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From ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to ‘Sister Act’: Why some films get preserved for eternity and others don’t

Every year, the United States National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) gathers to select up to 25 films which will then be preserved in the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry (NFR), supposedly for eternity, or at least until they build a fancier library. The two primary requirements for eligibility are: the films must have notable cultural, historic or aesthetic significance and they must be at least ten years old.

There are currently 825 films within the registry. Of course, some of the picks make complete and utter sense—take Star Wars, Back to the Future or A League of Their Own for example, they’re all timeless classics. On the other hand, there are some films that have wiggled their way into this sacred time capsule that are not only incredibly questionable but also regarded by some as shockingly controversial.

1. Boys Don't Cry

Boys Don’t Cry is a 1999 film which depicts the life—and death—of Brandon Teena (born Teena Brandon), a young transgender man navigating society in rural Nebraska. Much of the plot is based on Teena’s real life—who died in 1993—and his romantic relationship with his girlfriend, Lana Tisdel.

While the divisive biographical film holds significance due to inclusion of a trans male character (portrayed by Hilary Swank), the film has also been highly criticised for the extreme and traumatic depiction of gang rape, murder and transphobia.

After the film was chosen to be preserved in the National Film Registry in 2019, The New York Times evaluated the decision, considering both the transformative ways in which the film provided crucial representation of trans men—a move that was celebrated by many LGBTQIA+ communities—but also how the brutal presentation of dehumanising violence upon the character was (and still is) incredibly painful and traumatic for many trans individuals to witness.

There is also the issue of Teena being played by Swank, a cis woman. Actor and trans man JJ Hawkins told the publication, “Of course it’s a step in the right direction—one single story about us—but also, she played a boy and she won best actress. That was the first time I realised that people who see me, see me as a girl dressed up as a boy because when they’re watching Boys Don’t Cry, they’re watching a girl dressed up as a boy.”

Other cis actors and actresses such as Jared Leto (for his role as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club) have faced similar criticism.

It should be highlighted that there have since been a number of films and documentaries produced that reflect the positive elements of the trans experience. It’s therefore only fair that revolutionary documentaries such as Sam Feder’s Disclosure—a 2020 film that directly discusses how trans individuals have been depicted in media—be considered for preservation in the future.

2. The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation is one of—if not the—most offensive and controversial films that has been preserved as a part of this national scheme. The 1915 American silent epic drama film depicts the relationship of two families during the Civil War.

The film is considered culturally significant due to its use of innovative cinematic techniques such as close-ups, long-shots and fadeouts, all film elements that had not been seen until that point.

Regardless of this, as reinforced by the BBC in a 2015 review, it remains undoubtedly the most racist film ever made. Ellen Scott, author of Cinema Civil Rights, told the publication, “This film actually depicts lynching as a positive thing. The politics of the film was essentially to say certain black people are worthy of being lynched.”

While academics and activists alike have disputed the cultural significance of The Birth of a Nation, one musician has his own take. In 2017, DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) spoke to The Atlantic about his multimedia soundscape and re-imagining of the 1915 silent film, aptly titled Rebirth of a Nation.

To create his live experience, Miller “remix[ed] the visuals, manipulating the original film, and adding snippets of touched-up or contemporary video. [He] composed an original score for Rebirth of a Nation to be performed live by two violins, viola, and cello, motifs that he samples and loops with beats to create a sonic soundscape.”

“These things are all heartbreakingly, eerily, part of the contemporary landscape,” Miller concluded. Echoing the musician’s statement, The Atlantic noted, “Miller’s Rebirth of a Nation is in the simplest sense an effort to highlight how its skewed imagery still persists a century later.”

3. A Clockwork Orange

Another undeniably controversial pick for the NFR is the 1971 feature film, A Clockwork Orange based off of the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel of the same name. The plot of this film is disturbing to say the least, with gang leader Alex DeLarge commiting a series of horrific crimes including battery, rape and murder and being subsequently jailed and subject to experimental therapy aimed at curbing his appetite for violence.

