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Classification: the art of banning a film: its everywhere. You cant get away from it. Every time you turn on a television, whenever you walk into a movie theatre, the spectre or censorship is there looking over your shoulder.

It's an inevitable part of the cinema: whatever you're watching and wherever you're watching it, there's no doubt that the object of your attention will have already passed by those all-seeing eyes of Australia's great bastion of morality, the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC).

ANALYSIS surrounding the issue is contentious to say the least. On ne side there are the conservative moral crusaders, with figures such as Reverend Fred Nile (head of the Christian Democratic Party) and Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock, on a constant campaign to outlaw any film that doesn't meet their strict ethical guidelines. On the other side, there are the idealistic but naive liberals, who too often turn themselves into walking cliches by talking in ideological rhetoric with little substance. Personally, I'm ideologically skewed towards the liberal side of things too, but arguing against censorship is far more complicated than simply invoking an appeal to one's morality. Whereas the conservative figureheads argue that certain films should be banned for their corrupting effect on the collective morality of society, far too many liberal commentators argue the mirror-image of this: that art--particularly controversial, polemic art--must exist purely because of its utility to the world. As always though, using an end to justify a means puts you on shaky ground. And where one side of the coin is cause for scepticism, so must be the other; and though valid arguments stem from both sides, to base the advocacy or dismissal of censorship on these grounds is untenable.

Such a technique rarely works anyway, as critics of a prominent censorship writer, Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) academic Jane Mills, showed in their reactions to her book on the subject, The Money Shot. Mills, for all her obvious research and occasionally valid or insightful assessments, too often falls into the trap of simplifying the issue into a kind of broad polemic. She demarcates between 'art' and 'pornography;' 'Hollywood' and 'art-house'. To the layman this might seem fine, but in the real world the boundaries are not so clear, and thus her analysis falls down.

Instead, a more philosophical approach to the issue is helpful. Simply: as adults we should all have the right to see what we like. Of course, it isn't actually so simple. In 1859 the philosopher John Stuart Mili published his seminal work On Liberty. In it, he developed a rational series of thoughts, outlines and theories on how one might live in order to be truly at one's own liberty. At the risk of reducing his complicated thesis somewhat affrontingly, it is possible to pinpoint one line which best sums up his views: 'the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others'. (1) (Defining 'harm,' of course, takes up a sizeable portion of Mill's time.) Nevertheless, it is possible to make a realistic argument against nearly all forms of censorship based on this one, rational principle. Harm (defined here as any tangible damage to one's physical or mental health and wellbeing) is practically never resultant directly from watching a film, and it is rare that harm is involved in its production (obviously such a rule would allow for the censorship of films wherein harm actually did occur--say, child pornography). As it stands though, and as academic Tony Pitman has argued, 'offensive material is literally "harmless" and as such should never be banned'. (2) It would be difficult for anybody to argue rationally against this statement.

However, even allowing this rebuttal to censorship, there are some films that would remain subject to contention under its logic. Last year's Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) featured one such film--Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat (Zev Asher, 2004). Aside from the intentionally acerbic title, the film contained a great many disturbing scenes, and was subject to heated debate, though unfortunately this debate did not go much further than the festival itself (talkback radio and a short piece in the Herald Sun aside). The film retrospectively examines the actions of one Jesse Power, a young, aspiring filmmaker who uses his art to explore some rather confronting views. Namely, Power wanted to expose the supposed hypocrisy of a society who will willingly turn away from the slaughter of animals as long as it results in a steak on their plate, yet will crucify anybody who dares perform the same actions on a domesticated animal. Unfortunately, whatever validity his point may have originally had was lost amidst a haze of drug use and his sadistic, opportunistic friends.

Still, Power and his cronies succeeded in slaughtering their specimen--a stray moggy--and recording the entire episode. Casuistry, whilst showing little of the cat's torture, provides a gruesome account of it by text, and a great deal of the disturbing before and after video. At the film's only MIFF screening the theatre was picketed by animal activists, protesting that the documentary was condoning Power's actions and violence against animals.

