Torture Should Be Accounted For

Torture is among the most heinous crimes known to humankind. It should never be excused, it should never go unpunished. It is not about who the tortured are, or what the tortured know. It is not about what they have done, what they believe, or whether they would do the same. It is about who we are, and how human beings should be treated. It is about our humanity, that is all.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Too Unpopular to Talk About?

Today, Sunday April 20, the New York Times broke their silence and wrote a lead editorial on the torture revelations on ABC News and the AP, which occured on April 9,10, and 11. Actually, they had mentioned torture as one of the items on which the Bush administration had over used their authority to keep information secret on April 18th.

It is difficult to understand the reluctance of the mainstream press to talk about the revelations that the NSC Principals micromanaged tortures and debated which methods to allow and in what combinations and orders. It is difficult to understand why they subsequently said nothing when the President told Martha Raddatz that he knew of the sessions and approved of them.

Perhaps torture just isn't popular enough to spend time on the radar screen?

In order to understand the popularity of torture, I looked at the ratings and running times of movies released to theaters on the Iraq war, the 'War On Terror', and torture and rendition. It is clear that when the run of these movies first appeared over the horizon, people thought that Hollywood had decided that the American public wanted to see them, and that this would produce shockwaves. But the run produced almost instant bad results. Thus, in November on Alternet, Sari Gelzer opines,

This long set of Hollywood films and documentaries are heading to theaters on the assumption that audiences are willing to see them. Perhaps producers and distributors have read the numbers released in a mid-October CNN poll that say 65 percent of Americans oppose the U.S. war in Iraq, while a CBS poll of the same time frame declared that 45 percent of respondents want U.S. troops home in less than one year.

With strong sentiment against the war, it would seem reasonable to assume that these films would be successful, especially as many of them feature megastar Hollywood talent. But the jury isn't in yet. In the Valley of Elah received favorable reviews, but it has not been a box-office hit. Neither has Rendition, which was not favorably reviewed. But many more of these films are slated to run from now and well into 2008.

The series of movies would continue, and does continue, with the currently showing film Stop Loss. For movies strictly about torture and the abuses committed in the 'War on Terror', the two screened at theaters were Rendition and Redacted, the latter not about prisoner abuse, rather violations of the laws of war with respect to civilians (rape).

Eugene Novikov discussed the bad showing of the 'War on Terror' movies, including these two, on March 26th. His analysis is that they didn't actually do too badly, and that the revelation that the American public had universally rejected critical movies about the war and about torture, rendition and abuse was not salient based on box office receipts. But even he looks at some of the movies and decides that the American public doesn't want to see these things on their screens:

....And the $60,000 tally sure doesn't look good for Brian De Palma's Redacted, a particular target of Bill O'Reilly's hectoring. But think about it: how do you market a movie about the rape of an Iraqi girl by American soldiers? A movie that basically sets out to lecture, shame and outrage the audience? Maybe it could have fared a little bit better, but I don't think it was ever going to be any sort of hit. The vast majority of moviegoers simply don't go to the movies to see what Redacted had to offer, regardless of whether its message was liberal, conservative, communist or neutral.
It's a universal that when media doesn't cover a news item, it is because the American public didn't want to hear it. It is a universal, even among sympathetic critics, that if a movie didn't do well at the box office, no one wanted to see it. For some subject matters, particularly wrenching ones like those shown in Rendition or Redacted, it is a foregone conclusion that people just do not go to the theaters to be lectured to, or see depressing topics, they go to take a break, to feel good. Or do they?

Rendition had a 4 week run. It initially opened in 2,250 theaters, and grossed $2,421 per theater in its first week. By contrast, a popular film like Horton Hears a Who opened at 3,954 theaters, and grossed $15,533 per theater. Initial weeks of movie sales are dependent on the build up for the movie (advertising, collateral offers and products, general buzz in the media, and endorsements), but also, critically, on which theaters carry them, on how many screens. Remember, the first week's gross is on those who see the movie without hearing about it from friends and others, a fact used when they release an expensive blockbuster that they think might fail: They release it to so many theaters, with so much build up, that it has made back its investment before anyone discovers the movie isn't worth seeing.

Likewise, Redacted opened at 15 theaters, at $2307 gross per theater. What does this mean?

These statistics, from Box Office Mojo, are the number of theaters, not the number of screens. In an old style theater, the number of seats might reach as high as 500, because these theaters were converted, from playhouses and opera houses. Our local repertory theater has 584 seats, and were it a movie theater, would probably lose no more than 40 of those. Modern theater multiplexes, like AMC theaters, or Century theaters, have many screens, often 10-20 of them, with seating per theater at about 1oo-200 seats or so. If you look at $10 per ticket as a reasonable back of the envelope for these movies, you are talking filling 2 of the multiplex audiences, or half of a 'traditional' theater, in order to get this gross on the first week. To gross the $15,533 of a Horton Hears a Who, you need to be playing on more than 10 screens at the multiplex, or the ticket prices must be higher.