Screen Rant considered the dystopian flick earlier in 2022 and found that the most disturbing aspect of the film was the fact that not only are the protagonist’s actions morally repugnant, but to make matters worse, every supposed ‘hero’ character eventually ditches morality themselves, favouring what the book refers to as “ultraviolence.”

While some may suggest that extreme violence exists within a multitude of media presently, and therefore shouldn’t be the defining feature in deciding a film’s significance, I’d argue that it’s the nature of the violence depicted on screen that marks this film as almost unwatchable. And if you are unsure as to whether or not to give A Clockwork Orange a try, maybe consider the fact that Stanley Kubrick himself—the film’s director—recommended it be banned from British cinemas.

Let's make some changes

While I can’t imagine it’ll make any difference, when it comes to which blockbusters should be kept safe and sound for all of eternity, I have two suggestions of my own.

1. But I'm a Cheerleader

Those of us within the inner sanctum of the But I’m a Cheerleader fandom know and appreciate the sheer impact this film had for queer youth across the globe. As iconically put by director Jamie Babbit, “I wanted to make a gay Clueless.”

She did not disappoint. Spearheaded by powerhouses such as Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall and Drag Race creator himself RuPaul, But I’m a Cheerleader depicts a group of teenage LGBTQIA+ kids who are sent to conversion therapy.

Chaos ensues and the audience are gifted a hopelessly wholesome lesbian love story between Lyonne’s character Megan and DuVaull’s, Graham—all set to the backdrop of bubblegum pink walls, luminescent latex marigold gloves and angsty 90s female pop songs.

On the 20th anniversary of But I’m a Cheerleader, Babbit spoke with Variety, explaining her thoughts on the movie’s impact, both at the time of filming and two decades later. “Honestly at the time, there really hadn’t been lesbian comedy. And I think the community was so devastated by AIDS that there wasn’t a lot of comedies going on in gay cinema.”

“I also made the film when I was in my 20s, and I also was part of the community and felt like there was room to laugh at things. I wanted to skewer not only my community, but also just the absurdity of gay conversion. I also wanted to tell a romantic story and be revolutionary where the lesbians actually end up in love and alive at the end of the movie, which had not really been told at the time,” the director continued.

Commenting on recent societal shifts in relation to gender and the film, Babbit stated: “It’s funny, because at the time, the whole idea of gender constructs in the binary was all very new. It’s ridiculous to say that just because you become more feminine means you’re going to be less gay. I always wanted to tell a movie about a girl who really embraces her lesbianism, but she doesn’t ride off on a motorcycle in the end.”

2. Sister Act

Whoopi Goldberg, an unconventional convent choir and a bunch of surprisingly catchy gospel songs—what more could you ask for? While Rotten Tomatoes may be my usual go to site for checking a film’s rating, it sorely missed the mark by awarding Sister Act a measly 74 per cent.

Not only did this whopper of a film solidify Goldberg as an actress with built-in comedic timing, it helped catapult a woman of colour to the forefront of the industry. While Goldberg had already seen commercial success for her roles in The Colour Purple and Ghost (which secured her a Golden Globe and Oscar respectively), Sister Act was the cherry on top for establishing the actress as a tour de force within the Hollywood sphere. Oh, and it was so good that a sequel and musical adaptation quickly followed suit.

Reminiscing on the franchise, Goldberg told Entertainment Weekly, “I think Disney was kind of shocked that the movie blew up and did as well as it did, and they were like, ‘Okay, we’re going to do another one.’ For me, I feel like it was great, but it wasn’t as spectacular as it might have been. But then again, I wouldn’t have gotten to play with all those wonderful actors.”

Commenting on the success of the stage musical, Goldberg added, “The world domination of Sister Act continues! It’s in almost every country in the world, all of the Mary Clarences and Delorises are little black girls, and hysteria ensues. What’s better than that?”

