Meet The Censors

Censorship: lifting the lid on those calling all the shots

Meet The Censors From a Kafkaesque office for social media in Germany and a South Sudan military headquarters, to conversations with an Iranian Ayatollah and Chinese news editor, Norwegian filmmaker Håvard Fossum intimately follows the daily working lives of the censors. With remarkable access to a secretive world, we get a rare insight into the ways information is controlled, from the Communist Party in Beijing to the corridors of power in Washington.
 Meet the Censors
(2020) on IMDb
Clergymen, bureaucrats, and politicians across the globe try to get rid of expressions most of us find dangerous and unwanted. Hardly anyone would allow child pornography or promotion of terrorism if we had the power to stop it, yet hearing the word censorship makes us cringe. In Meet the Censors, we ask if we might have misunderstood the censors: perhaps their motivations are better than we assume. Starting off at a violent neo-Nazis demonstration in peaceful Sweden, filmmaker Håvard Fossum wonders if a bit of state censorship isn’t so bad after all? To test the idea, the trained anthropologist takes you to a bouquet of notorious regimes: he meets some of the most powerful clergy and political hardliners in Iran; talks to aspiring party members policing the internet in China, and the Beijing news editors deciding the stories that need to be buried.

You’ll hear the rationale of the government in South Sudan for keeping journalists on a frighteningly tight leash; and you’ll be introduced to some of the most controversial figures in India, namely the hard-working men of the Board of Film Certification, better known as the Censor Board. Partly observing, partly informally interacting, Fossum steps into the workday of the representatives of state who are, in one way or the other, censoring expression. In Meet the Censors we get to see the inside of their largely unknown world, giving you the practitioners' accounts of why they censor. And just when you thought you’re watching a film about the world's most notorious censors; trotting around in military HQs; sitting in the study of one of the most powerful Ayatollahs in Shia Islam: we turn the camera to the West. Inside the Federal Ministry of Justice in Germany, we join the State Secretary and his political advisers who are preparing for a new law to take effect, one that is hoped to combat online hate speech. We see how they strive to make the blood-smelling press and perplexed Facebook-users understand the good in the law. While liberalists complain of “Stasi methods” reminiscent of the censorship in communist East Germany, critics on the left accuse the state of outsourcing work to private companies that should be carried out by judicial bodies. And in a secret building in Bonn, the state’s legal team of forty and two psychologist (to help the experts handle the effects of looking at potentially disturbing images) try to make sense of a legislative framework in which unclear notions such as slander and knowing what is satire, creates massive headaches. And more difficult yet: figuring out just when they are supposed to use the power they have been vested, to fine social media companies up to 50 million euros for failing to remove hate speech.

The thesis is even more severely tested the USA. In an attempt to find out how much of our freedom of expression we’re giving up in the name of national security and protecting the economy, we see the chilling effect of mass surveillance and the hunting down of whistleblowers. Just as troubling is learning how parliamentarian tools are used by politicians closely tied to energy companies to silence climate scientists. Scholars such as Miklós Haraszti, Richard Burt and Robert Darnton claim that censorship is more complex than we assume - it could even be seen as an intellectual vocation. With amused wonder, genuine curiosity and not a small touch of angst, Fossum takes you with him inside the secret circles of the bureaucrats, the moral keepers, and the hitherto invisible others with power to control information – people who may or may not be genuinely concerned with making the world a better place. We learn that there are understandable reasons for wanting to get rid of polarising, hateful or destabilising speech, and that censors might react quite like we would to that which scares us. But the effect of censorship appears at times to be unjustifiably severe, ineffective at making the society a better one, and in most cases ruining our possibility to debate controversial matters with one another.

The Producers

Håvard Fossum - Director

With a background in journalism, anthropology and art, Norwegian filmmaker and cinematographer Håvard Fossum makes documentaries that mix approaches and play with conventions of truth and objectivity. Often political in theme, but darkly funny in tone, his films have ranged from satires to investigative stories, been broadcasted and competed in festivals such as CPH:DOX, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Ji.hlava and Winterthur.

Ingvil Giske - Producer

Ingvil has more than 10 years experience as director and producer of documentaries, shorts and animation-films (Tongue Cutters, Dugma: The Button). Ingvil joined Medieoperatørene, an independent production company that has produced award-winning documentaries, short films and television programmes, in 2011.

Making The Film

Håvard Fossum - Director's Statement

The historian Robert Darnton writes: "The trouble with the history of censorship is that it looks so simple: it pits the children of light against the children of darkness." With Meet the Censors I tried to find out if censorship actually is more complex than we assume. More so, I tried to take seriously the idea I feel is growing on both sides of the political spectrum, that state censorship is good or at least necessary, when used to combat expressions we fear or don’t like. I have to admit that it was tempting for me personally, to see if I could find examples of censorship that seemed effective against hate speech and fake news, when I can’t see that much else is. But Meet the Censors was from the beginning ment as a warning against the slippery slope I believe we go down when allowing our governments to censor information. And an argument for freedom of expression and the necessity in a democracy to tolerate even uncomfortable expressions.

I want my films to be anti-polarizing, perhaps even anti-activist in the way that I don’t want to promote black and white-answers, and don’t believe moral crusades against the 'evil' powers in society actually does much good. You get a round of applause from those already on your side, and push those with opposing opinions further away. My hope with Meet the Censors was to make a film that those fighting for freedom of expression would find insightful because they got a better understanding of the not necessarily evil rationale of the censors, but just as importantly; also a film that gave food for thought to those not too concerned with free speech. I strongly believe in showing empathy with people’s fears, even though I might not personally share them. I can truly understand that many by seeing marching neo-nazis or religious extremist demonstrating in their home towns, feel an urgent need to have them silenced. But instead of telling the viewer that they simply have to cope with it, that also discomforting expressions comes with the democracy package, I rather wanted to make a film where I say «I agree it’s frightful to have these cynics spread their poison, let’s find out if state censorship can be a legitimate and effective solution to this problem». In my opinion, it isn’t, still I wanted to let the viewers themselves hear the arguments for censorship from those who actually does censor, but also see the consequences censorship has, no matter which political side you belong to. And be allowed to make up their own minds.

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