Canadians are furious over Netflix's use of real-life footage of a deadly oil-train disaster in two of the company's recent science fiction productions. The 2013 accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, involved an American-owned oil tanker train and left 47 people dead. It incinerated the community's historic downtown — video images of towering pillars of smoke and fire went viral on Youtube.
This winter, those images began appearing again on Canadian TV screens, not in newscasts or documentaries, but in sci-fi stories, including the hit alien invasion film Bird Box with Sandra Bullock. In the Bullock film, the Lac-Megantic images are part of a fake newscast that purports to show violent turmoil in Europe.
The clip appears briefly again in Travelers, a joint U.S.-Canadian sci-fi series about time-travelers, repurposed in a fake newscast describing a nuclear attack on London.
Lac-Megantic Mayor Julie Morin declined to speak with NPR, but provided a statement calling use of the video unethical.
"Those images are the representation of our city's worst day in history, a day from which we are still working hard to recover," Morin wrote. She called for the film industry to reconsider the use of footage taken from "real tragic human events" for fictional entertainment.
Canada's Parliament agrees. In late January, MP Pierre Mantel spoke on the floor of the House of Commons, denouncing Netflix and introducing a nonbinding resolution calling for the company to "compensate local residents and remove the video clip from the films." The proposal was approved unanimously and drew a round of applause in the chamber.
Some commentators in Canada have pointed out that stock footage of real disasters has been used by Hollywood in entertainment films for years. In an open letter addressed to the community of Lac-Megantic, Netflix executives wrote that they "regret any pain" their productions caused, but they haven't offered compensation.
The stock film distribution company that sold the video clip also apologized and says it's reviewing its policy for how images can be repurposed by clients in the film industry. "It has recently come to our attention that our footage depicting the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster was taken out of context," said the firm Pond5 in a statement.
"We deeply regret that this happened and sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended, especially the victims and their families," the company added.
Producers of the Travelers sci-fi series now say the fiery images will be clipped out and replaced as soon as possible. Netflix is refusing to remove the footage from the film Bird Box.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's some anger in Canada after Netflix used clips of a real-life rail disaster in Quebec in two of the network's science fiction films. Netflix has apologized but says it will not remove the footage from the hit alien invasion movie "Bird Box." North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: In 2013, an American-owned oil train crashed in the tiny Canadian hamlet of Lac-Megantic. Locals captured part of the disaster on video that went viral.
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MANN: The village's downtown was incinerated. Forty-seven people died. Then, a few weeks ago, Canadians started seeing that same footage with roiling clouds of orange fire and smoke again on their TV screens - not on newscasts or in documentaries, but in sci-fi stories.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRD BOX")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) U.S. authorities are advising the public to remain calm.
SANDRA BULLOCK: (As Malorie) Oh, it's in Russia, so...
SARAH PAULSON: (As Jessica) Well, try telling that to the soccer moms fighting...
MANN: That's from the hit movie "Bird Box," with Sandra Bullock, on Netflix. The footage appears in a fake newscast. It was used a second time for the Netflix sci-fi series "Travelers."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRAVELERS")
ERIC MCCORMACK: (As Grant MacLaren) My consciousness was sent from the distant future.
MANN: In that series, Netflix used the Lac-Megantic footage in another fake newscast to portray a nuclear attack on London. Lac-Megantic Mayor Julie Morin declined to speak with NPR, but she issued a statement calling use of the video unethical and saying the images show her community's worst day, a day we are still working hard to recover from. Pierre Nantel is an MP who spoke on the floor of Canada's parliament, heard here through an interpreter.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PIERRE NANTEL: (Through interpreter) The House had denounced that the use of the tragedy - images from the tragedy of Lac-Megantic and require that Netflix...
MANN: Canada's parliament unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution demanding Netflix remove the video clip from their films and compensate the people of Lac-Megantic. But some commentators in Canada have pointed out that stock footage of real disasters has been used by Hollywood in entertainment films for years. This from the Canadian version of the program "Entertainment Tonight."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT CANADA")
GRAEME O’NEIL: So you know all the footage you're getting is real. It happened somewhere. So I don't really understand the shock that, oh, people actually recognize that footage. So I don't really get that.
MANN: In an open letter, Netflix executives wrote that they regret any pain caused to the community, but they haven't offered compensation. The stock film distribution company that sold the video clip also apologized and says it's reviewing its policy for how images like these can be repurposed by clients in the film industry. Producers of the "Travelers" sci-fi series now say the fiery images will be clipped out and replaced, but Netflix is refusing to remove the footage from the film "Bird Box."
Brian Mann, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.