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In an era when freedom of speech and expression faces challenges many Americans never thought they’d have to defend against, the honorees at PEN America’s LitFest Gala continued to make their voices heard loud and clear.
Taking place in the troubling shadow of the recent murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who, along with other reporters who have been killed in the past year, was honored with a moment of silence at the ceremony at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel — as well as the demonization of and recent baiting calls for violence against the free press from no less than a sitting United States president, the annual celebration of free speech had a more somber tone that has been traditional, and those being feted made certain to acknowledge just how precious their right to express themselves in book, poem, screenplay and other written forms feels.
“It’s humbling,” filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), who received the organization’s Award for Screenplay Excellence, told The Hollywood Reporter. “I think as screenwriters, we have this complex that we’re not real writers. To have the work recognized by an organization like this just means the world to me. There’s a lot more freedom to be honest when I’m writing a script as opposed to when I’m directing on set. On set, all the elements are very finite. When I sit down to write a script, I can be anything I want.”
The filmmaker also acknowledged how characters dealing with, addressing and challenging societal taboos has been a theme of his own work.
“I’m realizing how privileged I’ve been to adapt the work of [Moonlight original playwright and co-screenwriter] Tarell McCraney, adapt the work of [If Beale Street Could Talk author] James Baldwin, and now the work of [The Underground Railroad novelist] Colson Whitehead,” Jenkins said. “These people who I think have done the things that you’re talking about — I can’t take credit for it, because I’m adapting other people’s material.”
Sharp Objects screenwriter Marti Noxon was also feted with the Award for Teleplay Excellence for her work on the HBO series (along with original author Gillian Flynn, who was unable to attend), and she too took PEN America’s approval quite seriously.
“It particularly means a lot to me because they stand for freedom of expression and I feel like a lot of the work I’ve done over the last few years I couldn’t have even had on television before this,” Noxon — whose recent work has also included Dietland, Girlfriends Guide to Divorce and UnREAL,” told THR.
“Women are now having the freedom to express ourselves in ways that before were really considered kind of unacceptable. A character like Camille [played by Amy Adams] would not have been considered likable enough to put on TV, so I do feel like we really are finding a whole new arena and dimension to female characters that we just didn’t have that access to. So it felt like a recognition of that.”
Noxon kicked off her career breaking long-standing TV gender norms of series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and today is adjusting to the sense of having all handcuffs regarding female-driven storytelling unlocked.
“Things are changing so quickly,” she says. “Lisa Edelstein is introducing me tonight, and when we were pitching Girlfriends Guide to Divorce five or six years ago, that was considered really radical to use the word ‘divorce’ and to suggest that women liked it, you know? And now that kind of feels old-fashioned. So some of it is feeling like how do you keep a sense of urgency when everything is trying to shock and provoke? And to me it’s always about the story, it’s always about the characters. But absolutely I feel like the things that I have always been interested in were sitting in a pile that was like the other pile and suddenly now it is the main pile, so it’s exciting.”
Another of the evening’s honorees, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, told THR he felt gratified to recognized with the Artistic Expression Award, which was presented to him by renowned architect Frank Gehry.
“I’m deeply honored because my father is a writer, is a poet,” said Ai, himself a longtime dissident and critic of the Chinese government. “In the year I was born, he was exiled for 20 years, so that’s why I feel deeply associated: I relate myself to the literary world, to the writers and the poets. He was a poet. I know the power of the people who as individuals use their mind, use their language, which scares all those authoritarians. This is a very, very deep honor for me. I think my father, if he were alive, he will be very proud that this happens to me.”
Ai’s sharp, public rebukes of his government frequently resulted in arrests and detainment, as well as the destruction of his art and property at the hands of the state until he was ultimately allowed to leave the country.
“During my fight, PEN America has always been a strong support,” he said. “They really give me a strong support, made a loud voice, so I deeply appreciate that. [Today] I try to use my voice for those people who never have a voice. They never have a skill to even express their deep feelings. Those people are such a big population in today’s world, and we see the situation really getting worse.”
The evening, which honored several others for their literary efforts, was hosted by My Favorite Murder podcasters Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, who told THR they were cognizant of just how crucial PEN America’s work had become in recent years. “If you’ve ever heard our podcast, we are probably some of the filthiest-mouthed people on the planet, so the idea that no one comes in and censors us, that we get to say whatever we want, it’s not illegal, we’re not gonna go to jail, is great,” said Kilgariff.
“It feels a lot more necessary,” said Hardstark. “I’m sure three years ago this gala was a blast of drunk people celebrating their freedoms, and now it feels dire. I mean, it’s always necessary, but even more so today.”
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