The BBFC vs A Serbian Film

August 26, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Opinion with 14 Comments

In the past decade, pretty much anything goes down at the British Board of Film Classification, aka the censors’ office. Hostel. Saw. Irreversible. Antichrist. All released, as far as I can tell, uncut.

A refreshing change, finally, for audiences to be treated as adults. Time was, back in the days when professional killjoy James Ferman was in charge, that any remotely interesting movie was cut, banned or otherwise pilloried.  Amazingly, as recently as 1996 David Cronenberg’s Crash caused such a furore that made the front page of the Daily Mail, while The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (amongst many others) was still persona non grata in British cinemas.

Ancient times.  Nowadays, Channel 4 and its spin-offs seems to be showing the early Saw films on constant rotation, and you can go and buy Martyrs in HMV.  That’s the result, largely, of a more relaxed and circumspect leadership at the BBFC.  The vast majority of films are uncut, the current board rightly taking a hands-off view towards anything that doesn’t contravene obscenity laws.

Trouble is, taking the stigma out of hardcore horror does tend to leave the genre’s extreme wing looking rather toothless. Way back when, getting banned was something of a badge of honour for some directors, proving that their taboo-busting shock tactics worked.  These days, Saw is a theme park ride.  When the bar has been raised (or, depending on your point of view, lowered), what does it take to get the kind of reaction that once had the tabloids and politicians in apoplexy?

Looks like we’ve just found out.

Movie censorship


“The synopsis of A Serbian Film has been enough to chill and depress me, so it’s hardly surprising the BBFC orders substantial cuts…”

Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film has caused outrage and revulsion even amongst hardcore horror fans. I’ve not seen the film (and if you loathe that phrase, you’re in for a rough ride here) but its synopsis has been enough to chill and depress me since I read it a few weeks back.  Honestly, not since reading American Psycho have I felt so horrified, and A Serbian Film presents scenarios so bleak and repellent that even Patrick Bateman would baulk. Spasojevic has claimed that his story is a parable for a generation scarred by civil war, ethnic cleansing and bloodshed… but it’s also a ticklist of things that have never been shown in a horror movie. For good reason. Really, consider this a warning. The less you know the better.  I couldn’t even face searching for photos to illustrate this article.

When I heard about it, my first thought was: no way will this be shown in Britain…so I was surprised that the annual horror festival Frightfest had it in their schedules. That is, until yesterday, when the inevitable happened. The BBFC announced cuts, over three minutes’ worth.  That’s around 50x more than the average, and reflects just how provocative and downright nasty the film must be.

Frightfest has now pulled the film, for reasons both practical (there isn’t time to ready the trimmed version) and also of solidarity with a genre filmmaker. It’s the right decision, by their standards: the Frightfest crowd are connosieurs and, by extension, purists, and wouldn’t put up with such authoritarian judgement.  Similarly, the festival organisers have pointed out that the film has been shown, uncut, in other festivals so to meekly accomodate to the cuts would dilute Frightfest’s branding.

What’s more interesting, though, is that the film will most likely be passed at all. The BBFC’s objections seem to be to specific shots and images (some of which, I’d wager, are borderline-illegal)… but surely the overall shape, and its very real, inescapable existential horror, will remain. The majority will still be sickened.  [Interestingly, at time of writing, the movie’s full plot seems to have pulled from Wikipedia, which is either somebody’s idea of a protest or proof of the film’s impact.]

Apparently, the plan is to release the film straight to disc without a cinema release, which is fair enough.  I’ve heard anecdotally that the film was likely to cause headaches for exhibitors in its uncut form. Even without those three minutes, it must be a tough call; after all, it’s the ideas that have been making my flesh crawl with this one. Again, it’s a branding issue: would you want to be associated with this?

Trouble is, a DVD release also seems nonsensical, given that those purist horror geeks will get an uncut copy by hook or crook. In today’s global stable, the horse has long since bolted. Which was part of the BBFC’s argument about taking a hands-off approach all along.

So who wins here? Arguably the filmmakers do, having earned their moment of notoreity…unless they’re serious about the socio-political dimensions of their film, in which case it’s as sanitised as news reporting was during the 1990s genocide itself. The BBFC will get lambasted by both sides; respectively for being a) too censorious and b) not censorious enough. And Frightfest now have a hole in their schedule that could easily have been sewn up ages ago: it doesn’t take a rocket science to work out that this was always going to cause trouble, so somebody really should have sorted this sooner than three days before the scheduled screening.

