films from around the world.” I am showing Fahrenheit 9/11 because I think that by any measure it fits that bill. Whatever anyone thinks about the merits of the views it espouses, it clearly did receive a lot of critical praise, including receiving what many take to be the highest honor bestowable on a film of “international appeal,” the Palm d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. It is also important, as I take it, in a number of ways. It is important, for example, as the highest-grossing “documentary-style” film ever. What that means to me is that its appearance is a noteworthy event, something worth paying attention to and considering. Where better to reflect upon a film like this than on a college campus, where open discussion and critical but intelligent commentary are aspired to? What I personally like about Michael Moore’s films is not so much the views he presents, but that he presents them in such a way that the viewer cannot fail to have some kind of reaction. In that sense they present wonderful opportunities for discussion, which is exactly what I like to see on campus. I have shown a number of films in film classes where the political slant of the film, or the ideas suggested by the film, are distasteful or at least implausible to me. I think the key in presenting such a film intelligently is that it be introduced in advance by someone who is capable of putting it in context, and that there be a forum afterwards for open discussion of the film.

In the case of this film, I have asked Professor Tony Brunello from our political science department to introduce the film and lead an open discussion afterwards. Something he does regularly in his classes is discuss the nature of popular political communications, and encourages his students to recognize the biases inherent in films and other media forms that popularize political ideas. His introduction will encourage the same thing from the audience of the film, as preparation for an after film discussion. I want to emphasize that this is an open event, and the discussion after the film will be open-ended. Everyone who comes will be welcome to raise concerns or ask questions or present their own points of view (politely). This will definitely not be set up as an “anti-Bush” rally or anything of the sort. I intended it primarily as an occasion where a film that has current popularity and interest can be discussed in a thoughtful and critical manner by people whose viewpoints differ. This makes it different than, say, showing the film in an ordinary theater where there is no forum for such a discussion.

Another concern raised by some of those who have written to me or whose views have been conveyed to me has to do with timing. There are two considerations I had in mind when I set the date for this screening: the first is that in addition to showing occasional classics as part of the film series I also like to show “first run” films, to give people an opportunity to see them on the big screen before they have become widely available on television or DVD, etc. There is only a small window of time where this is possible with a film like this, that has only just become available for non-profit and non-theatrical screenings but will soon be available on DVD. The second timing consideration does have to do with the election, but not to convince people to vote for one candidate or the other, but rather to stimulate debates on campus at a time when it is important to have these debates. I do not believe that most people will change the way they planned to vote simply as a result of seeing this or any other film. But I do think that seeing this film will make those who believe strongly on either side want to voice their opinions, and I’d like to see that happen.

One final remark. It strikes me that what bothers many about this film is not the fact that it represents a view contrary to their own and they just happen to disagree, but that it is presented as a documentary, and that many interpret that to be a claim that it is presenting an objective version of indisputable facts. One of my primary educational objectives in showing the film, and in having Prof. Brunello introduce it, is to dispell this myth. The category “documentary” as studied by film theorists includes films that might be thought of as “personal essay” style films, as most of Moore’s films are described. Even Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” fits into the “documentary” genre as it is described in all of the film theory textbooks I have encountered; and I would not hesitate to show that film in a classroom — not, of course, because I condone or sympathize with Nazi propaganda, but because it is an important film that needs to be seen to be discussed and criticized and analyzed properly. For very different reasons, and in particular because this is a timely film that can and will stimulate political discussion among our students precisely when it is important for them to have this discussion, I have chosen to air this film.

I hope that these brief remarks help those who are interested to understand (and hopefully respect) my choice, and also to understand that it does not and is not intended to represent views of the college as a whole (or even of myself in particular). My decision merely reflects my own belief that one of the great opportunities of a film series (especially one that is not primarily driven by an interest in entertainment) is to get people thinking, and talking, about values and ideas outside of the classroom. I think that this film will help that to happen.

Respectfully yours,

Nathan Andersen, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Program Director, International Cinema at Eckerd College

So, that’s the gist of it. I don’t know if all this is significant enough for the media to take note. Given the sort of news Eckerd’s been making lately, I think something like this would be a welcome change.

I wasn’t originally planning on attending the screening this Friday, mainly because I already caught Fahrenheit when it was in theaters. But now, I’m wondering if there’s enough possibility of extracurricular activity — of the protesting kind — before or after the showing to warrant a trip down there. EC is a liberal arts college, but that doesn’t mean the student body is uniformly leftist. Potential for sparks is there.

I imagine most people who wanted to see the movie have already seen it. But if anyone is interested in catching the Eckerd screening, let me know; it’ll probably be easier to get on campus with an alum in tow.

- Costa Tsiokos, Wed 09/15/2004 07:45:22 PM
Category: Political, Movies | Permalink |

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