Films Under Fire


Documentary number one: the mating habits of parakeets. Documentary number two: photosynthesis in underwater plants. Documentary number three: the United States as aggressor in Nicaragua.

One of these films is not like the others. One of these films just doesn't belong, in the humble opinion of the United States Information Agency (USIA). One has committed the high crime of expressing an opinion, and for that it will pay—literally. Can you guess which one?

The USIA has adopted new regulations that allow it to label documentaries "propaganda" when certifying them for distribution abroad. The rules also require films submitted for duty-free export status to acknowledge a broad range of opinions on controversial subjects. Independent filmmakers have sued, claiming the regulations are a form of censorship. They're right.

Under the terms of the little-known Beirut Agreement, signed by 72 nations in 1948 and adopted by the United States in 1967, documentaries of an educational, scientific, or cultural nature may be exempted from import duties when distributed abroad. The USIA, careful never to give foreigners an unbalanced or unobjective view of the United States, first decided it could deny films duty-free status if they might be "misinterpreted" by foreign audiences or if their main purpose was "to advance a particular opinion."

But in 1985, a group of filmmakers took the USIA to court, claiming that six of their documentaries were denied certification on the basis of political ideology. A federal judge ruled that the agency's standards were unconstitutional. So the USIA wrote new ones, giving itself the power to label as propaganda any material it believes is intended to promote a political, religious, or economic point of view. The propaganda label doesn't prevent a film from being exported, the agency points out, it just means the films will probably be taxed. Filmmakers say these taxes are often prohibitively high and effectively prevent their work from being distributed abroad.

Now in the ideal world, trade would be free in documentaries as in everything else, and there would be no such thing as import duties. But given the real world of governments that tax everything they can get their hands on, making exemptions for certain forms of speech is dangerous. If some speech is exempt and some isn't, and the government makes the decision, ideology will almost certainly play a role. And that's censorship.

Here's a sample of what has gotten caught in the USIA's sieve: "Whatever Happened to Childhood?," a film depicting drug use among American youth, which the USIA complained didn't portray "children and families that are coping in a very healthy way"; and "Save the Planet," which shows U.S. officials "giving speeches which appeared to be simple-minded, lacking in understanding of the problem, and in some cases almost maniacal."

On the other hand, "The Family: God's Pattern for Living," which includes the teaching that wives should submit to husbands, and "To Catch a Cloud: A Thoughtful Look at Acid Rain," which questions whether acid rain is caused by pollution, both got the agency's okay.

The Beirut Agreement doesn't require anyone to weed out opinionated films: The accord was meant to distinguish documentary from nondocumentary films (which hasn't been a problem so far), not to discriminate between documentaries that have a point of view and those that don't. One must conclude that the government has tightened its standards simply to gain more control over exported speech.

The USIA has set up a system in which all political, religious, and economic documentaries are suspect—for how can you address such subjects without having a political, religious, or economic point of view? With the power of the "propaganda" stamp, the agency can help along the films it likes (e.g., "The Family: God's Pattern for Living," which apparently has no religious point of view) and hinder those it doesn't.

The USIA claims "it is obligated…to advise foreign governments when audiovisual materials are presented in such a way as to constitute…propaganda." If the agency is so concerned about foreign governments, why doesn't it let them look at the films and decide how they want to tax them? Better that all documentaries be taxed (bad as that would be) than that the U.S. government use other countries' powers of taxation to inhibit its own citizens' freedom of speech.