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The difference between censorship and our present rating classification system is that the former is a paternalistic and arbitrary system imposing its authority on the community, while the latter is a system to provide us with informed choices. Banning films is akin to burning books, argues Andrew L. Urban as yet another round is fought in The Battle of The Sex Scenes.

The Australian Family Association’s latest appeals to the Classification Review Board have all failed to achieve the results the AFA desired – namely to effect bans on the films in question. The AFA tried twice to have Irreversible banned and Anatomy of Hell once. The R rating for both films was upheld by the CRB, the latter last week (July 7, 2004). The battle of the sex scenes is between a censorship regime and a classification or rating system: the former is paternalistic and imposes arbitrary and misleading moralising on the community. (See *example below, where the AFA asserts that the latter film contains child sexual abuse.) 

In the case of Irreversible, the AFA’s first attempt was dismissed by the CRB because it was lodged out of time (more than 30 days after the classification decision). So the AFA prompted the South Australian Attorney General, The Hon Michael Atkinson, to make another application, and because the Act allows State A-G’s to do this at any time – and it forces the Commonwealth A-G to put the application to the CRB – the AFA had its review. At quite some cost to the taxpayer, and none to itself*; this allows the AFA to force itself into the CRB without the discipline of financial restraint on its actions. (*As a non-profit organisation, the AFA is exempt from paying the normal fee that applies, usually between $2,500 - $3,500 for each review application.)

"the system is called Classification – not Censorship"

In the meantime, the distributors of the films faced the prospect of financial loss in the event that the films were indeed refused classification. All the print duping, the marketing and the distribution costs would still have to be paid. The rationale for having a 30 day time limit on appeals is partly to put some commercial fairness into the system. 

And the system is called Classification – not Censorship. The whole point of a Classification system is that it enables consumers to make informed choices. Censorship takes the choice away from individual consumers (ie adult Australians) and puts those decisions in the hands of self appointed arbiters. The problem with that, of course, is that the arbiters make arbitrary decisions – on our behalf. 

Many films (and all other forms of art, literature and entertainment) depict illegal, ugly and demeaning acts by human beings, ranging from simple crime, furtive adultery and bloody violence to sexual debauchery and genocide. But it’s always sex scenes that get certain lobby groups outraged and offended, or worried and alarmed. 
Banning films is akin to burning books whose authors or subjects are offensive to those lighting the fire. 

As for the confusion about the films in question here and pornography, the kindest interpretation is ignorance; because if those advocating that Irreversible or Anatomy of Hell is sexually titillating in the way a porn movie is, they should urgently seek counselling. 

Potential Films contended that Anatomy of Hell, while containing strong visual and thematic material does not exceed the R guidelines and can well be accommodated within the R classifications and the principles of the National Classification Act that allows that adults should be free to see and hear what they choose and that the R classification may contain material offensive to a minority of the community. (My emphasis.)

"emphatically rejects"

Potential Films also “emphatically rejects” the Australian Family Association’s claims that the film depicts an act of child sexual abuse “and that other depictions of sexual activity in the film are gratuitous and exploitative.” The CRB disagreed. But then the Board’s members had all seen the film.

*EXAMPLE: The (flashback) scene in Anatomy of Hell which the AFA describes as child sexual abuse shows three young boys and a young girl, all aged about 8; they are playing, and the narration explains the scenario. The boys do a trade with the girl, which involves the girl showing them her genitals. She lies down in a bush, only her legs visible. The boys are curious, amused, expectant. One of the boys removes his glasses and slowly reaches forward leaving us to imagine that one arm of the spectacles is gently inserted into her vagina. He withdraws it wet, and they all giggle.

The problem for the AFA is that they have not seen the film, so they have responded to the description in the OFLC’s classification report, a dry description that reads like this:
“At 26 minutes a flashback scene is presented … three young boys kneel and watch a young girl take her underwear off in a clump of bushes. A brief image of the girl lying naked is shown in medium shot. One of the boys uses the arm of his spectacles to implicitly penetrate the girl. What appears to be vaginal fluids is visible on the implement.”

The AFA calls this scene child sexual abuse, exploitative and offensive. 

Clearly the key to this scene is the context, as always. That’s why applicants wanting to take the time and resources of the CRB should be required to see the film prior to lodging an application objecting to its classification.

But beyond the specifics, what the AFA and its travelling companion The Hon Michael Atkinson, Attorney General for South Australia, fail to understand is that society is moving beyond paternalistic style censorship. Cinema audiences can decide what they want to see based on the combination of ratings and consumer advice: “R (strong themes, sexual activity, high level sex scenes)”

"a discussion about film censorship"

I was invited to join Mr Atkinson on ABC Radio Adelaide on July 7 for a discussion about film censorship, and in particular the case of Irreversible. He said he didn’t want to ban the film in South Australia (which he, uniquely, has the power to do) because it would invite ridicule for the State. Would it be better to invite ridicule for all Australia?

I pointed out to Mr Atkinson that the AFA is clearly not representative of general public opinion. As an example, I cited information I had received from the Commonwealth Attorney General in relation to the case of Baise Moi, a cause celebre two years ago. That information shows that of 419 letter writers to the A-G’s office, only 27 had seen the film – and of those only THREE (3) were ‘against’ the film. Hardly a groundswell of opposition, yet the A-G appealed its R18+ rating. The CRB refused classification on May 10, 2002, making it illegal to screen the film. And that was after it had been commercially released with an R rating, and seen by about 50,000 people. But not this one: “I did not see Baise-Moi. I chose not to, although I had ample time (being a fairly prodigious movie-goer). It was MY decision. NOT the Attorney-General's.” V. Klestadt

I had also wanted to ask Mr Atkinson the grounds on which he lodged the appeal against Irreversible (which he had not seen), but we ran out of time.

On the subject of community standards, the OFLC has used Community Assessment Panels to assess the degree to which Board decisions reflect community standards. The Panels comprised members of the community who viewed pre-release films that had already been classified by the Board. Panellists, who were unaware of the classification given by the Board, viewed a range of films. They assigned the films a classification and gave feedback about their decisions. In the majority of cases, the Community Assessment Panel assessments were the same as the Board’s decisions.

This may not be a foolproof system, but it is far more likely to be representative than the AFA, irrespective of how well meaning and decent the AFA members may all be.

The subject of censorship has always been socially sensitive; it calls into question all kinds of conflicting responses from each of us. It is vital that filmmakers, film lovers and film writers debate the issue with as much clarity, compassion and insight as we can muster. 

Published July 15, 2004

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