Not showing at a cinema near you

The BBFC’s effective banning of A Serbian Film shows that we still aren’t trusted to judge movies for ourselves.

Graham Barnfield

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While most Londoners were struggling to find some Bank Holiday weekend sun, around 2,000 people headed indoors to the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square for FrightFest 2010.

For the uninitiated, FrightFest has over the past decade become the home of UK film premieres in the horror and fantasy genres. It’s a forum that combines scholarly appreciation of legendary Italian director Dario Argento with a close working relationship with filmmakers such as Neil Marshall (Centurion) and Christopher Smith (Black Death), while giving horror fans ample opportunities to cheer wildy at gore effects. Film director Gregg Araki – whose new comedy Kaboom! was withdrawn from this weekend’s programme – has denied calling us FrightFest aficionados a ‘bunch of geeks’, but FrightFest is still probably the only European festival where the terms and conditions on a three-day pass include ‘remember personal hygiene’.

There have traditionally been two sorts of controversies around FrightFest. One is around the film line-up, with fans inevitably disagreeing about the programme, arguing that some movies are out of place and that others have been wrongly left out. I first came across this kind of argument when Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary was shown to disgruntled fans in 2003. This year, the shotgun-heavy Australian western Red Hill came in for a bit of griping, amplified on Twitter. There was nothing wrong with the movie, it seemed, apart from its genre. FrightFest fans didn’t think it fitted in.

The other kind of controversy is the sort that mainstream cinema audiences would be more likely to recognise, where the content of a film is deemed unacceptable. From the moment it was selected for inclusion in this year’s FrightFest, it looked likely that A Serbian Film, directed by Srđan Spasojević, was going to be controversial.

There’s no way to sugar the pill about some of the imagery in the movie, which apparently includes a scene of ‘newborn porn’ and a father raping his young son before penetrating another character’s eye socket. If this makes for queasy reading, imagine watching it. No doubt the high production values give these scenes a certain verisimilitude, too. Fortunately for the Contra Films studio, which produced the film, the director has an artistic defence for the 110 grim minutes: it’s an allegory for ‘what the Serbian government has done to us’. Holding no special affection for the Republic of Serbia and its immediate predecessors, I get what the filmmakers are trying to say. Given the time, money and inclination, I could probably churn out a gorno movie designed to indict recent British foreign policy, too.

As I haven’t been allowed to see the film, I am not able to make a judgment about it. It is any good? Are the reportedly nauseating scenes realistic-looking, or played for laughs? Is the political allegory at all convincing (or based on the calculation that foreign-language gore traditionally plays well with British arthouse audiences and consequently with the British Board of Film Classification – BBFC)? The reason I am not able to make these adult judgments about the movie is that the BBFC ‘required 49 individual cuts to the work amounting to approximately three minutes 48 seconds’. Even had the cuts been made in time, as the print shuttled back and forth between the BBFC offices and the Empire Cinema, the filmmakers and festival organisers had no guarantee that the BBFC would not then demand further cuts. Without BBFC certification, a legal public screening was practically impossible (unless Westminster Council popped up with its own classification guidelines – don’t hold your breath). The FrightFest organisers made the principled decision to replace the movie (with an ‘ordeal’ picture called Buried) rather than dish up a diluted version of A Serbian Film.

On the surface, this seems like a straightforward case of censorship. It is not light years removed from the Life on Mars Britain which spawned the video nasties panic of the early 1980s (brilliantly depicted in Jake West’s documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, which also showed at FrightFest). On a political level, that should be all you need to know. Adults were prevented from watching a work of fiction containing a sequence of fictional events, the production of which broke neither British nor Serbian laws. The producers themselves amply documented the filming process in order to demonstrate to the film labs through documentary footage that no one was harmed in the making of the movie. By refusing to pass the 49 individual cuts, the BBFC has prevented the general public from passing judgment on the film, at least until some of us have illegally downloaded copies.

Unlike the FrightFest organisers, I have grown increasingly uneasy with ‘extreme cinema’ and especially its torture-porn offshoot. When commissioned to interview French director Gaspar Noé in 1998, I was warned that ‘it seems like he has gone over the top in order deliberately to get banned’. Since then I have had dark days when it seemed like Hollywood, never mind edgy filmmakers, have been in a race to the bottom to out-gross Seul Contre Tous, and not just at the box office. Until A Serbian Film, I thought that things were going to stabilise. Then Human Centipede: First Segment came along, which spawned an internet meme and where … well, put it this way, you don’t want to end up as the creature’s thorax. While there’s an element of this subgenre that smacks of decadence, actually seeing the films lets you decide if there are any diamonds in the dungheap.

The BBFC ruling on A Serbian Film was justified as follows: ‘It is the Board’s policy that at the adult category the Guideline concerns will not normally override the principle that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment. However, there are cases where the Board will intervene, even at “18”, where material or treatment appears to the BBFC to pose a credible potential harm risk to individuals or, through their behaviour, to society, and in particular where portrayals of sexual or sexualised violence might eroticise or endorse sexual assault or where children are portrayed in a sexualised context.’ So while no actual harm to children took place in A Serbian Film’s production, the question of its portrayal has led to the demand for a debilitating round of cuts, leading to an effective ban on the film.

The BBFC has certainly shifted since the bad old days of tailing the director of public prosecutions and moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse. Published guidelines and a greater emphasis on media education are now the norm; many of the titles on the video nasties list of the 1980s have now reappeared as deluxe edition DVDs, as if one viewing of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain per lifetime is not quite sufficient. But ultimately the BBFC’s position as an unaccountable parastatal body makes it box-office poison and a barrier to adult choices. Audiences can decide whether or not we want to see each new addition to the torture-porn genre, and with luck the trend will run its course (I hope). As events at FrightFest 2010 have shown, such choices are obstructed by the ability of the BBFC to deny films a certificate and open up exhibitors to prosecution.

Graham Barnfield blogs at The Loneliest Jukebox. He is speaking at the Screens of Terror conference at London South Bank University later this month.

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