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'Potter' Witchcraft Bickering Obscures More Urgent Events

As art and politics collide in life-and-death ways around the world, can a sorcery story line be our biggest worry?

November 28, 2001|JOHN ANDERSON | NEWSDAY

The self-anointed of the American right have been all but mum about "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Why? Maybe they're still ducking what hit the fan after Jerry Falwell declared Sept. 11 to have been the fault of our national moral laxity. And maybe even the professionally righteous know it's bad business trashing a movie capable of making $90 million on its opening weekend.

There have been minor outbreaks of virtue, particularly in the Land That Time Forgot--a.k.a. Florida and Texas. "As a Christian parent," Virginia Knowles of Maitland, Fla., told the Orlando Sentinel, "the Bible tells me that sorcery, witchcraft and casting spells are detestable to God and an abomination." So are murder, adultery, lying and theft. But the movies--and Shakespeare--are unimaginable without them.

Potter-phobia isn't confined to the United States. Proving itself less progressive than we suspected, Canada--whose Ottawa film board just reaffirmed its ban on Catherine Breillat's "Fat Girl"--has developed its own brand of nondenominational nitwittism, i.e., the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, of the conservative Traditional Values Coalition, which issued a release titled "Is Harry Potter a Harmless Fantasy or a Wicca Training Program?"

"While the themes in Harry Potter books do not expressly advocate homosexuality or abortion, these are philosophical beliefs deeply embedded in Wicca," Sheldon says. "The child who is seduced into Wicca witchcraft through Harry Potter books will eventually be introduced to these other concepts." And exposure to "concepts," as most fascist dictators have been well aware, is the first step toward perdition.

Having a problem with Harry isn't really a question of having religion. It's a question of not having a sense of humor. An article in the satiric newspaper the Onion, after publication last year of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," told how millions of children had turned to Satanism after reading the book; one kid declared that Harry had made her realize that "the Bible is nothing but boring lies."

What happened? The story was taken seriously, circulated as fact on the Internet and used to increase opposition to the wizard kid with the lightning scar on his head (a.k.a. the Mark of Cain, or an homage to Hitler's SS).

This would all be quite funny, if more urgent events weren't occurring in the world of film, matters of life and death.

At the recent Hamptons Film Festival, the documentary "Operation Storm" chronicled the commission of war crimes by Croats in summer 1995. The film created an outrage among Croatian groups internationally; letters of protest were sent to the festival's programmers, and Croatia's parliament even denounced the movie.

Two weeks ago, the film's director, Bozo Knezevic, was killed in a car crash, the circumstances of which have struck some as suspicious.

"Although many people are asking questions about the way he died," wrote the film's producer, Nenad Puhovski, "there are no positive proofs. However, last night I received an anonymous call saying that Bozo was executed and that 'you are the next one.' Hopefully, this is just another threat."

Puhovski added that on the morning of Knezevic's death, his school's corridors were covered with posters reading, "When is Israel going to apologize to Republic of Croatia because of Nenad Puhovski?" This refers to Croatian president Stjepan Mesic's recent apology for war crimes against Jews during World War II. And the fact that Puhovski is half Jewish.

A little to the south is the case of Tahmineh Milani, one of Iran's more prominent female filmmakers, one with a death sentence hanging over her head. Arrested, jailed for eight days and released on bail earlier this fall, she faces possible execution if convicted in an upcoming trial in Tehran.

The controversy concerns "The Hidden Half," in which Milani depicts the struggle within Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Besides the charge of "waging war against God," she's been charged with misusing the arts in support of counterrevolutionary and armed opposition groups.

"She got into trouble not because of the film; the film had to go through Iranian censors, so it couldn't be that daring," says Jamsheed Akrami, filmmaker and professor at New Jersey's William Paterson University. "It was what she was saying in interviews, talking about opening up Iranian society. It's another sign that the Iranian political system right now is not monolithic. Different organizations have different agendas, and this is one case where the film was OK with one organization and not OK with another. It was the justice system that went after her."

Milani, he says, is more of a pawn between factions for and against President Mohammad Khatami, who supported Milani's release on bail. In other words, people with political agendas are abusing art for their own devices. It's going on all over. Even here.

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