But this is in fact not the case. Whether Power finally made the point that he was attempting to, he is shown to be fully willing to accept the punishment the law dishes out to him. Screening the film, or allowing others to screen it, is neither encouraging nor condoning the actions that Power and his misguided friends took. Perhaps people might learn something from the film (whether that be Power's demonstration of hypocrisy, or perhaps even a look at the troublesome morality of his own actions), and perhaps they might not. But the point remains: whatever damage has been done will not be changed by allowing people to view the film.

A great irony of the situation of course, was that the protestors against the film were utilizing their own right to free speech to protest against others' right to it. The demonstration not only stank of its own hypocrisy, but revealed that ignorance and narrow-mindedness does not just reside on one side of the ideological divide. Furthermore, Casuistry turned out to be a balanced, thoughtful and thought-provoking film that did not endorse Power's actions in the slightest. Ultimately, the film did more to advance the cause of animal rights than the animal rights protestors themselves.

Evidently, this is an argument similar in kind to those that I originally denounced in my introduction. Casuistry is a film that has utility to society, in its ability to expose both the hypocrisy that Power intended on finding and the shortcomings of justifying one's means through an end. This is not the best argument for allowing the film to screen, however. Rather, a sounder basis for opposing its censorship--and censorship of any kind--can be found in the thoughts of Richard Wolstencroft, director of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF), a man no stranger to controversy himself, and a staunch advocate of freedom of speech at all costs. In a recent interview, Wolstencroft speculated on the value of free speech if it is only used to defend the rights of the majority. 'lf you don't support unpopular speech and ideas [then] what kind of speech exactly are you protecting?' (3) As Wolstencroft points out, it is actually the more controversial viewpoints that need to be defended--whether one agrees with them or not should not even be an issue of consideration.

It is perhaps a moot point to be discussing Casuistry. In spite of all the jumping and shouting by the animal activists, and the tiniest amount of media coverage, the film barely raised an eyebrow at OFLC headquarters, and having run its race at MIFF, Casuistry disappeared back into the ether. Other films have not been so lucky.

In 2002 the OFLC took umbrage with Ken Park and refused the film classification. Though the decision was reviewed, the refusal remained--voted down seven to one for its 'supposedly non-simulated scenes of underage sex'. (4) The same year, Baise-moi (Virginie Despentes & Coralie Trinh Thi, 2000)--which translates to somewhere between 'rape me' and 'fuck me'--gained release. It quickly gained the attention of concerned citizens though, with its themes of rape, sexual violence, prostitution and murder. Within weeks, after complaints were made to then Attorney-General Daryl Williams, the film was banned.

Later, on 26 November 2003, the film Irreversible (Gasper Noe, 2002) was passed unanimously with an R18+ rating. And although it was deemed to have excessive violence, and despite complaints from Reverend Fred Nile and his Christian Democratic Party and other outraged parties, the film retained its rating, and is now available on DVD in Australia.

It isn't just the OFLC who can exercise control over what adult Australians can see or do in the privacy of their own homes though; state boards have these powers too. In 2005 the film 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom, 2004) opened to mild acclaim for its honest appraisal of a romance between two twenty-somethings. The film featured graphic, non-simulated sex, yet it sought not to be pornography but a romance. It met with controversy and complaints during its cinema run, and didn't last long, although it retained its R18+ rating. On 11 August 2005, however, the South Australian Classification Council deemed the film worthy of an X18+ rating. Of course, this doesn't sound too bad until you realize--sneakily--that it is illegal to show or sell X-rated films in South Australia. What is more disturbing than the pointless bureaucratic wrangling surrounding the film's rating, though, is how it actually came about. There were no protests against the film, no outraged advocacy groups, no arguments against excessive, violent, or prejudiced content--just two complaints. According to the press release, the complaints came from: one, an individual, and two, the 'Festival of Light'. (5) This was not a decision based on community outrage or democratic wisdom; rather, it was pointless pandering to the complaints of one individual and a zealous group of fundamentalists.

