Harvey Keitel: Filmmakers Have Obligation to Show Violence in an “Authentic Way”

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Harvey Keitel

The actor believes the fake violence in video games is dangerous to America’s youth.

Harvey Keitel made a weekend jump over to Switzerland from Paris this past weekend to pick up a lifetime achievement at the Locarno Film Festival, which celebrates global independent cinema. The actor is currently shooting Madame, the new English-language film from director Amanda Sthers.

Keitel received the award Saturday night from his longtime friend and Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara on the Piazza Grande in front of 8,000 fans.

The actor has long been celebrated by the festival, for both his ability to bring the indie film scenes of New York and Los Angeles to life as well as for having worked with Italy's top directors, from Ettore Scola to Paolo Sorrentino. 

The next day, Keitel spoke with festgoers about his life and career. Guests were eager to find out what drew him to play so many iconic violent roles throughout his career, from the titular bad lieutenant in the Ferrara film to Reservoir Dogs' Mr. White.

“Violence is a real thing and true violence is horrible and hurtful and destructive. Any art discipline that shows violence for commercial reasons is wrong,” Keitel replied thoughtfully. “But we have to know violence, we have to know danger, because it exists.

“I have a 12-year-old son in the world and he has to learn about violence. Kids are playing all these video games now and there is violence that is very not authentic, and I think dangerous,” he said. “And I keep trying to help him to understand that when you get hit in the face or stabbed or shot, it hurts. You don’t just get back up in the video game and continue to fight. So we have an obligation to display violence in an authentic way as part of the nature of things, and our choice to use it or not is something else. That’s a moral thing.”

After pausing for the audience, Keitel continued: “The reason I’m in storytelling is because a lot of violent things have happened in my life, physically and in an abstract sense. And to deal with all these issues of what hurts us, what harms us, and what is wonderful about life, that’s our job to give back in the stories that we tell. The cinema or dance that exploits violence is to be shunned. We all know when that happens. But we also all know the authentic people who are trying to show us life as it is so we can relate to things as they are.”

Keitel also was asked about his opinion on Donald Trump, and he responded cagily, but underscored his faith in the American people: "It’s a very vital time and Americans are very attuned to what’s going on and Americans are really listening to what’s going on, and are very able to protect our country to do the right thing. And we’re all working toward that direction, to do what’s right.”

The festival screened Wayne Wang’s Smoke on Sunday, starring Keitel and written by Paul Auster. The film won Locarno's audience award when it first screened in 1995, and an audience member asked Keitel why he thought it earned the honor. “When I read that screenplay it was very thick. I read it and it was maybe the longest screenplay I’d ever read,” he replied. “And I was getting very bored reading it. And I was reading it thinking, ‘What the hell is this about? I have no idea.’ And finally I got to the end of it and thought ‘Jesus, I’m so bored. But there’s so much writing this writer did. There must be something about it that I don’t perceive, and I thought, I better do it. And so I did it and in the doing of it I found out there was something special about it.”

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