And for movie lovers generally? Yesterday’s news isn’t a biggie for most people, given how niche (I’m understating) this film is. But it does pose a wider question. What standards of taste and decency, if any, should filmmakers apply to subject matter and presentation? Are some things so beyond the pale that they shouldn’t or mustn’t be re-enacted using actors and special effects? Does the context and background of the filmmakers change things, as the specificity of A Serbian Film‘s implies? No matter how libertarian your instincts, where do you draw the line?

For me, I’ll admit it, it’s here. It goes against every instinct I have as a movie buff to support the artistic ambitions of filmmakers, but on a personal level I never want to see the damn thing. Maybe it’s because I’m older. Probably having a family changes things, about this film especially. But knowing about this one is more than enough, thanks.

Cinema’s very punch, its ability to mainline straight to the gut, is one of its most valuable assets. But that same lack of filter, potentially, also makes it very dangerous. I’m sure most directors of extreme stories would point out that life isn’t filtered, and that they are only reflecting the reality. In principle, I agree with them. But how close to the bone do you have to cleave to prove the point? It reminds me of Leopold and Loeb, the students who famously murdered a boy just to prove their intellectual superiority. Just because something can be filmed, doesn’t mean that it should.

…And with that, I think: Oh my god, I haven’t become one of those people, have I? The morally indignant knee-jerkers foaming at the mouth about a film they haven’t seen.  The politicians and hand-wringers I’ve always despised for not having the balls to watch the film before making up their minds.  How very dare me!


“A remake of Videodrome will consist of the nasty stuff David Cronenberg knew we didn’t need to see…”

I’d like to think I haven’t gone completey doollally.  My favourite director is David Cronenberg, creator of some of the darkest, most twisted imagery ever devised…as well as one of the most eloquent, intelligent commentators there’s been on issues of cinema censorship.  But it’s worth pointing out that Cronenberg knows restraint.  After all, he made a film called Videodrome, about a TV channel specialising in sado-masochistic violence and murder of women, but left the (literally) mind-warping shows themselves largely to the imagination.  A remake is currently in pre-production and, judging by current trends, half the running time will consist of the nasty stuff Cronenberg knew we didn’t need to see.

See, I’m not worried by the audience being degraded (that’s a fallacy I’d hoped had died out by now) but that cinema is getting degraded.  The talent and imagination to shock without recourse to quasi-porno verisimilitude seems to have been lost.

I could list dozens of movies made in Hollywood’s heyday, when studios were subject to the asinine stipulations of the Hays Code, with its embargo on a man and a woman seen lying on a bed together (…but one foot on the floor, and all’s dandy!).  But it did have one advantage over today’s WYSIWYG generation.  It forced directors and editors to be creative.  Impact doesn’t need the full, gory details; a talented team of filmmakers can shock through inference and reaction.  Check out Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat if you don’t believe me.  Made in 1953, it contains – still – one of cinema’s most shocking scenes of violence.

But then… sometimes the brutal truth registers in a way that subtlety can never match.  Would The Killer In Me have been as effective and affecting if Michael Winterbottom had shied away from the ugliness of the film’s extended, close-up beating/murder?  So why not draw the line there, Simon?  Without checking, how do I know that A Serbian Film is any harder to sit through?  How can I avoid being a hypocrite, without choosing all…or nothing?  Round and round we go, in the same, unanswerable arguments about screen violence that have raged since that fella fired his gun straight at the audience in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery.

My hunch is that, for the BBFC to cut so much from A Serbian Film (notably, during the same year that the The Killer In Me was released intact) suggests that this generation’s censors have found their Rubicon, in the same way that, say, Freaks or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were for previous ones.  Some directors will be galvanised to cross the line where BBFC fears to tread, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody makes a film that will make A Serbian Film look as twee and innocent as The Care Bears Movie.  But maybe, if the BBFC has done its job properly, others will decide that, maybe, their films don’t need those proverbial three extra minutes.  If they’re going to get cut by the censors anyway, why not find a subtler way of provoking the audience? Sometimes, holding back packs just as powerful a punch as showing the unshowable.

UPDATE, 7th June 2011: What d’ya know, they’ve only gone and done it again.  Here are my thoughts on the BBFC ban of Human Centipede 2.

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  1. DanAug 27, 2010 at 9:41 amReply

    Good article, but I think you've built A Serbian Film up to be far worse that it actually is. I've seen it, and it is very shocking in places, but overall it left me feeling that the movie I'd conjured up in my mind was far far worse than the one I'd just seen.

