An Emmy award-winning British television documentary about artistic censorship in the United States is facing problems getting shown in America because of a $2-million lawsuit filed against its producers by the Rev. Donald Wildmon.
"It's using the legal system as a means of influencing what is shown to the public," complains British filmmaker Paul Yule, who directed and produced the documentary, "Damned in the USA." "It's a tactic just like a boycott."
Wildmon, head of the American Family Assn., a conservative group that fights what it views as indecency and anti-Christian material in the media, appears in the film discussing his philosophical views and operational tactics. Although he consented to appear in the documentary, he claims its producers violated an agreement not to screen the work in the United States without his permission.
The producers deny such an agreement was ever made. The film originally was broadcast on Great Britain's Channel 4 network in April as part of a special series of programs that were either about censorship or had, themselves, been censored.
Among other subjects examined in "Damned" were the controversy surrounding Andres Serrano's photograph "Piss Christ," the obscenity trial resulting from the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati's showing of the controversial "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment" traveling exhibition, the arrest of rappers 2 Live Crew and the efforts of U.S. politicians to influence the awarding of National Endowment for the Arts grants.
Unlike most of the news media coverage of the arts censorship debate, "Damned in the USA" shows viewers the artistic works in question, including the Mapplethorpe photographs with their graphic homosexual and autoerotic themes.
Wildmon was interviewed at his organization's Tupelo, Miss., headquarters and is seen in the film giving a tour of the town and pointing out the birthplace of Elvis Presley, whom he says he admired.
He filed suit for breach of contract after "Damned" was shown in September at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the Museum of Natural History in New York, the only public screening of the documentary in the United States to date. The film went on to win an International Emmy Award on Nov. 26 in New York.
Wildmon declined to comment on the suit.
As a result of the pending litigation, says Yule, "others who might show the film in the States are reluctant." The producer said there has been "loads" of interest from potential exhibitors ranging from universities to PBS.
So far, no one has agreed to screen it, however.
Says Channel 4 spokesman Chris Griffin-Beale, "We are talking to people about potential sales, but it's under threat. The scale of money for purchasing rights is quite small, but the threat of legal action is considerable."
Yule said it was only with great difficulty that he was able to get Wildmon to agree to be interviewed in the first place. But despite Wildmon's initial reluctance, says Yule, "I think he saw it as a good platform for himself. The fact that I was a foreigner played a role in it. I think he believed he would be represented in a way he wouldn't be by the American media."
Once Yule and his crew arrived in Tupelo, they found that Wildmon would not participate unless they signed an agreement prohibiting them from using his interview in magazines. He was particularly concerned about having his comments wind up in Playboy, Penthouse or Hustler, the producer recalled.
After Yule signed, filming began. But later, after a lunch break, the film crew returned to find their equipment locked away and a second contract waiting for them, Yule says.
"The circumstances under which the new contract was produced were slightly strange," Yule says. "Our equipment was in a room where we couldn't get access until the contract was signed.'
According to the producer, the second contract seemed to reiterate what appeared in the first, so he signed it and the filming continued.
Don Christopher, an attorney for Channel 4 in London, said the legal issue appears to center on a clause in the second contract that says the producers will not provide Wildmon's interview for "other media presentation."
Wildmon claims the wording bars Channel 4 and the producers from showing the film outside England.
Robert Raskoph, the New York attorney handling the lawsuit in the United States for Channel 4, says he is "arguing primarily that the contract speaks for itself." He successfully petitioned to have the case transferred from the state court in Mississippi, where it was filed, to the U.S. District Court in Tupelo, saying he preferred to have it heard by a federal judge.
A pre-trial conference is scheduled for July 28.
Meanwhile the film faces an uncertain future in the United States. "It's so ironic," Yule says. "The American public is not being allowed to make up its own mind about a film which is about the American public not being allowed to make up its own mind."