Film and Freedom of Expression: Is It Time for a Global Norm?

  • By Susan Burns
  • 04 Nov, 2015

Recently I attended the American Bar Association, Section of International Law Regional Forum in the fabulous city of Montreal. I chaired a panel entitled “Film and Freedom of Expression: Is it Time for a Global Norm” and had the privilege of working with some incredible panelists: Robert Raben[1], German Mendez[2], Erik Huey[3]and Leonard Farlinger[4]

It was an inspiring experience to work with these powerful voices as they presented incisive, uncensored views on an essential topic for today’s society. So inspiring, that I wanted to share my introductory remarks on the topic.

Some people asked why I proposed the topic of film and freedom of expression—what relevance does this topic hold for our attorneys?

Interestingly, it is the same complex subjects that drive filmmakers—things like pollution, environmental concerns, racism, terrorism, war, big government, discrimination, and gay rights—that are many of the same issues that lawyers try to create policy around as stewards of the legal profession.

Some of the same tools that filmmakers use to shed light on the human existence lawyers use to drive public policy, diversity and equity. Many of the concerns presented during the panel are not just issues of artistic relevance, but also civil and human rights issues.

As defenders of justice, if the global situation remains unchanged we leave those in need of our legal services to languish and wither, causing intellectual decay and corrosion on a global scale.

The work that we as lawyers do can help foster a global community that allows artists to ponder what it means to think, create and thus help shape the world amid the constant threats to free expression.

Through the medium of film, we are able to see socioeconomic and cultural diversity beyond the parameters of our physical existence. As people limited by circumstances—whatever they are—what we see on a screen can transport us to places we may never see in our lifetime. We can learn the stories of people that we may never have the chance to meet.

In this way, art provides a reprieve, a pleasure that we would grieve if it were taken from us. As a lawyer, the time I spend viewing films provokes thought, provides escapism and allows my brain to blossom in the presence of something beautiful curated for intellectual consumption.

Art is one of the fundamental pillars that our society is built upon, and film has the power to inform the way we see the world and ourselves. Film, therefore, gives us a vehicle for exploration and the potential for social engagement.

Technology, media and telecommunications complicate the dissolution of taboos and cultural norms, and that is where some of the issues lie. It is a double-edged sword: the same technology that allows us to examine these things is also what allows us to be tracked. As consumers we like being able to see a movie about whatever we want practically whenever we want without the fear of censorship or threat of surveillance.

We have more outlets through which to satisfy the human need for stories and connection: artists are no longer limited to traditional vehicles and mediums to project their creations.

We are globally connected. We no longer rely on venues like Cannes, Sundance or other film festivals, for movies and documentaries from around the world. We can watch performance art as it happens through apps like Periscope.

In these intellectual explorations we are no longer simply citizens of our countries of residence, but also citizens of the world—when civil rights are violated, the global community can learn about the incident in a matter of minutes. In this way citizens can hold their governments and one another accountable.

We’re at an interesting impasse in human history: we have the technology to make the world more understanding of various cultures and ways of life, but we don’t have a global initiative that helps the human rights of the producers of art.

As Americans we often take our freedom of speech for granted. When we talk about censorship we talk about other governments in other countries. However recent political developments—including the passage of the Patriot Act—have shined a spotlight on possible profound acts of censorship in our own backyard. We’re also all familiar with the fallout surrounding James Franco’s movie about North Korea and the resulting Sony Hack scandal that impacted the heretofore well-defined First Amendment.

Exploring this on a global scale, here’s a snapshot of what’s going on in other parts of the world and some of the circumstances artists face:

Bassem Youssef, a comedian, often called “the Jon Stewart of Egypt” and known for his quips, observations, and incisive commentary about the state of play in the Middle East is banished from Egypt after three seasons of al Bernameg , his weekly satire news show. His show—and the degree it could push boundaries—became a metric of the evolution of freedom in Egypt.

In August (2015) the Rotterdam Film Festival award winning Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, was sentenced by Russia to 20 years in prison in a ruling that sparked global condemnation for its groundless charges and clear miscarriage of justice. Sentsov’s real crime – it is thought – is that he had previously voiced his opposition to Crimean annexation.

Keywan Karimi, an award-winning Iranian filmmaker whose work focuses on the travails of modern life and political expression in the Islamic Republic has been sentenced to six years in prison and to 223 lashes for his movies. This conviction follows similar punishments for other artists and journalists in Iran, even as its government moves toward detente with the West over its contested nuclear program. This case underscores both the murky limits of expression in Iran and the power hard-liners still maintain in the country.

