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Producers, Directors Discuss Hollywood's Role in War on Terror - 2001-10-25


The creative community in Hollywood is considering its role in the wake of the terrorist attacks September 11. Some leading producers and directors attended a recent forum on the role of Hollywood in the war on terrorism.

The public discussion by five top Hollywood figures took place just a week after a private meeting between White House aides and two-dozen television executives. In that closed-door session, administration aides reportedly discussed how Hollywood could help convey the U.S. message abroad.

According to participants, suggestions ranged from expanding international satellite broadcasts to creating public service films to explain recent news events, such as the anthrax scare.

This week's panel discussion at Occidental College was an open town-hall forum, where a handful of Hollywood figures grappled with similar issues.

Television producer Aaron Sorkin opened the discussion by recalling his reaction to news of the terror attacks on New York and Washington. He said, "Among the lesser casualties of September 11th are that writers and directors and actors, and for that matter singers and songwriters and painters and so on, became instantly irrelevant. And I think we all knew it right away."

Mr. Sorkin is creator and writer of the popular television series The West Wing, which deals with a fictional U.S. President in a fictional White House. In response to the terror attacks, Mr. Sorkin wrote a special episode dealing with an unspecified terrorist crisis.

The program took the form of an extended discussion between the show's regular characters and a class of visiting students. The reactions from critics to the episode were mixed.

For director Edward Zwick, entertainment is indeed relevant to everyday life because film can be used a forum to organize and interpret experiences. Mr. Zwick's 1998 film, The Siege, ironically dealt with a terror attack on New York by Arab extremists.

The film depicted a curtailment of civil liberties, as authorities placed New York under martial law and security forces rounded up Arab Americans. Denzel Washington portrayed a federal agent who was fighting a double battle, against outside terrorists and repressive forces within the government.

That film was entirely fictional, says Mr. Zwick, who says future films may yet offer some insight into the real-life terrorism that occurred in New York. He said, "I think people tend to learn what they learn as much from art as from the editorial page [of the newspaper]. And I think when you look at something that is scary or chaotic or difficult to see, there is a role, whether at the moment or as the time unfolds afterwards, to attempt to translate that in some way [into film].

For Kevin Sullivan, an African-American director whose films include the romance How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Hollywood's only mission is to tell good stories. At best, he says those stories celebrate human courage. Even in times of war, he feels filmmakers should not go beyond their role as storytellers. Mr. Sullivan said, "Our job is not to be a propaganda machine for the United States military. I would never agree to be that. I think that my job is to try to entertain people, and hopefully make them feel like there is a possibility for good in them. That is what we do, we hopefully make a cathartic experience."

Sean Daniel was the longtime head of production for Universal Pictures and is now a prolific independent producer. He thinks Hollywood has a role in projecting the best of American culture, including the values the country embraces, such as equality. "There is nothing about our culture," he said, "that keeps women indoors or that keeps them from school, and what we show in our imagery is, I think, incredibly strong representation of that. And so we do have a role in the shaping of America's message because we are really good at it."

For veteran director Sydney Pollack, whose films range from the drama Out of Africa to the comedy Tootsie, Hollywood's response to today's news events may be some years in coming. He says the best wartime films are sometimes produced in peacetime, long after the wars have ended. Mr. Pollack said, "I do not have any idea how this is going to play out, really. But I just think it would be a terrible mistake to do a torn-from-the-pages [film]. You know, rip it off the front page of the paper and let us quickly get into production with a movie about terrorism in order to show how patriotic we are, how we feel about it, would just be a terrible mistake."

The panelists agree that the events of September 11 and the U.S. response to them will generate stories of tragedy, heroism, and drama. With luck, they say, those films may help us understand the events and the issues behind them.

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