THE FILM DON WILDMON COULDN'T STOP - DAMNED IN THE USA - Interview with British Filmmaker Paul Yule
By: Todd Wiese & Colin Miller
For the first time in Cincinnati, October was declared "First Amendment Month" by Mayor David Tillery. Various businesses and organizations got together for an unofficial month long Festival for the First Amendment. It's been the first festival of its kind in Cincinnati and was slow getting started. Hopefully with the Mayor's Proclamation of First Amendment Month, more area groups and businesses will participate in future annual festivities.
Some of the events that took place during the festival were -- an exhibition of the photography of Albert Arthur Allen at Images Center for Photography, an evening of reading from banned books at Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church, a performance by The John Body Players at the C.A.G.E. (Cincinnati Artists Group Effort), a Banned Film Festival at The Real Movies (featuring the most banned film in American history, FLAMING CREATURES, and a video work by Diane Terramana also at The C.A.G.E.
On October 23rd, a film called DAMNED IN THE USA came to town as part of First Amendment Month. British film maker Paul Yule, who produced and directed the movie, was there. This film was shown all over Europe and on British television Channel Four. It's won an International Emmy for best Arts Documentary. However, this has been banned in the U.S. thanks to legal action taken by Don Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA). Even though Wildmon himself appears throughout the film and is represented fairly, he was temporarily successful in stopping the film on the basis of the images shown.
The film came to Cincinnati for two benefit screenings at the Old Natural History Museum's Geier Center. William Messer, one of the founders of Citizens for Free Expression, was responsible for bringing the film to Cincinnati. Messer also played a big part in organizing the first First Amendment Festival.
The movie started out as just a small film about Mapplethorpe and art censorship in general. When Paul Yule got more involved in the film, he discovered how much intolerance and censorship actually existed in the U.S. thus, the film has grown into a full length feature about recent U.S. controversies over art, pornography, censorship and the role of the religious right in their orchestration.
Don Wildmon's AFA started its "economic persuasion" against the movie after its premier last September at the Margaret Mead Film Festival. Wildmon sued to block U.S. distribution, dragging the film into the same cultural battles it chronicles. In September of this year, a Federal Judge in Mississippi struck down Wildmon's suit, thus allowing the film to be shown in the U.S.
Before the film was shown, City Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls, read the proclamation declaring October Freedom of Expression Month in Cincinnati. Notice that a certain anti-censorship organization had a place of mention in the proclamation (see end of article).
Following the first screening of DAMNED IN THE USA, I and R.O.C. member Colin Miller had an opportunity to talk with Paul Yule. We found Paul to be a very intelligent and down to earth kind of person. He also liked to talk. Here's what Paul had to say...
Todd Wiese: First of all, I wanted to say that I really enjoyed the film. It's an inspiration for free speech activists everywhere. Especially living in Cincinnati with the Mapplethorpe Exhibit. I never had a chance to see it. I never saw the photos.
Colin Miller: I thought it was really good. I got a chance to see it. I was impressed with it. And a lot of the stuff, I thought, it wasn't pornography. I thought it was more of a personal representation of his life. The thing that had to do with the girl sitting with her dress up...when you go out into the country, you see little kids walking around all the time. They don't know any better. They'll sit down, their skirt happens to fly up. It's life and that was what he was capturing.
TW: The first thing I wanted to ask was: how did the film come about? What was your inspiration? What was the single most point of motivation to do the film?
Paul Yule: When I started the film I was thinking about doing something narrowly about the Mapplethorpe trial. And when I finished the film, I found that actually I had made that a very small part of it. The film is an attempt by a foreigner to look at the diversity of American culture and American values and an attempt to see where, if anywhere, limits can be drawn or if they should be drawn. So, I was trying to understand the term of firstly: art, paintings, photography, that sort of thing: secondly: in terms of music, in terms of film, in terms of television and mass media. And ultimately it's all about politics. It's about control and power and how that actually functions in a country as diverse as the United States is.
CM: You said "as an outsider looking into America." What do you think the general impression of the U.S. is because of things popping up like this?
PY: The United States Constitution has this extraordinary document appended to it called the Bill of Rights which is an inspiration in many ways to the people across the world. People don't just come to the United States for the last couple of hundred years because of the money that can be made, but because of the idea of liberty. The United States is meant to be an embodiment of a certain sense of freedom.
TW: That's why it was created to begin with.
PY: That's right. So, I kind of wanted to see what the First Amendment really meant. How it actually worked using the art world, the music world and mass media. I think the United States is seen as many things abroad. I think this rather extraordinary document, the First Amendment, the Bill of Rights, is somewhere at the heart of how it is seen. Of course it doesn't function in quite that way.
