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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Wednesday March 25, 2020 

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CRITICAL VOICES / CENSORSHIP

Who should decide what I can see?
By Hunter Cordaiy

Who controls what we see on the movie screen is one of the most contentious cultural issues of our times.

Of course itís not a new problem, but the current proposed changes to the operation of the Censorship Board in Australia raises fundamental issues which need to be openly and urgently discussed. Sadly this issue is not exclusive to the moving image but now extends to all the arts, including the Internet where this article is being published.

The spark for this latest concern is the announcement on December 27 1996 by the Federal Attorney General's Office that a new structure for reviews of censorship decisions will be introduced to "ensure community involvement" in classification of films, videos, literature and computer games.

The new measure proposes the establishment of a Community Assessment Panel to review decisions of the Classification Board. In addition the criteria for the selection of the Board itself is now under review.

This is a double win for the forces of ignorance and conservatism, and will inevitably contribute further to what most in the cultural sector see as a retrograde and insidious decline in the value of cultural activities in Australia since the election of the new Federal Government in March 1996.

Born in the emotional distortion of what might be called by the media, 'national feeling', after the Port Arthur incident, the proposed changes to censorship regulation clearly imply that by 'hiding' images of violence the risk of further 'massacres' will be reduced.

There is no evidence for such a belief. In fact there is substantial; evidence that it is not images on a screen people affected by the larger social problem of prosperity and power unattainable to the socially disinherited and those who feel psychologically alienated, who are likely to have uncontrollable social resentment .

The new proposals put in doubt the notion that professionals, with specialist knowledge, critical and analytical skills, have any value in the censorship ratingsí procedures, whilst in the name of democracy those ignorant analytically are given the chance to rule.

The problem of censorship is the conflict between fundamental freedoms which are challenged when those rights come into conflict with a community sense of self protection.

The context in which an image is 'used' should have some influence over the degree of control exercised in its distribution. There is a great difference between cinema and television with regard to the selection of their respective audiences.

Television is controlled by time whilst cinema is controlled by age.

To watch a film at the cinema is a deliberate act at a specific venue under conditions which are clearly acknowledged. Under these circumstances the argument for any censorship other than 'ratings' is defeated.

Television, on the other hand, is a casual structure with a floating audience who might enter or leave the room at any time during a broadcast and may change channels easily at any time. None of these structural conditions apply to cinema.

One ironic dimension of censorship which might prove frustrating for those who now so fervently believe in it, is that so called 'popular taste' moves in very clear cycles of acceptance. Some personal examples from 20 years of tertiary teaching will illustrate the point.

When I studied film and literature in the early 1970's Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita was on the curriculum, and the works of the Marquis de Sade were definitely banned. Today I would have considerable trouble putting Lolita on a reading list whilst the complete Marquis has been re-issued to cater for the recent interest in bondage and domination sexuality. Yet Nabokov has continued to be critically seen as the superior writer.

Similarly, there are examples of films from the same period such as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris or Antonioni's Blow Up, which were deemed at the time of their release to signal the end of civilisation and an affront to community standards. Now, when I screen them as part of a film survey course, my students cannot understand what all the fuss was about.

The 'fuss' was in fact the presence of an overbearing and moralistic censorship code which was (erroneously as it turned out) claiming to be based on a sense of what the general population would accept. The attempts to ban these films, with only a few years hindsight, were clearly misguided and uninformed.

This deceptive form of popularism, which now re-appears in the guise of Community Assessment Panels, has been the refuge of censors for centuries and has allowed dangerous political forces to assert an exaggerated power over access to popular culture.

The result, in recent years, has been the wholesale attack on all mediums of artistic expression. I remember being spat at and having my clothes torn when trying to enter a cinema to See Godardís Hail Mary at the Sydney Film Festival in 1986, a film which quickly assumed the status of a 'lesser' work in the great director's oeuvre.

In America the process began with the refusal of grants through the National Endowment for the Arts to Robert Maplethorpe and was extended to other artists. In Australia recently there has been the attempted censorship of films such as Dead Man, and in the English city of Westminster, the banning of the new David Cronenberg film Crash.

These actions have been supported by a boom in opportunistically conceived books such as Michael Medved's Hollywood Versus America which propose the curtailing of artistic freedom because supposed community consensus is that artists have failed in their obligations to society.

Ultimately the role of artists and the highest use of artistic freedom of expression, is not to copy like an obedient mirror the existing state of society, but to propose ideals for life and often warn of terrible futures.

That might include presenting unpalatable visions whilst containing great truths. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we have access to those expressions in our local bookshop and cinema.

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