By Juliet Lucas
What are some of the first freedoms citizens lose when a socialist revolution goes sour and turns into a dictatorship? When considering revolutions such as the Russian Revolution, the Cambodian Civil War, the Chinese Communist Revolution, or even the Nazi takeover, we realize early oppression included the loss of the right to practice religion, the right to the freedom of speech, and the loss of property or life. A lesser known, but still essential right that is often lost under the throes of a dictatorship, is the right to freedom of expression through the arts; most notably, movies.
Movies lay close to the hearts of many Americans. We remember weekend movie nights with our families, our friends, and our partners. We imagine big screens and dramatic soundtracks. We call to memory the taste of buttery theater popcorn, the feel of leather theater seats, and the sounds of people snacking on candy in the dark abyss of the theater. We think of Hollywood, set in the glam of southern California, filled with movie stars who wear sparkly dresses, ride sleek cars, and give suave interviews.
In twenty-first century America, movies are a way for us to bond with others, and become enraptured in a story on the big screen. One would hardly think movies could have a darker side; that film, the production and messaging in movies, could be used as a weapon of mind-control by oppressive dictators. When we think of filmmakers, we think of those harried artists, lying on the floor of their studio apartments shuffling through pages of storyboards and scripts. Rarely to do we think of filmmakers as forces, or cameras as the weapons of oppressive dictators. However, there is a dark history of those who have chosen to wield the camera for evil purposes.
The Dark Side of Movie Production
In the early 1920s, right after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin realized the power potential behind the emerging film industry, and quickly released an initiative to harness this power for the use of furthering the Communists’ political regime. In 1922, Lenin dictated the “Directives on the film business.” This document nationalized the film industry, removing the power of cinema from the hands of the creators and placing it directly into the hands of the government. Besides outlining new restrictions placed on movie theaters and promoting the production of propaganda films, this document also outlined Lenin’s plan to indoctrinate the country through film. It states, “Special attention should be given to organizing film showings in the villages and in the East, where they are novelties and where our propaganda, therefore, will be all the more effective.” Lenin recognized right away the power of the flickering films; and he found a way to utilize them to fuel Communism.
Using film as a propaganda tool was not unique to Lenin. Soon after, during WWII, both the Allies and the Axis powers were using film as a propaganda tool. In the US, patriotic short films promoting war efforts were shown in theaters across the country. Across the sea, in Germany, Hitler’s personal videographer, Leni Riefenstahl, became famous for her films supporting the Nazi cause. With the support of the Nazi party’s Film Department, she directed and produced multiple propaganda motion pictures, using film to document Hitler as a hero to the German people.
One of the most recent revelations of the indoctrination power of film is the plight of independent film industry under Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu. In the docudrama “Chuck Norris Vs. Communism,” director Ilinca Călugăreanu brings to life the stories of the underground film smuggling ring that existed under Ceausescu’s harsh regime. Film in Romania was highly censored and regulated from the 1960s to the Revolution of 1989. During this time of extreme food rationing and totalitarian rule, underground cinema became a coping mechanism for people living under the harsh realities of Communism. VHS tapes from the West were smuggled into the country by pilots, cargo ship workers, and truck drivers. These films were then dubbed in the dark of night people like Irina Margareta Nistor. This daring women spent her days working for Romanian national television, censoring upcoming films, and her nights translating illegal movies for underground viewers. These films exposed citizens to the reality of the West, and some historians contribute this culture exposure as a main factor leading to the revolution and overthrow of Ceausescu in 1989.
Modern American Filmmaking
One could argue that the downfall of a society to totalitarian rule is solidified by the government taking control of the arts and film industry, thus regulating what their citizens are allowed to see. In America, the film industry has not had government regulation since the Hays Code stopped being in effect in 1968. This code placed limits on the content filmmakers were allowed to include in their films such as gun violence, drugs, and obscenity. However, America has never allowed a leader to fully nationalize the film industry. Our freedom as citizens to film, share, and view videos without government oversight cannot be overlooked. The President of the United States has no power to decide which film you will see on your Friday night out with the girls, and such a freedom is crucial. The freedom of creativity granted to American filmmakers, and their right to distribute is a trademark of the free world. Such a right needs to be recognized and protected. The moment a government strips the power of art from artists, is the moment the expression of freedom dies.
While it is true that American cinema does not face control by the government, certain independent filmmakers can still find their films smothered in modern media. Overpowering opinions from multi-billion dollar production companies such as Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Entertainment dictate what is acceptable in modern filmmaking. Creators expressing minority opinions can find themselves shunned or blocked completely from entering this already intimidating industry. Conservative viewpoints, in particular, are often absent from the modern screens. Despite being a political philosophy that is supported by a large part of the American population, very few popular films produced these days properly represent any conservative viewpoints. History shows that the filmmaking industry shares a powerful link with the direction of a government, and conservatives need to take more interest in conservative representation on screen in order to ensure that audiences are exposed to a diversity of political thought.