There’s a huge fuss brewing in Europe about Roman Polanski’s latest film, ‘An officer and a spy’. It’s been banned in many jurisdictions and it caused a mass walkout at the Cesar awards too1. This article explains how wrong it is to see things as black and white, and how dangerous it is for people in Malta to use the same approach.
An officer and a spy
Robert Harris is an exceptional story teller and his novelisation of the Dreyfus affair was an immediate hit when published2. The soft-spoken and unassuming author made an impression on me when I met him in Oxford in 2012 because of his ideas about story telling. His book about the Dreyfus affair turned his ideas on their head and broke all the rules he had followed in his 20-year career.
It was inevitable that the film rights would be snapped up.
The film ’The Ghost Writer’ was based on another Harris book. Both the book and the film were successful. I was not surprised to find director Roman Polanski associated with ‘An officer and a spy’ because he had also directed The Ghost Writer.
Polanski also has form when it comes to anti-semitic stories. His tale of Holocaust survivor Szpilman’s life in Warsaw is one of the most moving World War II movies I’ve seen.
It was inevitable that Polanski would want to direct the film to re-tell the world all about the sordid Dreyfus affair.
The Roman Polanski problem
I don’t suppose I need to go into great detail about Polanski’s life on the run. The accusations of statutory rape are well-known. This is why Polanski never attends the Oscars; he knows he would end up in jail. He stays in places that wouldn’t extradite him. Film lovers know this is why he makes his films in Europe.
And this is the problem with Roman Polanski; can we praise a film made by someone who has raped underage girls?
Cinema chains across Europe refuse to show his film because they’re worried about the negative press this will generate3.
At what point does the action become the man?
Black and white
It isn’t that simple. We tend to think of people as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as if there is a specific dichotomy in the world. You’re either one or the other. I’ve always thought this approach was childish which is appropriate because children’s films are like that. The ‘good guys’ are good all of the time and the ‘bad guys’ are bad all of the time. (Think of Cruella De Vil from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. She’s all bad with no redeeming attributes.)
The reality is different.
We are all a mix of good and bad because we are human. If we weren’t like that there would be no need for confession and redemption. Each one of us has done things which are good, and done things which are bad. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are adjectives we can attach to the individual action, not the person who committed it.
Think of Pablo Escobar and his charitable work.
Think of Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and the atrocities against the Rohingya4.
You wouldn’t call Escobar ‘good’.
You also wouldn’t call ‘Nobel Peace prize’ bad.
We fool ourselves when we see someone doing something good or bad and think the act is a perfect rendition of the person.
So what has this got to do with Malta?
Many people defend ex-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat claiming he must be a good person because of some random good act that he did. All criticism of him should stop, they argue, because he is a good person. They wonder how come we don’t see it that way.
This thinking is dangerous, as I explain above. It prevents us from being objective about our country. We can’t identify criminals if we’re going to bias ourselves like this. We need to be able to be objective about our recent history if we’re to change things. One way to do this is to stop praising, or criticising, people. We should criticise their actions instead.
We should be able to say that Polanski’s films are works of art while also agreeing he should face justice. In the same way we should be able to laud the action while scorning the man.
Not all a criminal’s actions are criminal.
Not all a saint’s actions are saintly.
We’re all human after all.
- Roman Polanski: Actress walkout as he wins best director at ‘French Oscars’; BBC.com; 2020-03-01
- An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris; Roger Boyes; The Times of London; 2013-009-21
- France flocks to see Roman Polanski’s film An Officer and a Spy – but you won’t be able to; Peter Conradi; The Sunday Times of London; 2020-03-01
- Tale after tale of horror in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t bat an eyelid; Christina Lamb, The Sunday Times; 2019-12-15
All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.
Written by: Antoine P Borg
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