Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty: 'It's illogical to ignore torture'

Film-maker takes to LA Times to suggest criticism of 'torture-endorsing' film be directed at US counter-terrorism policy instead

The Oscar-winning director of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, has defended her controversial film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden against continuing allegations that it endorses the use of torture in an article for the LA Times.

Describing herself as a "lifelong pacifist", Bigelow said she supported "every American's First Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment". She added: "I support all protests against the use of torture and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind."

Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, have come under intense pressure from media commentators, politicians and even members of the body that organises the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, since Zero Dark Thirty was first screened for critics. The US Senate intelligence committee is currently probing whether the pair were granted "inappropriate access" to classified CIA material. Last week the actor Martin Sheen and the former head of the Screen Actors Guild, Ed Asner, came out in support of a proposed Oscars boycott of the critically acclaimed film, which documents the hunt for Bin Laden and includes several scenes of torture early on. Zero Dark Thirty is nominated for five Academy awards but Bigelow missed out on a best director nod last week – a decision some believe was fuelled by the current furore over the film's depiction of waterboarding and other controversial practices during CIA interrogations.

The director, whose previous film The Hurt Locker won six Oscars in 2010, made clear in her LA Times article that she feels critics should target their ire elsewhere. "I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these US policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen," her piece continues. "Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no film-maker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.

"This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation. Indeed, I'm very proud to be part of a Hollywood community that has made searing war films part of its cinematic tradition. Clearly, none of those films would have been possible if directors from other eras had shied away from depicting the harsh realities of combat.

"On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in US counter-terrorism policy and practices."

Earlier this week the Pulitzer prize-winning author of a book on Bin Laden, Steve Coll, became the latest figure to criticise the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. "Boal and Bigelow have offered two main responses to the criticism they have received," he wrote in an essay for the New York Review of Books. "One is that as dramatists compressing a complex history into a cinematic narrative, they must be granted a degree of artistic licence. That is unarguable, of course, and yet the film-makers cannot, on the one hand, claim authenticity as journalists while, on the other, citing art as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for Bin Laden, and therefore might be, for some, defensible as public policy."

The controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, which stars Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton, has not hurt its prospects at the US box office, where it reached first position at the weekend with $24m.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

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