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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

January 25th, 2011 3:49 PM

After SiCKO, Is Your Story Next for Censorship?

The Enfield, CT, public library is in the midst of a controversy about whether the town managers can or should halt the public showing of Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary film SiCKO about the U.S. healthcare system. Some folks are nearly up in virtual arms about the implications of this sort of censorship while still others are praising the effort as a way to make sure varied sides of controversial issues are offered up.

The town’s librarian faced the threat of losing funding for the library in the future if the film was screened. So far, final resolution to the debate on local government’s authority to dictate what the library does with film or other collection materials is unresolved. Librarians across Connecticut and the nation are rightly sensitive about any attempts to censor what is available for patrons for reading, listening or viewing. But in other instances – on shared computers and web browsers in libraries, for instance – some oversight and some limitations must apply to protect those who do not wish to partake of offensive content and to protect libraries from liability related to such exposure.

But does SICKO rise to the level in need of restriction? Is it really the film and its content or the filmmaker and his propensity for controversy that is stirring the tensions? And is dislike for the political leanings or issue positions of a filmmaker enough to warrant banning a public showing in a public building on public property if public officials don’t embrace Moore’s editorial positions framed in his films?

I know most people are not neutral in their views about Michael Moore. I ask nearly every audience I speak to about that subject, and I share with them that I too had reservations about what it would mean for me to allow our story to be one of the ones shared in SiCKO. But I worried for the wrong reasons, as I was not immune to the criticism of Moore’s lack of impartiality. As a small town newspaper editor, I valued trying to be as impartial as possible – and the best way to do that was to report the fact, clearly and cleanly, and allow our readers to develop their own positions.

But that’s a perfect world sort of view, because even I knew as a small paper’s editor that I had the power and control to alter public perceptions simply based on what I chose to cover or not cover, what page position stories were given and how much follow-up work would be done. I did my best, in that imperfect setting, to be fair.

The library folks in Enfield, CT, know that Michael Moore’s film work causes strong reactions – I knew it before I agreed to be filmed as on of SiCKO’s subjects. But I suspect the library staff didn’t expect the threatened censorship action, and I know I never expected that I would spend the rest of my life both shackled and blessed by simply speaking my own story in SiCKO and by my association with Academy Award winning producer/director Michael Moore.

Now, even four years later and even in some very enlightened circles, the fact that as an insured person I went bankrupt, lost my home and told my story in SiCKO, brands me in ways I must hide as if in shame lest I endure consequences not unlike those threatened in Enfield. I have the taint of financial failure and bankruptcy blended with the political and social implications of allowing the likes of Michael Moore, Eagle Scout and John Steinbeck Award recipient, to tell my story. People fear the taint will wipe off from my brow onto them or onto their projects or onto their profits. I am ashamed to say that sometimes to protect my own hide I have remained silent about SiCKO – and I have felt a little betrayed and a little dishonest in my silence at times. I will never again be an editor or reporter. The cost has been substantial.

When I try to consider why a film that simply recounted my story – my American story and a dozen or so others – could possibly be the target of any censorship, I find it offensive on so many levels that I can hardly think. First, the stories are the stories. They are real. They are horrific. But that terrible history cannot be stripped from any of us in the film. We did suffer. Some died. And some will never be whole again. No matter who tells the story or how, the facts remain. Without Michael Moore’s editorial framing in SiCKO our stories would be lost, forgotten forever – or submerged in a sea of healthcare horror stories growing exponentially in the broken healthcare system that allows thousands to die and drift into our societal archives every single month. Moore took our lives and our heartbreaks and our horror and combined it with his view of the situation and his filmmaking talent and made SiCKO.

And now, the Enfield, CT, folks find that documentary film effort too potentially dangerous or opinionated or tainted for showing in their public library? What next? Well, they are answering that by cancelling other documentary film showings at the library allegedly until they find others with varied viewpoints to offset what they feel are the biased political leanings. Good luck with that towns’ people. We are all bombarded with the status quo messaging on these topics every single day that made the films that challenge that status quo all the more necessary.

My story is your story. The details are not the same one to the other. But the dignity and honesty we owe one another is that I will not censor and discount your story as we look at how to best self-govern in this nation, and I will not allow my own to be censored. I earned these bruises and scars, and the only healing I have ever known – even momentarily – has been in the dignity of that story being told honestly and clearly on film in hopes that the telling of it can prevent others from being so tainted in the future.

This sort of censorship is so insidious that I find it hard to believe it’s 2011 in America. But, wait, it’s 2011 in America. And if we allow this in Enfield, then we are marching headlong into the police state in which my story and yours are sanitized so as not to offend and not to up end the powers that be.

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