With Sister Act 3 currently in production, the NFPB might need to make room for three more additions.

Satanic rituals, sexual abuse and beheadings: Introducing the Hampstead hoax conspiracy theory

Hampstead, a leafy and quiet corner of North London boasting artisan coffee shops, a luscious grassy heath and a plethora of affluent families wearing matching Burberry coats. While some may know the residential area solely for its bursting intellectual, artistic, musical and literary affiliates, others may be privy to the neighbourhood’s darkest secret—a harrowing and terrifying conspiracy theory that centred around a Satan-worshipping paedophile ring.

The summer of 2014

Let’s first rewind back to the summer of 2014 when a young boy, 9, and girl, 7, walked into a police station and informed authorities that their father, Ricky Dearman, was the head of a prolific satanic paedophile ring—operating directly out of the children’s primary school and church.

Voice recordings from the event reveal the two children providing horrifically detailed accounts of sexual abuse, perpetrated by not only their father, but a number of their father’s friends and members of the community. They even provided a list of 175 names, containing home addresses and telephone numbers.

In one clip, the nine-year-old boy can be heard saying, “In my classroom, they’ve got this little door at the back to this tiny room. It’s stuffed with sweets, prizes, especially to pay the children to do sex to them.”

He then goes on to describe a number of the satanic rituals his father had forced him to participate in: “We’ve got our own church—we kill babies, we drain their blood, we eat them. Our dad, he forces us to do it, we’re not strong enough to cut the baby’s head off, he has us hold the knife and he puts his hand at the top of our hand and he helps us to cut the baby’s head off. He’s teaching us so that when we’re older, we can do it to our own children.”

Scotland Yard investigated the children’s claims, including searching the local church and primary school they were referring to—the supposed sites of these satanic rituals. Upon finding no evidence, the two kids were brought back in for questioning and began to recant their story, bringing the truth to light.

While these incredibly young children were definitely experiencing abuse, it was at the hands of a different monster altogether. It was revealed that their mother, Ella Draper, and her partner Abraham Christie had coerced the poor souls into making these false allegations using methods of emotional and physical abuse, including water-boarding and striking them with metal spoons.

Over the span of four years, Draper and a team of co-conspirators spun an intricate web of deceit that perforated online forums and swept through Hampstead’s once undisturbed mini oasis. Countless different parents within the community faced allegations of abuse, people were harassed and a ruthless conspiracy theory—puppeteered by a fairly small group of individuals—began to grow out of control. But more on that later.

Hoaxed

It might surprise you to know that this shocking conspiracy theory has remained relatively dormant in the public eye since it unravelled just over eight years ago. This, however, is no longer the case. On 22 September 2022, Tortoise Media released the first episode of Hoaxed, a true-crime investigative podcast with one sole purpose—to explore one of the “most serious British conspiracy theories in decades.”

Speaking to The Guardian about the hoax, investigative reporter and brains behind Tortoise’s other hit podcast Sweet Bobby, Alexi Mostrous, explained: “This was a very human example of how something online had been allowed to grow out of control and have real-world effects. It’s interesting to see how the digital world has jumped ahead of our institutions and the protections they offer citizens.”

As we follow Mostrous through his investigation, we learn a number of crucial things, most notably that with such a complex case, the 15 second rewind button is a life-saver. We also learn a lot about the culture of conspiracy theorists and how they operate.

The Hampstead hoax played directly into people’s greatest fears: devil-worshipping, violence and sexual abuse perpetrated against children. Once the fuse had been lit, it was inevitable that the embers of fear would spread, and grow into a fire that would rage out of control—regardless of the validity of the theory.

Throughout the course of the series, Mostrous speaks to a number of individuals from both sides of the conspiracy—those encouraging the story and those trying to kill it. He takes listeners on a journey, introducing us to key players such as Sabine Mcneil, a 76-year-old conspiracy extremist who launched a PR campaign for Draper and orchestrated an online movement of hate towards alleged predators in the area.

