My guest today is the Pen. Welcome to OpEdNews! Before we get started, can you please tell our readers a little about the Pen, who you are and what you do?
ad for The Last War Crime rejected by MTV; photo credit: The Pen
The Pen happens to be my full, legal name. But people call me just Pen, and I like that. I started my life as an internet policy activist, and have worked many years to facilitate the voices of others to speak out for policy advocacy. And I have also been responsible for creating various creative media projects in the past relating to policy issues. In this case, I had a vision of producing a full feature length film, The Last War Crime , about what it would have been like if Dick Cheney had already been indicted for torture, if justice had already prevailed, and at the same time produce an entertaining and suspenseful movie. At the end, there is a classic movie race against time, will the heroine succeed in getting Cheney served live with the arrest papers, or will they intercept her before she can do that?
Is this your first effort, Pen?
For a full length feature film, yes. But I have worked closely with actors before to get performances. I wrote and produced a 40-minute radio play that got some exposure, and when the health care reform debate was happening, I wrote some video spots addressing that, and produced those with a full camera crew, so that gave me the confidence to tackle a larger project like this. And with the valiant help of many extraordinarily talented cast and crew members, we pulled off the production.
I'm used to your action alerts and petitions that have regularly appeared at OpEdNews. For readers unfamiliar with your work, can you please give an idea of the range of issues that you've covered, Pen?
I have always felt strongly that if the voice of the people were truly heard, it would be naturally progressive, which to me just simply means in the best public policy interest of we the people. So we have advocated for single payer health care, against the invasion of Iraq and against continuing an occupation there, which even right wingers now see in hindsight as a monumentally bad idea, and so on. I'd like to add that OpEdNews has from the beginning been very supportive of the concept of policy advocacy, and we created for their writers' interface a function for adding live policy advocacy functions to their articles, a feature that has been widely and effectively used.
Thank you for your kind words about OpEdNews. What is a live policy advocacy function exactly? And how does it work?
It is all very nice for one person to speak out on the issues in public, especially if that one person is a prominent journalist. But real policy change for the people only happens when many other people speak out with them. Moreover, when someone is reading about a policy issue, there should be link right there if someone is inspired to add their voice to the consensus. So, if you see on an OpEdNews page, "click here to speak out," that connects you with a server process to send your message of advocacy in real time to all your representatives in Congress (House and Senate).
So, it's an easy and effective way to ramp up support a notch and spread the word. That's good. How did you get started with this in the first place, Pen? You mention that you started out as an "internet policy activist". Where did your political awareness come from?
It's a mystery sometimes how we may find ourselves on a path not knowing where it will lead. Two years ago, I would not have anticipated that I would be producing this film, The Last War Crime. And yet it is now in the final stages of post production. Somehow, whatever I have done in my life has prepared me for this moment. I see this movie as an opportunity to change the way people think, a natural extension of the policy advocacy itself. And I understand that only by changing the way people think can we in fact have real policy change.
Valiant Asst. US Attorney Rachel Silver (actress Deanna Hurst) makes her closing argument appeal to the grand jury to indict Dick Cheney for war crimes, conspiracy and murder, in this scene from The Last War Crime. Photo credit: The Pen
The Last War Crime is about indicting Cheney for ordering torture, waterboarding in particular. And he has been so arrogant about his self-perceived immunity from prosecution that he has admitted publicly that he was "a big supporter of waterboarding". So, one of the key scenes in the movie is our waterboarding scene, and that's the first preview clip we posted on YouTube. Next thing you know we got a notice from YouTube that they had blocked the video. Someone, probably a single right wing operative we think, made the false complaint that there was nudity or pornography in it. But using the same resources we have to send messages to Congress, we rallied more that 7,000 people to send protests to YouTube and they were forced to put the clip back up.
I saw that clip, the trailer. I didn't see any nudity or pornography. Not only that, but the whole clip is really short. Did you change it or is that the clip that created such blowback? And were you expecting a reaction of that sort from YouTube? It seemed pretty tame compared to a lot of the material that is out on the web.