Also in August 2005, film director Gregg Araki found himself dealing with the seemingly never-ceasing wrath of Australia's pro-censorship lobby when his film Mysterious Skin (2004) met with heavy criticism from the Australian Family Association's spokesman Richard Egan, and calls from Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock to have it banned. The film's star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, couldn't understand the furore. 'My impression of Australia, from the Australians I've met,' he said, 'is that people are open-minded and cool. I was surprised that Australia, of all places, was the country that tried to ban Mysterious Skin.' (6)

The controversial scenes in Mysterious Skin are anything but gratuitous. Margaret Pomeranz described it as a 'film [with] the potential to inform, heal and possibly transform', (7) and L.A. Times critic Kevin Thomas wrote that 'it's hard to imagine a more serious or persuasive indictment of the horrors inflicted on children by sexual abuse'. (8) Araki argues that the film helps 'break the silence on child abuse', (9) but disgracefully it is the very people who purport to act as advocates of such causes--like the Australian Family Association--who sought to have the film silenced.

Surely the longest-running and most infamous of all Australian cases of cinematic censorship is that of Pier Paolo Pasolini's final--and most divisive--film, Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976). Based on the Marquis de Sade's disturbing book The 120 Days of Sodom, Salo was completed just prior to Pasolini's murder in 1976, and posthumously, the controversy was to continue for him. That year, Salo was banned in Australia, and despite several requests for classification being made over the following years, the ban remained. Until, that is, 1993, when the old debates raging around it had apparently been forgotten, and it was unbanned. This was short-lived, however, and in 1996--following an amendment to Australia's laws--it came under review. In 1998 its classification was again withdrawn. (10) Though the OFLC seemed to come half way--admitting that the film was intended to be a serious work of art and a damning metaphorical critique of fascism, ultimately 'the majority of the Review Board considered that this metaphor was not clearly established'. (11) Like so many that would come after it, Salo seems to have been banned without once considering the members of a democratic society's right to exercise their own free will, discretion, and liberty. Metaphorical fascism? Weil, who needed metaphor?

Back in 1996--after more than ten years without any censorship-related uproar--the Classification Act (covering publications, films, and computer games) was introduced to Australia. Two of its prominent points were: '(a) adults should be able to read, hear, and see what they want'; and '(d) the need to take account of community concerns ...' (12) There is a laughably enormous disjunction between these two supposedly consistent and complementary points. Of course, it's realistic, even admirable, for the OFLC to want to address these two concerns. But to actually attempt to enforce two mutually exclusive points--one that dictates the necessity of freedom from restrictive censorship, and another that advocates its use--is remarkably naive. It just doesn't work, and it never has.

It seems the OFLC are aware of this contradiction, and their reputation speaks for them. Much of their literature focuses on what Don Watson would call 'weasel words'--the ambiguous double-speak that informs ideas such as the fact that, according to author and censorship expert Helen Vnuk, 'these people like to be called classifiers, not censors, and they claim they don't ban anything, they simply refuse to classify it'. (13) Unfortunately, this simply isn't the case. The OFLC can refuse to classify a film, which in everything but the terminology means banning it: once refused classification, a film can no longer be screened legally.

