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The real horror in ‘Birdbox’

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By: BRENDAN MCDANIEL

Columnist

I have nothing against Netflix. The convenience of services like the streaming giant are the main reason I no longer have cable TV, and I almost always have Netflix on somewhere in my home.  I say this because I want it to be known that I have no grudge against Netflix when I say, “Could you maybe not use footage of horrific real-life tragedies in your thriller movies?”

For the unaware, Netflix’s most recent original film “Bird Box” contained a sequence in which a number of video clips were played on a TV to represent news of the end of the film’s fictional world. However, one of those clips happened to be of a Canadian train derailment, one which killed 47 people and decimated the downtown area of Lac-Megantic, Quebec in early July 2013. The depiction of the clip as a series of supposedly fictional events was considered to be highly disrespectful to the survivors and their families, who made calls for Netflix to remove the clip of Lac-Megantic from the film entirely. Netflix instead issued an apology, and claimed that they had no idea the clip was from the disaster.

Movies using stock footage isn’t exactly new; as far as I can tell, the recycling of existing footage has been commonplace since “Citizen Kane” in 1941. Making a movie takes a lot of money and purchasing a few clips to save on the special effects budget is far from what I would call ethically compromising.

As fun as it might be, blowing up actual vehicles and setting fire to sets to have realistic-looking action scenes every time the script calls for it simply isn’t practical. As far as I’m concerned, Netflix can recycle as many stock explosion clips as they please, so long as the rest of the movie’s good. But the Lac-Megantic rail disaster wasn’t just some stock fire clip; it was a real, horrifying disaster in which a city full of people lost their lives and livelihoods. The fire depicted in “Bird Box,” though one of several disasters in the sequence, in reality lasted for two days before firefighters could put it out, and resulted in the demolishing of 36 buildings in the area.  Haphazardly tossing it into a film the way Netflix did was ultimately rather insensitive to the people involved in the tragedy.

But here’s the greater question: Should Netflix have removed the scene from “Bird Box,” as the mayor of Lac-Megantic had requested? In this instance, I would say yes. The Lac-Megantic tragedy is very recent, all things considered. Although certain events in the past two or three years have made it feel like ages, 2013 wasn’t really that long ago. The families of the 47 who died are likely still very aware of their absence, and having the incident that took their loved ones away for good trivialized in this way is completely unacceptable. Besides, it isn’t as if the clip isn’t easily replaceable; in fact, Netflix did decide to replace that very clip when it appeared in their show “Travelers.” There is an abundance of disaster footage that isn’t connected to a recent tragedy, even on Pond5, where Netflix bought the clip from. I know that there is an abundance, because I looked. On Pond5, the search term “disaster” returns 94,223 results. I would like to think that perhaps one of the nearly hundred-thousand clips would make a suitable replacement for the film’s disaster slideshow. Given that the scene in question is intended primarily to deliver the information that the film’s world is in mass hysteria, I highly doubt that the Lac-Megantic clip specifically was adding much to the film that another could not.  Netflix does seem to have recognized their mistake, even engaging in talks with the mayor of Lac-Megantic to discuss the incident. Netflix has promised to do better going forwards. Let’s hope they do so.

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