The uncomfortable truth behind Leica’s film that was banned in China

In the middle of last month, Leica released a nearly-5-minute online film called The Hunt. The film follows photojournalists who are trying to tell their stories against all odds.

The main narrative is around one photojournalist, purportedly modelled on Stuart Franklin of Magnum Photos, one of the 5 photographers who captured the infamous ‘Tank Man’ photo from the Tiananmen Square protests on June 3, 1989 (the incident turns 30 next month!).

The script of the film follows the events of the day more or less as it happened.

Even if only the last shot of the film shows the Tank Man, in the lens of the camera used by the photographer, there are specific references to China and 1989 earlier. (There is a different point about Leica not being the camera that captured that famous Tank Man photo).

Reaction from China was swift and sweeping. After the video went viral in China, the Chinese Government was quick to scrub all copies of the video from being seen by Chinese people, and also banned the word ‘Leica’ on Chinese social media! This went on for a few days after which things went back to normal, despite the video not being available at all.

Leica is Huawei’s camera partner and so Leica was forced to distance itself from the film, even calling the video not officially sought by Leica, despite the fact that the agency, F/Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi produced the video officially for Leica Brazil, as part of their working relationship since 2012!

This is a PR nightmare for any brand. A similar mess erupted during the Doklam standoff in India when Chinese brands, and Chinese mobile phone brands, in particular, were under fire in India, from a select set of people online. They wanted a ban on Chinese brands. Ironically, they typed the protest message on social media most probably using a China-made phone or laptop.

The larger problem is that even in a truly global media landscape, there are country-sensitive topics that become taboo inside one country, but seem perfectly ok outside it. The issue of using Hindu God pictures in assorted home furnishing items (like doormats, chappals etc.) causes huge furore in India (understandably), but only those brands that have a huge interest in India (like Amazon) act on such furore. If they don’t have an India interest, they could weather it out, but in a tightly interconnected world, related entities can be held hostage, like how the Huawei connection was used to bring Leica to disassociate itself from the film.

Many of the social media platforms bend over backwards to operate in China, and companies like Google have been frequently criticized for bowing to the Chinese Government’s censorship diktats. Unfortunately, or pragmatically, business and money trumps morals and ethics. So what is justified in one country becomes offensive in another, depending on that country’s local context. Whether the brand’s marketing and communications team need to see it from the perspective of that country’s people, or that country’s Government, it has become a business imperative to do so. Else, they lose the opportunity to do business in that country!

I’m yet to see a company or brand that stands by its ethics and vision, refuses to tow a local Government/people’s line, and risk losing that business opportunity. It’s most definitely not possible in countries like India and China where the market opportunity is too big to give up.

This business-first stand is diametrically at odds with the increasing social consciousness demonstrated and expected out of companies and brands! The same employees who protested their companies to stop working with ICE in US, are a bit more fluid about the same brands’ work in China!