In "Zero Dark Thirty," Jessica Chastain, left, plays a member… (Warner Bros. / AP )
Amid the box-office figures, technological advances and critical hype, 2012 saw the film industry severely tested in one regard: Tragic events forced filmmakers to confront whether action should be taken when serious real-world repercussions might result from their work.
In May, Fox announced its sci-fi comedy "Neighborhood Watch" would be retitled "The Watch" to avoid associations with the Neighborhood Watch-related killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. In the wake of the shooting rampage at a July showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Colorado, Warner Bros. pulled the trailer for its crime drama "Gangster Squad" from theaters because it showed a scene of a shooting inside a theater. Warners ultimately decided to reshoot the scene, moving the gun battle to a new location and pushing the film's release to January.
Apart from Hollywood, a 14-minute video entitled "The Innocence of Muslims" was uploaded to You Tube. The amateurish production depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, homosexual and child molester. In September, an Arabic-language version went live. Although reporting has been at times confused and contradictory, protests against the video were widespread and sometimes violent, with a suicide bombing in Afghanistan among the actions claimed as retaliation.
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Into this caldron has been dropped two major Hollywood films concerning conflicts in the Middle East: The October release "Argo" depicts the CIA outsmarting Iran's Revolutionary Guard in 1980, while next week's "Zero Dark Thirty," traces the more recent manhunt and killing of Osama bin Laden.
Chris Terrio, screenwriter of "Argo," said he was well aware of how unfavorably his film might be received in certain regions.
"Of course, it's always in your head, especially when you're working with actual Iranians. Constantly, we had, physically in our midst, people who had lived through the revolution or had parents or grandparents who did. Certain actors and extras didn't want to be named. They have family in Iran; they said, 'I'll do the part but you can't use my name,' because there were fears of actual retribution."
Although Iran is not on the film's release schedule, Terrio says government officials apparently screened a bootleg copy and were not amused. The semi-official Fars News Agency claimed that "Argo's" initial box-office success was due only to the filmmakers themselves purchasing tickets (the modestly budgeted film has grossed more than $150 million to date, a full third of that abroad). The state-run IRNA news agency criticized the film's portrayal of Iranians as generally bloodthirsty.
Terrio takes issue, pointing out the film's mix of "zealous revolutionaries" and "ordinary people … it kept bringing the story back to human faces," he said. The film, he added, honored the grievances of some who had suffered under the Shah.
Still, if negative reviews are the worst to come of "Argo" being seen in Iran, Terrio will take that. "If it creates an opportunity for dialogue about American foreign policy and causes the audience to be thoughtful about how complicated the world is, particularly the Middle East, I think that's a good thing."
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But should a filmmaker even have to worry about potential fallout from his or her work? Is it ever the government's place to get involved? "Innocence of Muslims" creator Nakoula Basseley Nakoula was arrested, after all — on charges of violating his probation, not for the content of his film.
"There is an interesting disconnect in how we treat such films," said legal scholar and Constitutional law expert Jonathan Turley by email. "If 'Argo' were to cause an uprising abroad, it is doubtful that the administration would find some basis to arrest Chris Terrio. What Nakoula did was an expression of his religious and political views. Both deserve protection.
"If we allow such works to be censored based on the likely response of any group or individual, we quickly end up with films catering to the lowest common denominator and end up watching continual episodes of 'The Andy Griffith Show.' Even 'The Sound of Music' would insult a few Germans as well as a number of nuns."
Terrio agrees. "I understand that all art exists out in the world, it's not in a bubble," he said. "So it's insensitive to release 'Gangster Squad' at the moment when the national consciousness is still caught up in the tragedy of Colorado. And you do need to adjust to the realities of the world in which your movie is arriving, but as an artist, I think to preempt that by censoring yourself is dangerous."
"Zero Dark Thirty" writer-producer Mark Boal declined to speculate on any potential outrage to his film but did stress that the greatest of care had been taken to respectfully and truthfully relate the events leading to the killing of Bin Laden.