Monday, April 30, 2012

Al Shabob or Al Kebab?: Comedy, Free Speech, and Responsibility

Adel Imam, the Egyptian Bill Murray, was brought up on charges of insulting Islam in an Egyptian court for his work over a 50 year career as a comedic actor whose roles portrayed the authorities in a humorous, often critical light.  The charges were brought by Asran Mansour, a right-wing Muslim attorney.  It is a crime that brings with it fines and jail time.  A first court found him guilty, but a second threw out the charges and made Mansour pay Imam's court and attorney fees.

YKW has asked three interesting questions about the case:
  1. Acting vs. Agitating: If Imam only acted in the movies (as opposed to writing or producing them), is pretending to play a character who is required by the script to say things offensive to the authoritarian regime the same thing as if Imam went to the street corner and espoused the same things?  Surely no one would accuse Ralph Fiennes of being a Nazi based on his portrayal of one in Schindler’s List.  Or prosecute him for wearing Nazi uniforms (illegal in some countries in Europe).  
  2. If Imam made some of these movies over a 50-year career, what’s the statute of limitations on offending the authoritarian regime?  Say a movie he made in 1974.  It gets rebroadcast by a fledgling cable channel in Egypt in 2010.  Are they prosecuting him for saying it in 2010 or 1974? 
  3. Should the authoritarian regime in Egypt be allowed to prosecute him if he made the movies (a) when a more moderate government allowed it; or (b) if he made the movies in a less tolerant country, but one that could tell the difference between acting and agitating?
The second two seem pretty straightforward to answer -- no, you should not be allowed to prosecute someone for offending a government that did not exist at the time of the comedic act and once the comedic act is no longer current it makes no sense to prosecute although a reshowing is a new speech act by the network. 

But the first one is tricky.  How responsible is an actor for the effects of the portrayal given that the actor does not write the words and receives direction in how to deliver them?  The question is made trickier when we move from legal to moral responsibility.  

There is no doubt that when All in the Family first aired, racists felt emboldened by having the main character clearly and explicitly speak their mind on prime-time network television.  Carroll O'Connor,on a number of occasions, discussed the letters he would receive praising Archie Bunker.  Was O'Connor to blame for what was surely predictable -- the perceived support for a bigoted worldview?  By making it more plain, it seemed to give it credence -- even if the idea was to expose it to sunlight. 

Actors seek edgy roles.  The power of theatre, television, and film is in part in its ability to provoke and so actors look to be provocative.  But should they be held responsible for such provocation and its effects?  They act under the direction of another with words from yet another.  But it is from their mouths that the words come.  They could choose not to accept the role.  How much responsibility should actors be afforded?

(and to explain the Al Kebab pun, here's a scene from "Terrorism and Kebab" in which Imam's character accidentally ends up taking a government building hostage and in order to find a way out makes his only demand for carry-out food)