There is a documentary currently working the film festival circuit that includes scenes depicting sex, graphic violence and prolific profanity. But here’s the catch: The film is an investigation into the rights and responsibilities of filmmakers to include or censor these exact images.
Cleanflix premiered at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and has since been featured at almost 15 other film festivals, including one in Salt Lake. Creators Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi, both locals who attended college in Utah Valley, told the story of the business of censorship incredibly well, presenting both sides of the debate without bias or even narration.
The film focuses on CleanFlicks, a business that opened ten years ago in Utah Valley. Described by its founder, Ray Lines, as a “film sanitizing service that edits Hollywood films of … sex, nudity, profanity and gory violence,” CleanFlicks has since become a magnet for controversy and an enterprising demagogue in the debate of morality-based for-profit censorship against artistic license.
The film begins with the words that are often attributed as the origination of the LDS rule of not watching R-rated films, spoken by Ezra Taft Benson in 1986: “ ‘Forsake your sins and go no more after the lusts of your eyes.’ In our day, what does that expression mean? Movies, television programs and video recordings that are both suggestive and lewd. For the mind through which this filth passes is never the same afterward.” Benson gets obviously emotional in the clip, showing that for many, this is an emotional and important discussion.
The irony of this film is that by choosing to include violence, nudity and profanity, James and Ligairi have intentionally alienated a large part of their audience – people who were interested in sanitized movies in the first place. Though much of this film explores Mormon ideas about culture, censorship and the effects of media, Mormons are disallowed by prophetic instruction to watch it. These very people that will not watch the movie for reasons of morality are those who most need to hear what Cleanflix says about the implications of trading money for doctored artwork.
For non-Mormons, those interested in the implications of censorship and anyone who loves a local film, Cleanflix is a gem of a documentary. The story, running at 85 minutes, is well-shot and well-told. Though the filmmakers included a bit too many montage sequences between scenes, this propensity did not damage the arc of the plot.
Lines started CleanFlicks in 2000, when customer demand for edited blockbusters like Titanic and The Matrix was high. He got great feedback from customers and the business quickly expanded; eventually, CleanFlicks owned ten brick-and-mortar stores and supplied 60-70 dealers, as well as a flourishing online store. Stores mimicking CleanFlicks’ business plan, such as CleanFilms, ClearPlay and Movie Mask, were also successful.
With success came criticism from Hollywood.
“To alter these [movies] and then put them out with our names still on the product is not only fraud, it’s artistic rape,” Curtis Hanson, director of L.A. Confidential, said in the film.
Cleanflix covers the drawn-out demise of the enterprise in a thought-provoking way, giving clear explanation of the lawsuits, embezzlement and child pornography scandals that brought the business of censorship down.
Though commentary on the moral implications of this business was left out of the first third of the film, it soon becomes an analysis of this debate. Opinions about why CleanFlicks was so popular are brought in gently, the first being said in an interview with an unnamed BYU student.
When the student was asked why people in Utah Valley don’t watch R-rated films, he replied “Because they’re told not to, and they do what they’re told.”
This snowballs into a criticism of the tendency of faithful Mormons to not question the predominant moral standards.
Richard Dutcher, a director who began his career focused on Mormon films, said in the documentary, “The community itself does not ask questions. The community itself does not explore. The community itself is not a brave community. … They have the answers. … These are not people who are looking for more information or looking for more answers.”
Dutcher’s film States of Grace did not gain much popularity in Mormon viewers, and he attributes this to the idea that Mormons are not interested in self-examination or critical exploration of their own doctrine and history.
UVU communications professor Phil Gordon was interviewed in the documentary. He gives some thrilling, must-see rhetoric on the subject. “[Mormon] theory of media effects is simplistic and wrong. And dangerous, because it cultivates a tolerance for censorship and it gets us thinking in wrong-headed shameful ways about sexuality.”
Those who loved Cleanflix are also represented in the film, but they are not shown as scholars like those interviewed on the other side of the debate. Most of the argument for edited movies are given by the founders and employees of Cleanflix or unnamed street interviewees.
To get a clearer idea of why people are opposed to Hollywood’s distaste for film-editing services, The V interviewed Luke Hickman, movie critic and vice president of the Utah Film Critics Association.
“I have never once believed that this is fully an issue of artistic integrity vs. morality-based censorship,’” Hickman said, quoting the question presented to him. “To me, it is all about Hollywood getting angry at someone outside of Hollywood for capitalizing on the film industry. … Hollywood doesn’t want people making money if they aren’t going to play by ‘their’ rules.
“I don’t see a problem with editing a film for moral content if the studio is not willing to release those copies for distribution,” Hickman continued. “The studios edit that same content for in-flight movies and television viewing, so why not make those versions available to the public who do not wish to see or hear that material?”
Cleanflix’s release date is yet to be determined. For updates on when you can purchase the film, check future issues of The V or head to www.CleanflixTheMovie.com