So is Redacted not the kind of movie the vast majority of movie goers go to see? Is Rendition a bad movie, or is it not what the public wants to watch? I would have to say the jury is still out. Rendition played for 4 weeks, Redacted for 5. Redacted actually got the kind of box office scores it got because it never played in more than the 15 theaters it played in its first week. And those theaters where it was playing were either showing it on one or two screens at the multiplex, or it was playing at single movie 'traditional' theaters. At any rate, a decision was made that it wasn't what people wanted to see without putting it to the test. Likewise, Rendition showed at a respectable number of total theaters, but at least on average, showed at perhaps one or two multiplex screens, or in 'traditional' theaters only. It wasn't shown very long. Word of mouth would have been just starting by the time it was difficult to find a theater that showed the movie, the experience we had with it in our town.

As it is with the media and torture, so it is with the entertainment industry and torture. The American people do not want to see it, we are told. But the American people do not get that choice. When it doesn't show up in the news, American people are unaware that news has been generated on the subject. When it plays at only a handful of theaters on a couple of screens, it may as well have never shown.

How does it do on TV? There have been a large number of documentaries, docudramas, and movies that have shown to the cable audience. The Road To Guantanamo, Torture: The Guantanamo Guidebook, Torture: The Dirty Business, The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Strip Search, along with documentaries on Frontline and 60 minutes. Rumor has it that Taxi to the Dark Side will air eventually. And then, from a completely different point of view, the fictitious series '24', which Jane Mayer documented so well. The latter had a high at an estimated 16 million viewers.

For a subject that no one wanted to hear about, it gets quite a bit of air play. Either it is a subject that filmmakers can't stay away from, even though they have no audience, or it has an audience but the mainstream line on it is that it does not.

What does this produce? In that Times editorial, The Torture Sessions, the authors opine that,

At this point it seems that getting answers will have to wait, at least, for a new Congress and a new president. Ideally, there would be both truth and accountability. At the very minimum the public needs the full truth.

Some will call this a backward-looking distraction, but only by fully understanding what Mr. Bush has done over eight years to distort the rule of law and violate civil liberties and human rights can Americans ever hope to repair the damage and ensure it does not happen again.

Funny. In April 2005, three years ago, Human Rights Watch documented tortures at Guantanamo Bay, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and at 'secret locations', and alleged "It is widely reported that some of these “disappeared detainees” have been tortured through techniques such as “waterboarding,” in which the prisoner’s head is submerged into water or covered with a wet cloth until he believes that he is drowning." They called for an independent investigation of the administration, and of commanding generals involved.

What the American people didn't want to hear has apparently cost 3 years of lost time getting to investigate those who torture. The Congress could start the investigation any time, even tomorrow, should they choose to do so, the notion that there isn't enough time left in this administration or in this Congress belies the fact that should it decide to, the work can become the business of the next Congress. There are infinite excuses why no investigation ever occurs, and the latest seems to be, "Wait for the next administration." We waited through nearly the entire term of the president elected in 2004, and through almost two congresses.

But news media that aren't interested in covering it, congresses that aren't interested in investigating it, and movie theaters that aren't interested in screening torture are not the same as the American people not wanting to know. The only way to find out the latter, is to tell them about it.


The Reality Kid said...

While there are those who will naturally seek out such films in furtherance of their pursuit of meaning and understanding, there are probably many more who will only be prepared to confront meaning and understanding retrospectively.

While this may not be the perfect example, I'll guess that most, if not all, of the most popular and critically acclaimed movies about the war in Vietnam were released long after the last helicopter left Saigon.

But perhaps more to the point, there is literally nothing of redeeming value to be found in the war stories of today to temper the unmitigated horror.

Rendition, while not exactly mainstream Hollywood fare, not only finds several American heroes (the Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard characters), but conjures up a fitting punishment for the torturer, too.

In other words, the story that lies at the heart of this particular movie manages to create the redemptive illusion that we're only a hero or two away from putting an end to this abomination. And, in the end - or was that the beginning? - justice will be served (if you've seen the film, you'll understand the reference).

Therefore, one could argue that this movie has almost nothing to do with the reality of rendition (most people don't even know about the movie, let alone the practice) or the reality of torture (the only time American hands are laid on the victim, a crisis of conscience immediately ensues).

Perhaps, at some instinctive level, the American audience knows that preventative war and torture are not subjects for feature films, because redemption is not possible...and why pretend otherwise?

I was reading just recently that German cinema has only recently (2007) dealt with the subject of the holocaust and the Nazi regime for the first time. Not sure whether this is true, but it speaks to my point.

karrsic said...

Movie studios want to make money. They'd be happy if the these films made money. They have a process, perhaps not a good one, to estimate whether a movie will strike it big or not. Recent independent movies that made it big had small early releases like most such films.

I suspect that rk is right, people aren't ready to see such movies. I don't know why, but I suspect the answer is complex. People need to feel safe to see the movie. One must be free to express anger at those who conduct torture. It's a combination of movies, media, bloggers, campaigns, etc., that may bring this to a tipping point. Movies are just 1 component. Of course if McCain had half the courage he's purported to have, he could have brought this to the forefront all by himself.