Though it is an effective way to remove whatever heady issue has been raised from the long-term spotlight, banning is really only dealing with the symptom of whatever problem is perceived to exist. As a letter writer to The Age noted last year, censorship in any case only results in 'the public arena being denied the opportunity to know and, if necessary, to vigorously condemn inappropriate ideas'. (14) This is a point that shouldn't be taken lightly, and Jane Mills agrees, remarking that 'banning violent movies won't go to the root of the problem; it merely deflects the blame from society and projects it onto one of its cultural products'. (15)

Mills does not just offer criticisms of the current system, but possible solutions as well. Her assertion that 'screen literacy fails to occupy a significant place in the Australian nation's education policies' (16) is crucial. As is so often argued but seldom implemented, education really could be the key. Allowing the general public a better understanding of the language of the cinematic text would result in fewer 'art-house misunderstandings' that those raised on the more typically 'Hollywood' films seem to run into, and it would similarly bring more constructive discussion into the OFLC's policy making, and reduce a great deal of the bureaucratic mess that appears to infect the current system.

Perhaps it is a symptom of the fact that in many circles, cinema still retains a sense of being a 'lesser' art form, especially in comparison to the supposed high arts of literature and painting. Education could help address this problem, and it is a problem that is still very much a reality. Film is an art form though, and like all art it has its masterpieces and its failures. French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere once said, in typically overwrought French fashion, that 'every artist has an obligation to murder his father and rape his mother'. (17) Though certainly an extreme concept, the philosophy behind it is sound: artists exist to push society forwards, to question seemingly unquestionable beliefs. Censorship is the very antithesis of this idea of progression, so to attempt a stable relationship between the two is farcical, and ultimately unworkable. The truly important works of art are destined to arouse controversy, and the sooner that people are able to accept this dilemma, the better things will be for everybody.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that 'Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital'. (18) His remark, now made over a century ago, is as relevant today as it was then--perhaps even more so. Diversity of opinion is indeed a wonderful thing, and it says as much about its subject as the opinion itself. Censorship is ultimately a destructive process that seeks to kill off the very thing that makes artists and their art such a valuable part of the world.


(1) John Stuart Mili in John Gray (ed.), On Liberty, Oxford University Press, London, 1991, p.14.

(2) Tony Pitman, 'What's wrong with seeing sex?', Australian Rationalist, no. 53: Autumn 2000.

(3) Richard Wolstencroft, email correspondence, 2 November 2005.

(4) Fiona A. Villella and Jake Wilson, 'Editorial: Issue 27,' Senses of Cinema, 2003, http:// html (Accessed 15 October 2005).

(5) Press Release (author unknown), '9 Songs silenced in SA', 22 August 2005.

(6) Craig Mathieson, 'Attempted film ban a mystery', The Age, 19 August 2005.

(7) Margaret Pomeranz, 'Mysterious Skin review', At the Movies, ABC Television, 17 August 2005.

(8) Kevin Thomas, 'Mysterious Skin bearing scars of pedophilia', Los Angeles Times, 9 September 2005.

(9) Gregg Araki in lain Clacher, 'Araki slams Families 'crackpot' over Mysterious Skin complaint', Queensland Pride, http:// (Accessed 16 October 2005).

(10) Craig Lapper, 'Salo and Censorship: A history,' British Film Institute, August 2000, http:// (Accessed 16 October 2005).

(11) Author unknown/OFLC, 'OFLC Report on Activities, 1992-93', 1993.

(12) Author unknown/OFLC in Tina Kaufman, 'It Can Happen Again: Urgent enquiry needed into censorship,' Senses of Cinema, 2000, contents/00/4/censorship.html (Accessed 19 October 2005).

(13) Helen Vnuk, 'X-rated? Outdated', The Age, 20 September 2003.

(14) Larry Stillman, 'Who's next on the censorship list?', The Age, 'Letters', 22 September 2005.

(15) Jane Mills, The Money Shot: Cinema, sin, and censorship, Pluto Press, NSW, 2001, p.69.

(16) ibid, xxiii.

(17) Jean-Claude Carriere in Mills, pp.64-65.

(18) Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oxford University Press, London, 1974.

Brad Lacey is Editor of Rabelais, La Trobe University's student magazine, and is currently studying his Master of Arts in Writing and Literature.
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Author:Lacey, Brad
Publication:Metro Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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