Over the past few days I’ve had to consider the definition of several words that haven’t been part of my daily vocabulary, the biggest one being the word ‘banned.’ I’m the director of the documentary Shored Up, which has until now been a relatively uncontroversial film addressing coastal development, sea level rise, and the threat that climate change is bringing to our coastlines.
The film has been getting a very positive response from audiences eager to talk about what is happening in their communities, it has been nationally broadcast, and it’s starting a theatrical run in New York…in other words, it’s getting out and people are talking about the implications.
But it’s a complex story and I’ve had my share of rejections from film festivals and other broadcasters with specific curatorial needs. Shored Up is a film that highlights diverse views, not a polemic, and as such it doesn’t create heroes or villains, both of which play well for most audiences. Perhaps festival programmers felt their audiences weren’t up for a ‘science’ film or another ‘climate change’ film.
As a filmmaker you get used to a certain level of rejection from film festivals, but all the reasons that made this film challenging in that context also led me to believe it would be slam dunk at a museum such as the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which is located in one of the two states featured prominently in the film. And until last week I hadn’t thought much about where the threshold might be between a ‘no thanks’ email from a film festival and the possibility that it could be ‘banned’ from screening at a public institution of science.
So what would it actually mean for a film about science and society to be ‘banned’ in this day and age?
As reported in the Raleigh-Durham newspaper Indyweek last Friday, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the largest of museum of its kind in the Southeast and the biggest tourist attraction in the state, had decided in opaque fashion that Shored Up would not be welcome as part of its Science Café. On the surface this could appear to be a routine programmatic decision, and like a film festival the museum has no obligation to show any movie in particular or invite any guest to speak.
But in Raleigh, right across the street from the state legislature where science is under intense scrutiny, perhaps Shored Up and its challenging message about coastal development policies was a shade too controversial. This, despite the fact that the museum has an excellent exhibit on sea level rise that asks visitors how they would respond to it and another related exhibit on climate change.
We live in a country where the government doesn’t ban much media besides truly egregious or abusive material. The bans of yesteryear have evolved into more modern versions of censorship. Gone are the good old days of the Parents Music Research Center and the “Tipper Sticker” (in honor of Tipper Gore, one of the driving forces behind the PMRC). Back in the ‘80s the PMRC found itself in the middle of controversy when it cowed the Recording Industry of America into self-imposed ratings for records and tapes to help parents clarify which songs had too much sex, drugs or violence. After Senate hearings and immense pressure the RIAA agreed to put labels on certain records and tapes. The end result? Those labels actually increased record sales. Turns out people wanted to hear what they had been told to ignore.
Perhaps politicians and advocates have learned a lesson from the past and become more sophisticated.
These days, rather than make a media spectacle, political pressure comes in the nearly invisible form of self-censorship. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences relies heavily on the state for funding, and while I’m certain this is not the only factor in their programming decisions it appears that it may be a significant one. In his official statement in regards to this controversy, Emlyn Koster, the museum’s director, explained his decision in this way:
“…the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is formulating a robust strategy to clarify and advance the role of science in contemporary societal and environmental discussions in a collaborative manner. Under consideration is the ‘triple bottom line’ approach that emphasizes the need for a balance of people, planet and profit considerations.”
It’s an honorable goal, and by all accounts the museum is a wonderful learning environment that covers a broad range of science. But it is conspicuous that Koster raises the triple bottom line in his response. The triple bottom line is a strategy that has been adopted by for-profit corporations as a way of balancing profits against the rights of people and impacts on the environment.
As someone who has run a non-profit before, I know that everyone has a budget to meet, but is ‘profit’ to become an equal part of the strategy for non-profit, public institutions dedicated to science education? Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but in this case did the need to protect funding in a potentially hostile political environment have more of a role to play than at first glance? If this is the case then the question becomes which ‘climate’ will create the policies and programming at our public museums; the heated political climate or the earth’s climate outside the walls of political power?
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