Parallel conversations are being held about the notion of press freedom in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the restrictive nature of news censorship in China. Governments and regimes are treating artists and creators as saboteurs, creating a threat to artistic and intellectual integrity, something that we thrive upon—as Americans, and global citizens with an interest in truth and the human condition. 

The concept of personal circumstances as political critique and the notion of social observation as a vehicle for social change present us with the issue of the culture clash: 

  • What happens when intention, expectation and expression are misinterpreted or misconstrued?


  • When do cultural critiques with a political bent turn into serious allegations of terrorism and treason? When does voicing an opinion turn deadly?

  • Other art disciplines have organizations that help artists in trouble—how can the film and legal communities come together on the grassroots and policy fronts to initiate change?

  • What can we learn from programs like the PEN American Center’s Writers in Prisons initiative?

  • How can we create a system that takes care of the day to day maintenance of the notion of the freedom of expression but also presents major global legislation?

  • How do we marry creative think tanks with legal efforts?

  • How can we work to mitigate a reality that contains so much violence, alienation, indifference and diminishment in a world where filmmakers languish in jail for the crime of expressing their art?

  • What is the fate of art, artists, political power and government accountability and social reckoning?


This issue of lack of a global standard for freedom of expression in film hits home for me because I’ve had the privilege of participating in discussions on that issue as a result of Mr. Shezanne Cassim.


Here is his story in the video below:

[1] Robert Raben is the founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying and consulting firm The Raben Group, and was Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice under former President Bill Clinton. He is widely recognized for his work in promoting diversity and freedom of speech.

[2] German Mendez is CEO of Shaman Entertainment, Mexico City, and the award-winning producer of several films.

[3] Erik Huey is Senior Vice President of the Entertainment Software Association and member of the Surreal McCoys.

[4] Leonard Farlinger is a principal with Toronto-based New Real Films. Jennifer Jonas, his better half, is also a principal. She won the 2013 CMPA/TIFF Producer of the Year award.


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The American Bar Association Section of International sponsored this event with the intention of presenting US, Mexican, and Canadian standpoints on the TPP and the impact of its passage on NAFTA. What followed was a thoughtful and informative discussion, and although the topic is highly complex, I thought I'd share some highlights with you.


Ms. Sierra explained some of the political context surrounding the TPP, including that the US has historically been pro-trade, and this is the first time since 1992 that trade has been a significant issue in presidential election year politics. US FTAs are modeled after NAFTA. The agreement eliminates a significant number of tariffs that would be beneficial to US businesses, but there are dissenting voices. Some of the concerns include employment issues, the manipulation of currencies by various countries, and opposition in specific industries such as auto, segments of agriculture and pharmaceuticals and biologics whose concerns were not addressed in the agreement. For example, intellectual property protection for biologics is not included in the agreement.


Mr. Lopez pointed out the benefits of NAFTA--growth in trade between Mexico and the US, especially--and explained that the TPP is intended to expand upon this growth, with attention to subjects that were treated less comprehensively in NAFTA. Another goal of TPP, in Mr. Lopez' view, is to strengthen Mexico's ties to NAFTA and other FTA partners, allowing Mexican goods to reach new markets.


Mr. Kanargelidis noted that the TPP is not intended to replace or override NAFTA, but that the two agreements can co-exist. He pointed out US, Mexican, and Canadian businesses can operate under the clauses of whichever agreement is most favorable to them in a given transaction. For example, the "de minimis" value threshold is 10% under TPP, and only 7% under NAFTA.


An audience member posed the question of whether TPP shipments will be exempt from US Merchandise Processing Fees (MPF) like NAFTA shipments are. Mr. Guzman explained that even though TPP does away with "ad valorem" fees, US Customs might find another way to collect MPF that is compliant with the agreement. He also described the TPP's "focused value" methodology for determining goods' origin, which might be more stringent than NAFTA methods.


Opponents to the TPP often cite concerns about the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provision, which outlines the mechanism by which agreement disputes can be settled. Mr. Lopez explained that the TPP’s ISDS provisions are more transparent than those found in NAFTA.


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The TPP has been negotiated between 12 countries who together form about 40% of GDP, and 1/3 of world trade. The agreement is of an unprecedented scope, and the implications of this agreement are huge. We will soon know if it can pass during the lame-duck session before the election, which is fast approaching!


To learn more about the TPP, visit this site . The full text of the agreement can be found here .



Granville, Kevin. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership, Explained.” The New York Times. 20 August 2016. Web.

 “The Trans-Pacific Partnership.” Office of the United States Trade Representative. Executive Office of the President. 2016. Web.
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