The BBFC vs A Serbian Film
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.
“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.