Engelke defies the law

A piece of unsolicited advice for Adrian Buckle, the pro­ducer of the play Stitching, whose ban was last week confirmed as lawful by the Constitutional Court. He should not go to the European Court of Human Rights. Instead, he should insist that Anke Engelke, the presenter at last Saturday’s European Film Awards, be prosecuted for blasphemy. That should get the politicians humming and hawing.

She uttered the offending words that, Mr Justice Zammit McKeon said, cannot be permitted even on stage
- Ranier Fsadni

For those who missed it, during a humorous summary of the film Shame, Engelke uttered the same three words that were said, in the original court sentence by Mr Justice Joseph Zammit McKeon, to be blasphemy against the state religion.

You won’t find it mentioned in the news reports. I guess the foreign press is blasé, restricting itself to reporting how Helen Mirren thanked the Academy (“the most classily blasphemous speech in five years”, according to The Guardian).

As for the Malta press, maybe it thinks some things are best left unsaid. I watched the ceremony as broadcast on the French station ARTE. I have not been able to verify if PBS managed to cut out the offending snippet but the point is that, on a Maltese stage, the words were uttered only a few days after the Constitutional Court confirmed that such language, irrespective of the reason, is against the law.

Some context: the words were uttered as part of a filmed pastiche of each of the nominated films. When it came to Shame, which features a sex addict, Engelke appeared naked, with her sexual parts blotted out, while giving a coarsely worded plot summary. Each offending word was beeped but, at one point, Engelke looked off-camera to berate the censors for beeping even inoffensive words like sister. In her (mock) protest, she uttered the offending words that, Mr Justice Zammit Mckeon said, cannot be permitted even on stage since that would constitute discrimination against anyone else prosecuted for blasphemy in a public place.

It’s possible that Engelke used those words because of lazy script-writing. It’s a tired sort of joke, one could see it coming a mile away, and the European Film Awards do suffer from Eurovision-style hammy humour.

Engelke’s record, however, suggests she was deliberately alluding to the Stitching case. Last year, she made headlines, when presenting Germany’s voting results during the Eurovision Song Festival held in Azerbaijan, by alluding to the host country’s human rights record. And, while purporting to be presenting Shame, she mimed a series of sexual actions contested in the Stitching ban. I think she believed she was doing her bit for freedom of expression.

I don’t want to tackle the Civil and Constitutional Courts’ entire arguments (just under 200 pages when combined). I want to focus only on the one specific argument about blasphemous, obscene or vulgar words being against the law, no matter the motivation of the script. There is something deeply wrong here, whether it’s the law or the judges’ interpretation of it.

Obscene language on film or stage cannot be confused with ordinary public speaking. On stage and in film one is not presenting oneself but the portrait of another persona.

An anti-Semitic hate speech on stage should not automatically break our laws if the depravity of such speech comes across in the drama.

Similarly, the kicking of the crucifix across the stage in the now nationally notorious 1990s production of The Duchess of Malfi should not constitute blasphemy or vilification of religion. On the contrary, the act depicted the state of utter pervasive corruption, which is the central theme of that play and so difficult to convey because the text depicts depths of depravity that lie beyond most actors’ individual experience.

It is not unjust to discriminate between ordinary members of the public who use obscene language and actors, because they are engaging in very different actions. There is a recognised difference between social behaviour and theatrical performance, between self-presentation and representation of character. Our law or judges should not be ill-equipped to recognise what is a widely acknowledged distinction, with millennial roots in the Western tradition.

If we do away with the distinction we deprive ourselves of a fundamental avenue of ethical exploration. Some scripts are as depraved as the language they use. Others, however, use such language with serious ethical intent. These would include classic plays of the western canon, such as several of Shakespeare’s. Are we saying the obscenities in, say, Othello, should be censored?

One final point. I obviously do not expect Engelke to be prosecuted nor do I wish her to be. Whether you agree with her or not, she was using her stage persona to make a political point, not to vilify religion.

Apart from that, our politicians clearly need to get their ideas straight. It is impossible to keep the law as it is without having it regularly baited by visiting artists. That’s the nature of the beast.

It’s impossible to be taken seriously as a centre of the creative industries while having the law we do. Can we even aim at being a proper capital of culture and avoid well-publicised international criticism of the law?

Either we change the law or else we change our ambition for and investments in the creative industries. There is no happy co-existence.

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