We also meet a Canadian woman and former social worker named Karen, who, as episode three of the podcast suggests, can only be described as a conspiracy theory butt-kicking avenger.

Karen was undoubtedly the leader in the crusade for truth—actual truth. Amid the Hampstead hoax fiasco, she challenged deception and, as reported by Mostrous, was an integral player in debunking a number of myths surrounding the deception and feeding the police with important information about a number of the conspirators. 

Furthermore, in 2018, Karen, along with a number of the parents named in Draper’s original list of alleged predators, helped to secure a criminal conviction against Mcneil for four counts of stalking and six counts of breaching a restraining order.

The psychology behind conspiracy theorists

In order to learn more about the individuals who succumb to conspiracy theories such as the Hampstead hoax, SCREENSHOT recently spoke with Professor Karen Douglas from the University of Kent who specialises in the consequences of conspiracy theories. Douglas explained how “people are attracted to [them] because one (or more) important psychological needs are not currently being satisfied.”

She broke these needs down into three categories: “The first of these needs are epistemic, related to the need to know the truth and have clarity and certainty. The other needs are existential, which are related to the need to feel safe and to have some control over things that are happening, and social, which are related to the need to maintain a positive view of the self and the groups that we belong to. People might be drawn to conspiracy theories in an attempt to satisfy these needs.”

She continued, “For example, they are trying to make sense of a lot of (sometimes confusing) information, or they are trying to cope with difficult circumstances. In times of crisis and unrest, these needs are likely to be further frustrated, which is one explanation for why conspiracy theories might be more visible in recent years (e.g. COVID-19 pandemic, US election).”

As Professor Douglas illustrated with her analysis, belief in conspiracy theories almost always spills into the real world.

Real world consequences

In the case of the Hampstead hoax, one netizen took his mounting online rage and channelled it into palpable physical harassment. US blogger Rupert Quaintance flew to Hampstead in 2015 and hinted to his followers that he was stood outside the primary school where supposed sexual assault had occurred, primed with a knife that he planned to use to “save the kids.”

Having listened to the podcast myself and heard many personal testimonies from a number of families who were frightful for their children’s safety during this time, I must emphasise the sheer gravity of the situation these individuals faced. Quaintance is merely one dark spot among a much larger frightening landscape.

Following the initial conspiracy theory, a number of parents in the Hampstead community were contacted by paedophiles asking to get in contact with their young children for sex. Families were sent death threats forcing many to vacate their homes so as to escape the perpetual fear that their young kids were in danger.

Tortoise Media is yet to release the final episode of Hoaxed, however, for those of you who may be interested to know how this tale unfolds, I would highly recommend listening to this podcast. If anything, so that you can understand the extent to which these secrets and lies affected so many people.

While many publications have applauded Mostrous and his team for their thorough investigation, some, such as the New Statesman, have stated that the podcast is verging on the salacious—accusing Tortoise Media of profiting off of the conspiracy theory that tormented so many families.

It may be my naivety or fascination with detective work, but I don’t believe this to be the case. Mostrous goes out of his way in each episode to shine light upon the victims of the Hampstead hoax—amplifying their stories rather than stifling them.

And yes, one could argue that the podcast aims to draw listeners in by playing into the most horrifying aspects of this story. However, I’d contend that every aspect of this tale is horrifying and sugar-coating the allegations and specific details of the case would only disregard or belittle the life-changing impact this conspiracy had on its victims.

The Hampstead hoax was in many ways the blueprint for a series of conspiracy theories that followed. We’ve seen first hand how these online communities can quite literally take up arms and fight for the ‘truth’ they believe in. You only have to look at groups such as QAnon and the events of 6 January 2021 to appreciate the real-life implications of these movements.

The veil between online and offline has quite literally been shredded—learning more about the psychology behind conspiracy theories should help prepare us for what’s to come, satanic worship and all.