As a filmmaker and writer, I never saw my work as a creator as unfolding apart from my involvement in society and culture. Whether creating the Rencontres Internationales du documentaire de Montréal or the Observatoire canadien du documentaire, I have always believed that the artist should be directly involved in the debate of ideas, in defending the spaces where citizens can express themselves, in thinking about culture in motion and the public’s response to it.
Walter Benjamin wrote in 1935: “Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.”
We are able to laud cinema’s ability to knock down walls all the more given the freedom we have in Canada to express ourselves as we wish. But we are also acutely aware that freedom of expression is fragile. It is threatened equally by the powers and regimes that fear and suppress it and by the individuals who abuse it, who shirk their responsibilities towards it as they claim the right to say, to write, and to show anything.
We cannot today speak of freedom of expression in Canada without also examining the responsibility that our society’s intellectuals have toward the written, spoken word, and their images, their limitations and restrictions. We cannot ignore the role of the writer to educate and promote civic engagement, a role that stems from the refusal to blur the line between the duty to inform and ensure respect for the right to the truth and argument, and its polar opposite: the right to “say everything.”
In 1670, Spinoza anonymously published a book entitled A Treatise Partly Theological and Partly Political. Spinoza was prudent. His detractors had already accused him of being an atheist, and he was well-aware of the cost: censorship at every turn. His work showed that the freedom to think and to publicly express one’s thoughts—even though they may not be the truth, even though they may be an outright lie—is no threat to religion or the civil peace guaranteed by the State.
To make a film or to write is not to take up the arms of war, unless it is a war of ideas; it is to accept the confrontation and controversy that are key in the search for truth while refusing to stoop to banal insults and indignities. Spinoza shows us the way, where freedom of expression is grounded in responsibility, discussion and sharing, as opposed to the path taken by his censors, who clung to a very narrow interpretation of the Bible. It wasn’t the first time and certainly won’t be the last that sacred writings or the words of prophets would be used to justify censorship.
Even today, over three centuries after Spinoza’s writings, freedom of expression teeters on a thin line. True, the Canadian writer is backed up by a charter and a State that protect that freedom. And we are a long way from the censorship committees that prohibit, condemn, lock up, exile or even execute dissidents. Although the State no longer organizes censorship, we are not yet free of the censorship yoke: there still exists censorship imposed by individuals or lobby groups, community prejudices, religious positions, market interests. These new pressures on literature result, often through legal means, in the pre-eminence of “politically correct” writing and a kind of hidden self-censorship by the writer. A free society cannot exist without dreams, without imagination, without creation.
But at the same time, we should remember that free speech will forever be a delicate conquest and one that is never carved in stone. We must remind the State that its role is to ensure the right to expression, that of the artist is to take full responsibility, and that democracy is not only the free flow of ideas.