Tuesday, June 15, 2010

EDITORIAL: Pressure on 'The Cove'

The Asahi Shimbun, June 14

Yet another grave incident has occurred that threatens freedom of speech and expression.

Three movie theaters in Tokyo and Osaka have canceled their scheduled screenings of "The Cove," a U.S. documentary about the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture.

Those theaters said they have "voluntarily refrained" from showing the film for fear of causing problems for their neighbors because groups decrying the film as "anti-Japanese" had warned they would hold demonstrations against the screenings.

We must isolate this issue from the actual merits of the film, whether the content is appropriate or whether it is of high quality.

Despite the controversial nature of a film or widespread objections to the opinions presented, the right to show that film or to express those views must be protected. That is what freedom of speech and expression is all about. And that is what a free society is based upon.

We can understand why cinemas would be worried about their customers' safety, but in a free, democratic society, we cannot stand by idly while a film screening is canceled in such a manner.

The film portrays the dolphin hunt practiced in Taiji, and the filming was done with hidden cameras. Although the film won this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, residents of Taiji are extremely critical of the film, including its filming methods.

The town government and the local fishing cooperative have asked the distributor to stop screenings, saying the film violates the residents' privacy rights and depicts untruths as facts. The distributor complied by blurring out the residents' faces and showing Taiji's side of the argument in subtitles at the end of the film.

At the climax, the film shows fishermen killing the dolphins and the sea turning red. It is obvious the filmmakers, from their standpoint of protecting the dolphins, sought to portray this as a cruel, savage scene.

Taiji has a long tradition of dolphin hunting. It is, of course, legal. Many Japanese, even those not from the Taiji area, may feel rather awkward watching the film.

But it is understandable that other people feel differently about hunting dolphins. Why are their views different? Why was this film so acclaimed that it won an Oscar?

Despite the strong objections, people need to come face to face with sets of values drastically different from their own. And while doing so, they should reconsider why they are so critical of this piece of work.

These endeavors will provide an opportunity to relativize their own values and contemplate the kinds of prejudice and misperceptions that hinder cross-cultural understanding.

That is exactly why we must thwart any attempts to prevent people from learning about the opinions of others.

A similar thing happened two years ago with the documentary "Yasukuni" by a Chinese director. Many screenings were also canceled in response to pressure at the time.

There are concerns that another chain reaction of screening cancellations will occur for "The Cove." But we hope the 20 or so cinemas around the country stick to their guns and their screening schedules. If any action disrupts their business, then police should take severe measures against the perpetrators.

This continuous habit of "self-restraint" in film screenings is shameful if Japan considers itself a free society. We must raise our voices and not leave the movie theaters out in the cold.

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