[Originally appearing in Dr. Alan Gitelson’s American Government textbook, 2014]
So, try to envision the following big-budget Hollywood film: a couple of American journalists travel to Beijing… and along the way, are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Chinese president Xi Jingping, in retaliation for threats against American allies in the Pacific. To add insult to injury, Xi is portrayed as a reckless buffoon who is prone to fits of violence — and serves as the repeated butt of jokes throughout the adventure.
Can’t imagine this movie ever getting released? It’s doubtful Hollywood executives could either. But if you swapped out Xi for neighboring North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, you’d have the 2014 comedy, The Interview. Rest assured, North Korea was not amused; its foreign ministry stated that “making and releasing a movie on a plot to hurt our top-level leadership is the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated.”
This wasn’t the first time that North Korea has been targeted as Public Enemy No. 1 in recent years. In 1984, the Cold War action flick Red Dawn told the story of a surprise invasion of America by a joint Soviet-Cuban military force. When MGM decided to remake the film 25 years later, the Iron Curtain had long since collapsed, so it was determined that China — conveniently, still a Communist country in name if not spirit — would serve as a replacement nemesis. The only problem this time was that, from a business angle, vilifying China could have been a disastrous financial decision. In the late 1990s, Disney was threatened with an embargo on its future films after the release of Kundun, a movie which featured the Dalai Lama and Tibet, both of which have long been sore points with Beijing. Rival studios faced similar warnings in subsequent years, and late in the production stage of Red Dawn, MGM executives began to panic. A decision was reached — spend $1 million to digitally swap out the Chinese villains of the film for North Koreans. After all, how many American films are screened in Pyongyang? (Answer: not very many.)
China’s presence as a global film market has skyrocketed in recent years, and today it amounts to $3.5 billion annually, roughly 10% of the worldwide box-office take. That sort of financial muscle has translated into political “soft power.” Even without deploying a single soldier, China is able to reach across the Pacific and have a significant impact on how it is perceived around the world. While the Red Dawn remake was panned by critics for its highly-improbable premise and cartoonish action, what will happen when a filmmaker wishes to make a serious film that casts China in a negative light? Will she or he be censored, not by Beijing, but by corporations in this country?
While Hollywood might be a tough sell, there is still an avenue for those who still wish to make political films that aren’t afraid to ruffle the feathers of the powers-that-be — the world of documentaries. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a 2012 documentary about Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, garnered much acclaim for its candid depictions of the repercussions of standing up to Beijing, and The Gatekeepers (also 2012) made waves with its candid assessment of Israeli policy regarding Palestine. The “barrier to entry” for documentaries is much lower than that of a fictional feature. A budding filmmaker doesn’t need a major studio’s financial backing to get the wheels rolling — simply a camera, microphone, and editing software will suffice. Add in the ease of online distribution, and certainly today’s documentary environment is one that’s much more welcoming to voices from around the globe.