Wednesday, September 5, 2012

“The Better Angels of Our Nature”

On a train to the Supreme Court yesterday I read the following in Stephen Pinker’s wonderful book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes):

The economist Edward Glaeser has credited the rise of cities with the emergence of liberal democracy. Oppressive autocrats can remain in power even when their citizens despise them…”

Bear with me here. Glaeser’s observations about liberal democracy are relevant to all of us in the film industry.

“…In a dictatorship, the autocrat and his henchmen have a strong incentive to stay in power but no individual has an incentive to depose him, because a rebel would assume all the risks of the dictator’s reprisals while the benefits of democracy would flow diffusely to everyone in the country.”

More by chance than design I have found myself cast in the role of ‘rebel’ and someone who has, in being banned, become a victim of Screen Australia’s ‘reprisals’.

The crucible of a city, however, can bring together financiers, lawyers, writers, publishers and well-connected merchants who can collude in pubs and guild halls to challenge the current leadership, dividing the labour and diffusing the risk…”

The Writer’s Guild, The Directors Guild and SPAA are groups of industry practitioners who ‘collude’ to ‘challenge the current leadership.’ Or, should I say, could ‘challenge the current leadership’. Do we, as an industry, as passionate believers in the importance of Australian film, ‘challenge’ as vigorously as we should, ‘the current leadership’? Or has the ‘current leadership’ epitomized by Ruth Harley’s banning of a critic, effectively neutralized any real challenges that the industry could present to it?

The subversive power of information and people has never been lost on political and religious tyrants. That is why they suppress speech, writing and association…”

I’ll go out on a limb here, knowing full well as I do that I have never intimidated anyone at Screen Australia, and make the bold assertion that Ruth Harley’s letter to me of 10th May, ratified by a compliant Board (thanks, Rachel!) was intended to send me a very strong and unequivocal message: ‘Stop criticizing Screen Australia on your blog, stop asking questions we have no desire to answer, expecting us to adhere to our own guidelines and act in accordance with the basic precepts of transparency and accountability or we’ll make it as close to impossible as we can for you to make films in this country.’

Ruth even went so far as to make official Screen Australia’s lack of commitment to transparency and accountability when she wrote, in her letter of 10th May:

To be clear, any correspondence which you send us about the decisions in this letter will not be read.”

The subtext here is: ‘I reserve the right to be prosecutor, jury and judge of the offenses you have committed without providing any evidence at all of the crime you have been charged with or giving you any right of appeal!’

And, God bless members of the Screen Australia Board, they were even prepared to change Screen Australia’s Terms of Trade to make my being banned legal? On the basis of evidence? No, no evidence required! Ruth Harley would not make such allegations if they were not true!

A time travelling Franz Kafka, on reading Ruth’s letter would, I suspect, smile to himself (perhaps even laugh in his madness) and say, “Yes, of course, this Ruth Harley individual is a classic example of what my fictions warn against if we, if you, in 2012, give unfettered power to such bureaucrats with no right for the individual to appeal against arbitrary decisions of this kind.”

Tomorrow, a few words inspired (if that is the right word for what I am doing here) by another comment to be found in Pinker’s book:

Bringing people and ideas together does not determine how those ideas will evolve…”

Indeed, ideas, freely exchanged, can lead us into unknown territory. Exciting territory. Do we, as an industry, as passionate believers in the idea of Australian stories told by Australian storytellers for Australian audiences (as the bulk of us are) come together as often as we ought to to discuss, debate, argue about the ideas that inform what we do? What we do with Australian tax-payer’s money, it is worth adding.

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