TW: Donald Wildmon was in the film quite a bit so I found it confusing why he would want to sue you for this film when he agreed to do it. What exactly was his motivation for trying to sue you?
PY: You'll have to ask him exactly what his motivation is because I still can't fathom it out fifteen months later, and at the end of this long process I still can't quite figure it out. I can guess certain things. He's made a career out of these images. In the film itself he describes what he calls 'economic persuasion,' which is one of the tactics which he uses in carrying out his ministry. The economic persuasion consists of making things as expensive as possible for the people who are doing things which he doesn't like. DAMNED IN THE USA shows the images of 'Piss Christ, the Mapplethorpe exhibition.' You hear the lyrics of 2 Live Crew. You see the Madonna Pepsi commercial which had never been on the TV screen. He said in court that it was the mere presence of those images that brought the lawsuit. But, he admitted at the same time that he was fairly and accurately portrayed. I mean it's hard to see, I think, since he comes over as really quite a benign sort of person...sort of character.
TW: Despite his views, no matter how twisted they are, he appeared to be a very intelligent person.
PY: Yeah, I think so. The criticism, if any, that we got is that we've been too easy on Wildmon in the film. That's actually from the other side. I can't see it. I can't see it really. The man has an organization, the AFA, which has half a dozen lawyers and it has people who wrote letters with (hundred dollar) checks in them.
TW: Is there a British version of Don Wildmon?
PY: Nothing which is as well organized as that one. You're talking about someone with a mailing list with 700,000 people. And he's using very up to the limit marketing techniques, direct mail in order to get small contributions. It's a business. He's running a business. And that's one of the very interesting things about him. He's using all of the tactics which hitherto have been thought of as being the liberals' tactics. He uses boycotts. He uses law courts. He uses letter writing campaigns. These are the methods which came out of the civil rights movement, and Don Wildmon grew up in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. It's hardly surprising, if you think about it, that he uses those tactics.
TW: Have there been any other films that you've done that have been censored or challenged in any way? What other films have you done?
PY: Well, I made four films in Peru. I've made three films in the United States. None of them have been censored in this way. This film...I don't know whether 'censored' is the right word. I guess it was censored. It was effectively banned because of the lawsuit.
TW: Whether it was legal or not, it was censored.
CM: Why do you feel it was censored?
PY: Because it shows the images.
CM: And that's the only reason?
PY: That's it. Or it was the issue Wildmon thought he could make a lot of for his own reasons, whatever they may be. During the year of the Mapplethorpe trial, during 1990, the receipts of the AFA increased by a million dollars.
TW: That's scary.
PY: Mapplethorpe was a very big business. This is a big business.
TW: I heard you on WLW (700 AM) the other day. I heard one of the questions a caller asked. He said, "how would this have been handled legally in England if Wildmon had an AFA type organization in Britain?" How would the legal system work in this situation?
PY: I'll tell you what I said there. Basically we have a different legal system in this respect which is that the person who loses the case pays the cost in a civil suit of this sort. And that isn't what happens here. Essentially the lawyers all win. You don't get cases like this in England.
TW: It was shown on television and....
PY: It was shown on Channel Four in Great Britain. It was shown at 10:30 in the evening. I think it would be very interesting to see whether, after the theatrical running across the country, in six months or nine months time, this film will actually be shown on American TV. It will be very interesting to see what happens.
TW: How did the New York benefit go? I heard Lou Reed made an appearance.
PY: Really excellent. He reworked his famous song (Walk On The Wild Side) when he wrote something called 'Walk On the Wildmon.' And what I'm doing at the moment is making a short five minute prologue to DAMNED IN THE USA which will be shown in movie theatres before the film which will include his song. The first lyrics of which go:
Donald Wildmon was damned in the USA
Tried to get Channel Four to pay and pay
Hustle here and a hustle there
He thought Mississippi was the place where
He could, hey, take a walk on the legal side
TW: That's great! Is there any other music scheduled for the LA benefit? You haven't done the LA benefit yet, have you?
PY: No. There's going to be one on the 10th of November.
CM: Have you thought about getting other movie stars, rock stars to get into that? Madonna supported Rock The Vote. Maybe not as big as her, but other people that are global on that subject?
TW: You'd have a good soundtrack for the film.
PY: We're just now trying to get the film out and released. Wildmon's been very effective because he managed to hold up the release of the film until after the presidential election. I think the film deals with issues that have very much to do with that election actually.
TW: Here in America we have the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) who rates movies. Has this movie gotten a rating?
