Panelists aware of pitfalls in producing controversial art

Friday, November 13, 1998

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — No police confiscated the film last night at a special screening of “The Tin Drum,” an award-winning movie based on the highly acclaimed novel by a renowned German poet, novelist and playwright.

But that’s what had happened to private citizen Michael Camfield in his own home in Oklahoma City last year after an in-your-face moralist group persuaded a state judge to label the film pornographic. Last night’s pre-movie panel at The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center focused on that incident in a discussion of film censorship.

John Seigenthaler, the founder of the First Amendment Center, said the Oklahomans for Children and Families group was part of “an effort loose in the land to dumb-down thought, art and the classics.”

The movie, based on Gunter Grass’s 1959 novel, won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s about Oscar Matzerath, a child who wills himself to stop growing as protest against the cruelties of Germany’s Nazi era and who communicates only through his toy drum.

Camfield, development director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, described how he was not quite finished watching the film one night when a knock came at his door.

“There were these plain-clothed Oklahoma City police at my door,” Camfield said. “They told me that they obtained my name and address from BlockBuster (Video) and that I had rented “The Tin Drum,” which they said was illegal child pornography.”

Oklahomans for Children and Families had convinced District Judge Richard Freeman that a scene in the movie depicting oral sex between a boy and girl subverted a state law barring child pornography. Freeman had ordered copies of the film confiscated by police from the public library, homes and video stores.

Camfield said he had rented “The Tin Drum” to see what the controversy was all about.

After the police officers had identified themselves, he said, “I made it clear that I was against giving them the tape.” But he said he believed it would have been futile to resist handing it over.

The next morning he gave an account of the incident to the director of the ACLU. Less than a month later, in July, Camfield sued the city challenging the confiscation of the video. In December, U.S. District Judge Ralph Thompson ruled that the police had violated Camfield’s constitutional rights.

“Expressive materials, including motion pictures, are preemptively entitled to First Amendment protection,” Thompson wrote in Camfield v. City of Oklahoma City. “Although obscene or pornographic material is not protected by the First Amendment, rigorous procedural safeguards must be employed before expressive materials can be seized as obscene.”

In October of this year, Thompson issued a second ruling concluding that the award-winning film was not obscene or pornographic and that therefore police must cease blocking the video’s distribution.

Michael Catalano, executive director of the Nashville Independent Film Festival and a panelist, told the audience that the scene, once placed in the context of war, made sense.

“The movie was so well crafted and directed,” Catalano said. “The scene was not set up to be erotic.”

Carol Caldwell, who has written and sold screenplays in Los Angeles for more than ten years, echoed Catalano’s take on the movie, noting that “at no time would I see the movie as pornographic.”

She lamented, however, that political pressures often affect types of the screenplays she writes and tries to sell. “I found that the system in Hollywood often censored topics that I wanted to write about. The censoring of many topics came from the system itself.”

Another panelist, Tyrone McClain, a producer of music videos and filmmakers, also said that besides pressure from special-interest groups, the writer or producer of film must be cognizant of commercial pressures.

“Before I start a project, I know I’m going to be censored by 20 people,” McClain said. “MTV doesn’t want logo shots and BET doesn’t want girls with big butts.”

Peter Neff, a film critic for WPLN and filmmaker, however, said that somehow, artists must try to be as honest in their work as possible without succumbing to censors.

“I can’t imagine changing my work,” Neff said. “It is a duty, as an artist, to tell your story fully and completely.”

First Amendment Center Executive Director Ken Paulson noted that artistic merit could save a film from being declared obscene unless the objectionable material was judged gratuitous.

“If ‘Gone with the Wind’ had three or four minutes of hard-core child pornograpy placed in it, that would then make the entire film illegal,” Paulson said.