That's the clip there was such a fuss about, just 60 seconds. And in fact many people in their protests to YouTube were shocked that this relatively mild depiction of waterboarding was too much for people to be allowed to see. But actually, there is a profound point about this, which is that we were not interested in producing a graphically violent scene, with dark, scary torturers portrayed as powerful characters. To our mind, those kinds of representations do not turn people away from torture. Quite the opposite, they reinforce torture, feed into torture and desensitize people to torture. So, what we do instead with the scene is allow people to use their imaginations to infer the actual waterboarding itself which is not shown. But even that "tame" version they tried to take down.
So, your people power got the clip reinstated. But that hasn't been the end of the story. You've also encountered censorship from another source. Can you tell us about that, Pen?
As shocked as I was that YouTube would react so precipitously, I was even more stunned by what I was told when we approached MTV to run a paid ad for The Last War Crime movie. We thought it would be great to run a short video from the film on their Times Square high definition video screen. But the instant they heard the title of the film, their ad manager demanded a synopsis. And I was like, whoa, what is this? So I asked them point blank, "Must MTV approve the underlying content of a movie to accept an ad for that movie?" And their answer, in WRITING was "Yes". So I then asked, "Does that not implicate some kind of possibly arbitrary political censorship?" And again, their unabashed answer was "Yes".
What does this mean exactly, Pen? What kinds of material have been pulled or censored by YouTube and MTV in the past? Is this an aberration or, unfortunately, too common?
We are already starting to hear from other people who have had similar experiences. I should add that this was not just one particular MTV ad manager. Because we went ahead and submitted our proposed ad anyway, and got back a rejection from a second MTV executive stating, "We are unable to accept advertising for this product." Note the use of the word "product". So this confirms this was not just for one ad but for anything related to the entire The Last War Crime movie.
Where does that leave you, Pen? In a way, it's good publicity: "This is what YouTube and MTV don't want you to see.' Could it work in your favor?
Frankly, based on how much censorship we are encountering already I have come to understand, part of my own personal eye opening, that there is a much deeper issue we need to confront without compromise. Of course, we launched a parallel protest action to MTV, which is just a division of Viacom Inc., one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, with more than 170 different affiliated networks and a worldwide audience of 600 million. And Viacom has now received over 12,000 such protests through the action page at http://www.lastwarcrime.com . But at the same time, we are seriously considering a federal legal challenge, should Viacom try to play deaf in the face of this growing scandal.
So, I guess the question is, how many signatures will it take to break through the wall at Viacom? Or, conversely, what will it take to mount a legal challenge against it? Are we talking big legal bills or is there another way to go about this should they remain unmoved by citizen outrage?
That is such an important question you just asked. We'd like to think that Viacom would simply admit they were wrong. When we protest to our government, we expect them to hear our grievances. That's just basic First Amendment stuff. But what happens, and this my new insight caused by this experience, when corporations, unaccountable corporations, take over the functions of government? After all, this is not a government agency censoring a political policy point of view, this is a business entity. Special interest corporations have essentially taken over the policy-making functions of government, exacerbated by the radical Citizens United [Supreme Court] decision, even to the point of writing the bills Congress considers, through their lobbyists and proxy former executives on staff. So the new insight is that, unless we find a way to hold the corporations accountable directly, there is no prospect whatsoever for government by and for the people.
You still have a movie to get out. How will this affect your strategy for publicizing and distributing the film? And what can people do, where can they go if they're interested in knowing more and doing something about this censorship?
A number of well-meaning people we know have said, "Just find other ways to publicize the movie." But we are not going walk away from this. If there is a path to get the movie out, it must be directly through the biggest obstacle someone puts in our way. As I was suggesting, once you start surrendering, there is no end to the appeasement. So we ask everyone to go to http://www.lastwarcrime.com and submit the action page. And we are very determined to follow up if necessary with a strong legal challenge, and we think we have triable grounds to do so. There is an email address contact on that same action page at the bottom if you are an attorney with interest in these areas and would like to talk to us. And on a fun note, there is also a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/thelastwarcrime where we are posting lots of still pics from the film and you can post your own comments about all this and participate there.
Good luck with getting your film out, publicized and seen by as many of our fellow citizens as possible. Keep us posted!
Thank you for your gracious time and interest. We see this as a potential life imitates art situation, to actually build public pressure for real accountability for war crimes. But at the very least it is a political fantasy fulfillment film.
Thanks so much for talking with me, Pen. It's been an education.
Always my pleasure speaking with you.
Viacom Protest Action page http://www.lastwarcrime.com
Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/thelastwarcrime