PY: No. It doesn't need to get a rating. It's only the big Hollywood studios who need to get ratings and even they don't actually need to get ratings. It's a voluntary system.
TW: How does the British movie rating system work?
PY: There's one which is PG. There's one that's PG-15. It's a legal requirement on movie producers to get their films rated before they are to be shown.
TW: How do you personally feel about censorship since it's obviously happened to you with this film?
PY: I'm against it! (Nuff said)
TW: What type of guidelines would you select for films or music if any?
PY: I think a certain amount of caution needs to be given to children. I think that is the only thing...and how that should be done? Hmm. I find myself an absolutist, really, on the First Amendment. Certainly as political speech is concerned. I think that anything which goes into the public dimension should be allowed to be there. I think that imagery and music...y'know, rock & roll is about rebellion. I think the idea that it's ever been about anything else is absurd.
TW: It's the main music and it's still rebellious.
PY: It's about young people rebelling against their parents, basically. That's what it always has been. That's what it always is.
TW: What type of audience would you like to see attend this film?
PY: Everybody! I'd have no hesitancy in this film being seen by people of age over.....12. I don't think that they (kids under 12) would enjoy it very much. I think that anybody who thinks, in any way, should watch this film."
TW: So, you'd encourage Wildmon's followers to show up.
PY: Definitely, definitely!
TW: Of course they probably wouldn't go inside. They would probably just stay outside.
PY: I hope that college students...that this will become standard fare. This film is all about the business of living in a democracy.
TW: Can we look forward to any sequel or follow-up?
PY: Well, I'm making this prologue to the film which tells, basically, the story of what's happened to the film but, that's a short piece which will be shown before the film. The next thing I'm doing is something called RUBBERTALK which is about condoms.
TW: Which will probably catch flack also. Who was the comedian in the film?
PY: Jimmy Tingle from Boston.
TW: I thought he really put it in perspective. If I may ask, how much, thanks to Wildmon, is the film in debt?
PY: Well, the legal fees have been hundreds of thousands of dollars.
TW: Is there anything you would like to say to our readers?
PY: Well, there's a lot of music in this movie. Don't miss the bit where Don Wildmon takes us on a tour of Elvis Presley's birthplace. Don Wildmon, who sued us, was brought up in Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis, and he takes us down there and shows us his (Elvis's) house.
CM: Now that you've been to Cincinnati, where all the controversy erupted, what do you think of it (second time around)?
PY: I like Cincinnati, actually. I'm meeting a really different bunch of people this time than I did last time. Last time I was talking with people who are in league against pornography. But, I like the definite feel of this city. There's a very interesting festival going on for free expression down in the city and a lot of people turned out to see the movie. What this is all about is activism. At the moment the city is in the hands of certain people, but only because, as much, of the complacency of the people who hold these positions. If you hold a different position, you should get active.
CM: Active to educate?
PY: Get involved, you know! Take up a position! This is what democracy is all about! The key word is 'activism'.
Editors Note: Our special thanks to Paul Yule for this great interview. We thank Todd and Colin from Cincinnati R.O.C. for getting it for us. We urge all of our readers not to miss DAMNED IN THE USA if it comes to your town, and keep your eyes open for any AFA actions in your area. --JW--
CITY OF CINCINNATI -- OFFICE OF THE MAYOR -- PROCLAMATION
Be it proclaimed:
WHEREAS, in conjunction with life itself, freedom is one of the most precious gifts received by citizens of the United States; and
WHEREAS, the Constitution of the United States is amended by a written Bill of Rights in order to protect and preserve our cherished freedoms; and
WHEREAS, our democratic society depends upon an informed public to give knowledgeable direction to our elected officials, and freedoms of speech, association, assembly and the press assist the exchange of a multiplicity of ideas and opinions among individuals and communities and are essential to the realization of an aware electorate and individual self fulfillment; and
WHEREAS, the First Amendment to the Constitution insures the freedom of expression, including speech (both literal and symbolic) and the press, peaceful assembly and association, and religion (including the separation of church and state); and
WHEREAS, numerous Cincinnati organizations have joined to program in October, 1992, a month-long Festival of Free Expression (including, but not limited to, the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens for Free Expression, Images Center for Photography, Cincinnati Artists Group Effort, The Real Movies, Rock Out Censorship, the Free Inquiry Group, and Citizens for Valued Communities.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, DWIGHT TILLERY, the 61st Mayor of the City of Cincinnati, do hereby proclaim the month of October 1992, as "FIRST AMENDMENT MONTH" in Cincinnati.
Copy of the Mayor's Proclamation declaring FIRST AMENDMENT MONTH in Cincinnati. Notice that R.O.C. gets an official mention.