  2. Film IntelAug 27, 2010 at 10:39 amReply

    I've said as much on twitter but I honestly think that's one of the best articles I've ever read on film censorship. Several years ago my dissertation was on horror in fiction and film and what it means to be frightened. Inevitably, censorship played a part. A lot of what I read in preparation for it involved people who were on one side or other of the argument (the 'how DARE you ban ANYTHING' crowd, or the 'how DARE you show THAT' bunch) whereas my own leanings are much closer to yours – there is somewhere in the middle and the BBFC have a very difficult job needing to find it.

    The power of persuasion and perception as well is a worthy argument and there are many more horror films than you mention above that scare without the need to show the vast extent of the gory detail or, in some cases, anything at all.

    A great article, sir.

  3. DavidAug 27, 2010 at 11:35 amReply

    This is a good really well written article that is pleasantly not a knee-jerk reaction to the bbfc doing their job.

    I have always been of the mind that art should be left uncensored (assuming legality) so an adult should be able to make up their own mind. I've always tried to seek out the uncut versions of films (particularly horror movies), and I think there is a compulsion to do so as a horror fan. However recently I've become very jaded by movies of this ilk, I guess in a sense I'm finding it all a bit unnecessary. You rightly point out, that which is left to your imagination is usually far worse than what is being shown on screen. As a 15 year old I saw Seven at the cinema… the ending of the film (the box) disturbed me more than most anything else I have seen. The imagination is a terrible thing, which is why that is a such a great piece of film making.

    But with regard to A Serbian Film, I know even less about what occurs than you. I inadvertently read about a scene from the film a couple of days ago which I've found particularly troubling and disturbing. I really wish I could go back and not read about it (this is something no-one needs to ever consider, let alone should ever need to watch on film) but if that ultimately sets the tone for the rest of the film then I can definitely say I will not be watching it. I guess there is an element of curiosity when it comes to wondering what was so bad that a film had to be censored… this time I don't want to know.

    Considering what I have said above I am pleased that the BBFC feel there is a need to censor such content, regardless of whether the filmmakers intend this as a political allegory. Salo is intended as the same, but I can't believe it's the fascist allegory that most people take away from that film… it gets lost amidst the depravity. Is A Serbian Film really anything other than an excuse to shock beyond reason?

    Sorry for the long comment – felt like there was a lot to say on this!

  4. TomAug 27, 2010 at 7:12 pmReply

    Great article, but I don't understand how you can be so intruiged by a film you've refused to watch. It's actually a very well made intelligent piece of work. I suggest you give it a watch and post your after thoughts. I'd be interested to hear your views after all the hype.

    Lets not get carried away. It is JUST a movie.

  5. Richard BowdenAug 29, 2010 at 12:55 pmReply

    The fact remains that you're tut-tutting at a modern film you haven't seen, as just you sheepishly admit. You come across as the latest in the usual long line of shocked elders faced by recent work. Cronenberg isn't exactly at the vanguard of modern horror. A sad sense of deja vue here.

    And why criticise a horror film for being too horrific or shocking? Do you equally worry about a comedy being too funny or fret that a musical has too much singing?

  6. liquidcowAug 29, 2010 at 10:49 pmReply

    I was pleasantly surprised by this article, you've taken quite a balanced view on the subject and that's something so often lacking with this subject.

    Although you acknowledge this in the article, the fact is that, as mentioned in other comments, you haven't seen the film, so although from the synopsis it's hard to imagine how it could *not* be as bad as it sounds, you never know. I've often found that with notorious films like Irreversible or Martyrs, although the films themselves were disturbing, the thoughts in my head of what they would be like troubled me more than when I actually watched the films.

  7. Alan MckennaAug 29, 2010 at 11:24 pmReply

    A very interesting read not taking the usual attack the BBFC stance most people take.

    Like someone above I have also seen the uncut version of the film and understood that the UK would have trouble releasing it. The most contentious scene isn't that bad and is too fake looking to be truly disturbing – I honestly think by cutting the scene down your own mind would make it far worse than it is.

    As for the rest, yes some of the imagery made me uncomfortable but the most powerful image is a simple quick shot of blood during the final act that is almost soul destroying. I don't mind if they cut the most graphic imagery as it becomes very cartoony for want of a better word (like a Troma movie) and intentionally tries to be more and more shocking.

    As long as they keep the shot I mentioned and the final line of the movie, the film will still be the most disturbing of the last few years.

