by Nicolette Bethel
A couple of months ago, the entire Bahamian community was convulsed by the banning of the movie Brokeback Mountain. All sorts of people weighed in on the issue, but the argument never really got off the ground. The reason for that was that there were really two arguments going on. One was the question of homosexuality. This argument suggested that the Bahamas (government, Christian community or censorship board) was duty-bound to protect the public morality against the evils of same-sex love. The other was the view that adult citizens of a democratic nation should be given the opportunity to choose whether to expose themselves to those evils or not.
Now there should be no doubt in my readers’ minds where I stand. I believe that the pulling of the movie was arbitrary, hypocritical and absurd. In all likelihood, it was a knee-jerk reaction on the part of a handful of influential people who assumed that the Bahamian public would not object. But I don’t want to talk about that. Not yet.
Quite simply, the existence of the Bahamas Plays and Films Control Board is an anachronism. As many have pointed out before me, it is an organization whose banning of anything is absurd in a society where radio stations play uncensored lyrics on an almost daily basis, where Bahamians are featured – and feature themselves – in homegrown pornography on the World Wide Web, and where any “immorality” can be purchased in the privacy of one’s home by those people willing to pay the price.
Now I am not saying this to call for the expansion of the scope of the Board, or of the Act which establishes it. No. What I am saying is that the time has come for Bahamians to recognize the incompatability of such a body with the age in which we live. Information of every kind is all around us, available to anyone with access to a radio, a television, a satellite or a computer. Banning the showing of a movie in this context is ludicrous.
But it is more than that. The real problem with the banning of Brokeback Mountain is that it demonstrates that this same handful of anonymous, appointed and unaccountable Bahamians have the ability under the law to control and stifle Bahamian creativity. It’s one thing to talk about a movie set in the American mid-west, made by a Chinese director, featuring a love story that many Bahamians clearly find repugnant. But what happens when a Bahamian wishes to address a topic the Board finds distasteful? Should the law have the right to tell him that he cannot? The banning of a movie may be absurd. But the banning of a play is quite a different matter.
It is not inconceivable, especially given the precedent set by the banning of Brokeback Mountain, that such a banning might take place. Indeed, there have been instances in the past where plays produced by Bahamians have been forced to change their presentations or face closure. The fact that, under the terms of the Act that establishes it, the Board has the obligation to vet any production, rate it, recommend changes or close it down has serious implications for the foundations of our democracy.
That the Board and the supporters of the Brokeback banning are hypocritical is evident in the fact that The Da Vinci Code — a movie based on the heresy that Christ did not die on the cross, but married Mary Magdalene and sired a line of descendents who exist to this day — is currently showing in the self-same theatres from which Brokeback was pulled. But to focus on this hypocrisy misses the real point. As long as legislation remains on the books that permits an anonymous body to control what Bahamians watch, and worse, what Bahamians write and perform, our culture, and our democracy, are challenged.
One final point. The discussion that was generated by the Brokeback affair raised the question of the very constitutionality of the Board. Now our Constitution protects the freedom of expression of the Bahamian citizen (Article 23). But it’s not an absolute protection. There are some limitations designed to protect defence, public safety, public order, public morality and public health, and it is permissible under the Constitution to regulate communications, public exhibitions and public entertainment.
On the surface, then, the curtailing of absolute freedom of expression is permissible under the Bahamian constitution. Except here’s where it gets iffy. There’s a caveat to all of this protection of the public, and it’s this: one can regulate things in the interest of public morality, etc, “except so far as … the thing done … is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”
It’s iffy because what’s reasonably justifiable in a democratic society changes with time. The goalposts move. This idea makes reference to a global consensus on what is “democratic”, and that changes. Forty years ago it was not undemocratic for the state to put its citizens to death for certain offences; today, however, most democracies consider it undemocratic, even barbaric, to impose the death penalty indiscriminately. Twenty years ago it might have been fine to challenge artwork that was considered indecent, homosexual, or otherwise offensive to public morality; but today in democratic societies that is no longer the case. We are living in a world whose boundaries are not fixed, and we have to be prepared for them to move.
I believe that the time has come to admit that the kind of legislation that permits a body of non-elected, faceless individuals to decide what the Bahamian citizen should be able to see is fundamentally obsolete.
I believe that the time has come to recognize that the recent actions of the Bahamas Plays and Films Control Board are not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
I believe that the time has come to revisit the Theatres and Films Act, to consider its place in this era of information, and, ultimately, to amend it to fit the age in which we live.