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Netflix Apologizes, But Refuses To Remove Controversial Disaster Footage From Bird Box

Netflix's post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box was its final hit of 2018, but now, the streamer has been hit with serious backlash over the footage featured in the flick. 

Between people climbing into burning cars and smashing their faces into glass windows, Sandra Bullock's character Malorie embarking on a heart-pounding blindfolded trip down river rapids, and a mysterious force tugging on Malorie's lifeline thread (not to mention all the moments involving the unseen creatures that cause humans to take their own lives), Bird Box featured plenty of terrifying scenes. But the sequence that has sparked the most discussion wasn't original or fictional, it was footage from a real-life tragedy — and Netflix has refused to remove it from Bird Box

It recently came to light that the film, directed by Susanne Bier, incorporated actual footage from a fiery train crash that took place in 2013. The accident happened on July 4 of that year in the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, Canada, when an unattended 74-car freight train transporting Bakken Formation crude oil rolled downward and derailed. Multiple tank cars exploded and caught fire, resulting in the deaths of 47 people. Several other individuals were reported missing at the time, and have since been presumed dead; half of Lac-Mégantic's downtown area was destroyed; and the majority of the downtown buildings that didn't collapse or catch fire in the incident were destroyed following petroleum contamination

The scene featuring footage of the Lac-Méganti disaster happens early on in Bird Box, when Malorie flicks on her television and watches the news with her sister, Jessica, played by Sarah Paulson. Images of fiery explosions and a town under attack are shown on the in-movie newscast, and Malorie and Jessica learn that people around the world are committing suicide en masse. 

Though Bird Box used only small bits of the tragedy, Lac-Mégantic residents were quick to notice that the footage was indeed from the deadly accident. 

Lac-Mégantic mayor Julie Morin told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that she and the townspeople hoped that Netflix would remove the footage, explaining that it's highly disrespectful for the streamer to utilize the clips for entertainment purposes. 

"I don't know if this is happening all the time, but we are looking for assurances from Netflix that ... they are going to remove them," said Morin. "You can be sure we are going to follow up on this, and our citizens are on our side ... We find that it's really a lack of respect, to use these images as fiction and entertainment. It's hard enough for our citizens to see these images when they are used normally and respectfully on the news. Just imagine, to have them used as fiction, as if they were invented."

Morin also noticed that another piece of entertainment on Netflix, the sci-fi series Travelers, had utilized footage from the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Upon realizing the seriousness of the situation, Carrie Mudd, the president of Peacock Alley Entertainment, which produces Travelers, came forward to apologize and explain how the company had obtained the footage. Mudd detailed that the images used were sourced through Pond5, and that there was "no intention to dishonor the tragic events of 2013."

"We sincerely apologize," said Mudd in a statement to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. "We are already working to replace the footage in the show."

Pond5 spokesperson Tina Witoshkin issued an apology to BuzzFeed News on behalf of the company, explaining that Pond5 was "recently" informed that the footage of the Lac-Mégantic was "taken out of context and used in entertainment programming" — that is, in Travelers

"We deeply regret that this happened and sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended, especially the victims and their families," wrote Witoshkin, further detailing that studios and individuals can source fictional and news footage from Pond5, including "footage of historical tragedies, military conflicts, weather events, and natural disasters that may depict sensitive events."

She continued, "We are saddened by this incident and are taking additional steps to correct the situation. We are contacting all customers who have purchased any related clips to ensure they are aware of the sensitive nature of this footage. Additionally, we're proactively re-auditing content of this nature, while continuing to improve our guidance for usage."

It didn't take long for the people of Quebec to stand up against Netflix for utilizing the footage in Bird Box either.

Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy penned a letter to Netflix's chief executive officer Reed Hastings, slamming the company for its "lack of compassion, empathy, and solidarity." She doubled down on the request for Netflix to remove from Bird Box any sequences in which video or images of the Lac-Mégantic disaster were featured. 

"As many Quebecers, our government has trouble understanding how a global giant like Netflix could consider it fine to use such images in this context. From a moral and ethical perspective, that's simply inadmissible," wrote Roy (via Bloomberg). "If this has touched one of your loved ones, Mr. Hastings, how would you have reacted when learning a multinational company was using images carrying heavy and dark memories and only for its own profit?"

She continued (via CTV News Montreal), "The deep scars left by the derailment of an oil train on the night of July 6th, 2013 are still present in the landscape of [Lac-Mégantic], a community of just 6,000 people. These archives should never been intended for use other than for information or documentary purposes. Under no circumstances should we tolerate the use of human tragedy of any kind for entertainment." 

Netflix's public policy director Corie Wright has since responded to Roy's letter, explaining that the video and images won't be removed from Bird Box

"The use of stock footage is a widespread and long-standing practice in the film and television industry," Wright said in a letter (via Bloomberg). "As a result, stock images are commonly used within content on Netflix and on other services. This widespread use prevents us from making the changes you request on finished content ... Going forward, we (and the broader industry) can do better."

A spokesperson for Netflix also came forward to address the situation, apologize for Netflix using footage of the Lac-Mégantic accident, and confirm that the video and images won't be removed from Bird Box

"We will keep the clip in the movie," the spokesperson told the Associated Press, adding that Netflix "will be looking at ways to do things differently moving forward."

According to Bloomberg, the streamer will "avoid using the images or similar footage in future productions." Roy is said to have "welcomed the apology" but criticized Netflix's "incoherent" approach to removing the footage, as it was taken out of Travelers but kept in Bird Box

"We find it regrettable that the company is maintaining its decision not to remove the images of this tragedy from the film Bird Box, when it has already accepted to do so for another of its series, which, in our eyes, is illogical," Roy noted in an emailed statement (via Global News Canada). 

As for Lac-Mégantic mayor Morin, she met with a Netflix representative and had a "productive" conversation. "They've committed to reflecting with their partners on the use of these images so that the situation does not repeat itself. We also felt they were sensitive to our citizens' recovery. I'm satisfied with this exchange," she revealed in a statement give to the AP.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time Netflix has come under fire for using footage of real-life disasters in its original streaming content. A scene in 2017's live-action Death Note movie reportedly  included shots of a train crash that happened in Belgium in 2010 that left 19 people dead. A survivor of the crash, 60-year-old Anita Mahy, told Belgian newspaper De Standaard that Netflix showed a "complete lack of respect for all those involved" by using footage of the tragedy. 

"'It is unheard of that a true fact is used for fiction and commercial gain," she said. "You will just sit and watch an evening movie unsuspectingly and then be confronted again with the accident." 

Furthermore, this is now the second wave of controversy to crash over Bird Box, as the film stirred up storms of contention when people began participating in the dangerous social media stunt known as "The Bird Box Challenge," in which fans of the movie would blindfold themselves and attempt to drive their cars, walk through traffic, or move down steps without getting hurt. 

Hopefully Netflix can learn something from this and, as the company itself said, do better moving forward.