  8. boydAug 30, 2010 at 8:12 amReply

    See the film … I think you'll be surprised … It's an excellent thriller …. It is far less offensive than any Saw Hostel rubbish … There are no long drawn out physical tortures … Its brutal … And SAD … The only reason the BBFC has cut this is because there would be outcry from the media, who would site certain scenes and blow it out of all proportion
    Unlike the Saw Hostel outbreak of rubbish there is NO glamorizing of the brutality here … The BBFC have got it all wrong in this case … They are claiming there are children involved … They need to look closer … The film is very cleverly edited and there were no children involved in any scenes of violence or sexuality apart from one Green Screened scene
    See the film … Its very good … But don't get the censored version … Get the uncut version when it comes out elsewhere

  9. Simon KinnearAug 31, 2010 at 2:46 pmReply

    Thanks to everyone who posted comments. I was expecting to be a kicking for writing this, but nice to see that you've taken it in as even-handed a manner as I intended it to read.

    Of course, as many of you point out, everything I say is based on the false premise of not having seen the film. Always a difficult place to write from. But the groundswell of support for it suggests A Serbian Film is worth watching no matter how unpleasant. So maybe I will one day…

    …when I'm a little less squeamish!


  10. peajayelleSep 1, 2010 at 8:35 pmReply

    I don't like horror, particularly the Saw / Hostel torture porn stuff that oozes gore and mindless violence…it has no point or value beyond it's titillation. However I was drawn to A Serbian Film because of it's alleged political message and found an uncut version quite easily. Because of the hype surrounding the film I was nervous, even scared, of watching it and had vowed to consign it to trash at the first opportunity. However, as has been said before, it's actually quite a good film…difficult, distasteful, shocking, challenging, though-provoking etc. The scenes that have been lambasted the most are almost 'unthinkable' but the fact is their execution is so surreal – even slapstick – that their impact is so much less than what you might imagination them to be. The ideas depicted in the film still haunt me – but the scenes themselves don't. I don't know much about the history of the former Yugoslavia – but I do know that it was a savage, brutal, sadistic civil war with atrocities committed by all sides – this film, I think, tries in some strange 'porn' way to deal with it…maybe

  11. SozeSep 7, 2010 at 7:27 pmReply

    I`d like to join in with those saying the film`s bark is worse than it`s bite. It`s so completely OTT it`s very hard to be offended…indeed at times it bordered on black comedy. The infamous scene is, as had been said, very fake and nowhere near as graphic as some have made out.

    I shared your reaction when I first heard about it, didn`t think it was something I`d want to see…but curiosity got the better of me. If you`ve sat through all the other films the Daily Mail and their ilk get irritable with I doubt this`ll leave you any the worse.

  12. AnonymousOct 20, 2010 at 4:40 pmReply

    Like you, I'm liberal when it comes to censorship.
    I watched A Serbian Film (uncut, online) without ANY prior knowledge of its content.
    Yes, it was very shocking, and now I'm of the mindset that yes, there is certainly a time and place for censorship. This film, however (allegedly) intelligent, however high its production values, however well acted, DESERVED to be cut back. It would have still remained horrific, painful and degrading.

    Real life is not filtered, so some would argue why should film? Fine. if that's you're augment, why not just take a trip to Serbia in the hopes that you witness the horror first hand? Is that real and unfiltered enough?

    Finally, what's intelligent about this film anyway? How is a very literal and obvious allegory of Serbia's dark past an intelligent treatment?

  13. AnonymousFeb 18, 2011 at 3:00 amReply

    For what it's worth i have just watched the full uncut version. It is undoubtably a fantastic thought provoking and horrifying film, however I have no words for some of the scenes I have just witnessed and whilst being a huge fan of films that challenge not only feelings and emotions but morality as well – THERE IS NO JUSTIFICATION FOR HOW FAR THE DIRECTOR DECIDED TO GO. NONE AT ALL.

    There are not many taboo's left in this world, and our society is already falling apart due to the umbrella of liberalism and so-called freedom of speech and this film depicts two of the most shocking and frankly uncontrolled and irresponsible scenes that I have ever witnessed. My concern is that as said above, the motivation behind this movie is to shock and provoke – job done – but how much further do we really need to go?
    Far enough to allow the imagery of children being sexualized and violently sexually assaulted for whatever reason in THIS particular context ok????

    This film hits the target for sure, but film-makers need to own up to a duty of care for the output they have onto society and the impact their artistic piece can have. The joke is on us….as Vulkir says in the film, it is art coming to life – but at what price??


  14. » Human Centipede 2 and movie censorship: a gag with legs » KinnemaniacApr 2, 2012 at 10:12 pmReply

    […] I’m thinking is, we’ve been here before.  Last August, I wrote a piece called The BBFC vs A Serbian Film, which is still I think the most widely-read article on this blog.  My opinion hasn’t […]

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