When Countries Lose Their Shit Over American Movies
Communist regimes lost it over The Deer Hunter. North Korea thinks The Interview is an act of imperialistic war. Slovakian officials were outraged over Hostel. The list goes on.
“The United States authorities should take immediate and appropriate actions to ban the production and distribution of the aforementioned film; otherwise, it will be fully responsible for encouraging and sponsoring terrorism.”
That’s what the North Korean representative to the United Nations wrote in a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last June. The complaint was filed over The Interview, the James Franco / Seth Rogen comedy in which the actors play a couple of lovable idiots recruited to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The notoriously humorless and human rights-allergic regime in Pyongyang did not react well to the film’s premise, and labeled it an act of war by the Obama administration. (North Korean defectors are pumped about it, though.)
This was well before the Sony email hack that some believed to be the North Korean government’s retaliation for The Interview. (The regime has denied involvement.) The hackers claiming responsibility—who bill themselves “the Guardians of Peace”—have also threatened 9/11-style attacks on movie theaters that show the film.
This prompted Carmike Cinemas, one of the largest theater operators in the United States, to drop The Interview from its 278 theaters and 2,917 screens across the country, making it the first chain to pull the film. Several other major theater chains quickly followed suit, which caused Sony to ditch the planned Christmas Day theatrical release entirely—even though the Department of Homeland Security has indicated that there is no credible threat to American movie theaters. Sony may stand to lose $100 million by pulling the movie.
This isn’t the first time, however, that North Korean officials have freaked out over a Hollywood movie. The totalitarian state reportedly banned the John Cusack disaster flick 2012 out of fear that it would negatively portray the year of the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder. And all this excitement over The Interview is just the latest in the long-held tradition of foreign governments completely losing their shit over American movies.
Here’s a brief history:
Communist nations did not approve of The Deer Hunter.
Perhaps the biggest international incident ever caused by a major American movie was the fallout from the inclusion of The Deer Hunter in the Berlin International Film Festival in 1979. The Oscar-winning Michael Cimino film, starring Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, includes a famous scene in which American soldiers are forced to play a game of Russian roulette by their sadistic Vietnamese captors. The scene became controversial due to the fact that there is zero evidence that the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong used Russian roulette as a form of torture or amusement.
The Soviet Union, which supported North Vietnam during the war, flipped its shit.
It was 1979, and the Cold War was a decade from thawing. A Soviet news agency described The Deer Hunter as racist and announced that it “shows tendentiously the struggle of the Vietnamese people who have earned the respect and support of the whole world.”
The Soviet delegation to the film festival objected to the depiction of Vietnamese fighters as barbarians, and led a walkout to express solidarity with the “heroic people of Vietnam.” Other communist countries that withdrew their films and delegates included East Germany, Cuba, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
As the Cold War entered its final years, the film enjoyed a warmer reception in Russia. In 1987, The Deer Hunter was hailed at the Moscow Film Festival as an important portrayal of the horrors of war.
Muslim countries thought Schindler’s List was vile propaganda.
Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama was released in 1993 to near universal critical acclaim. That didn’t stop a number of governments from slamming it as Zionist propaganda, and effectively banning the film in several Arab and Muslim countries.
“It’s just disgraceful,” Spielberg said at the time. “It shocks me because I thought the Islamic countries would feel this film could be an instrument of their own issues in what was happening in Bosnia… This movie speaks not only on the Jewish Holocaust but of every Holocaust, by anyone’s definition.” (He was referring to the genocide of Muslims during the Bosnian War.)
This was lost on Lebanese authorities, who confiscated the film’s advertising materials and banned imported prints of the film. Jordan also banned it, and Malaysia, Egypt, and Indonesia subjected it to their censorship boards. Malaysian authorities bashed Schindler’s List as, “propaganda with the purpose of asking for sympathy” and remarked that the film played up Jews as “intelligent” and “stout-hearted,” while making the Germans seem too brutal.
The former president of Iran is not a fan of 300.
In the United States, one critic compared Zack Snyder’s 2007 film to “fascist art.” In Iran, harsher statements were made.
The action flick—which heavily fictionalizes the battle between 300 Spartans and a Persian army—was despised in Tehran and pointed to as another example of Western aggression. “Hollywood has opened a new front in the war against Iran,” an evening news broadcast declared. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the country’s president, blasted the R-rated movie as cultural and psychological warfare.
Here’s a BBC report on the political outcry at the time:
Slovakian officials hated Eli Roth’s torture porn.
Hostel, directed by blood-and-gore obsessive Eli Roth, tells the story of young American sex-tourists who make the mistake of staying at the eponymous hostel in Slovakia. The horny college kids are then sold into the underground snuff-for-fun business, where they fall victim to well-paying torturers such as this man:
When the movie hit Slovakia, certain members of parliament showed no sense of humor about it. “I think that all Slovaks should feel offended,” said MP Tomas Galbavy, who served on the parliamentary culture committee. “[Hostel will] damage the good reputation of Slovakia.”
“We are unanimous in saying that this film damages the image of our country,” Linda Heldichova, of the Slovak culture ministry, added.
Roth responded to the criticism by saying that “Americans do not even know that this country exists.”
Kazakhstan denounced (and then loved) Borat.
Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 comedy hit, satirically portrayed Kazakh citizens as backward, anti-Semitic, and rape-happy. “Although Kazakhstan a glorious country, it have a problem, too: economic, social, and Jew,” Borat informs the audience at the beginning of this Oscar-nominated mockumentary.
Before the film was released, Kazakhstan’s government launched a media campaign in an effort to fix the damage the character of Borat had supposedly done to the country’s reputation. And a year prior to Borat’s premiere, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry threatened to sue Baron Cohen for the character he created.
“We do not rule out that Mr. Cohen is serving someone’s political order designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way,” ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev told reporters. “We reserve the right to any legal action to prevent new pranks of the kind.”
It would take a few years for the ministry to change its tune on Borat. In 2012, the Kazakh foreign minister actually thanked Baron Cohen for making the movie. Apparently tourism in the country had jumped tenfold since the film hit theaters.