Can the BBFC maintain acceptance in our digital age? The organisation has moved on hugely since the ultra-conservative head James Ferman finally retired, but is still open to ridicule in the nature of this Ali G snippet...
A self-regulator with statutory backing (arguably just as Leveson would have liked the new press regulator to be, certainly if any PCC replacement didn't quickly prove itself as effective, though the 'Royal Charter' notion is not as direct as the 1984 Video Recordings Act).
The British Board of Film Classification is an independent, non-governmental body which has classified cinema films since it was set up in 1912 and videos/ DVDs since the Video Recordings Act was passed in 1984.That's the BBFC's self-description. The Wiki is useful.
Julian Petley, author of many books on censorship (including one called ... Censorship!), and renowned opponent of censorship, argues that like many non-governmental censors it fulfils a useful role for government, keeping them out of controversy yet generally reflecting the will of government.
One clear exception was the 1996 David Cronenberg movie Crash, which government ministers joined with the press in fuelling an archetypal moral panic. For once, it failed, and calls to ban the film failed. The classic film moral panic was in the early 1980s, with the 'video nasties' panic seeing a campaign led by the likes of the Mail and Times to ban the wide range of Indie horror movies becoming available on VHS. That was highly successful, and led to the BBFC gaining statutory power through the 1984 Video Recordings Act, extended through the 2010 Video Recordings Act.
Whether Petley is right about it being a convenient long-arm tool of the state or not is debatable, but its worth noting WHY it was set up. In the 1900s and 1910s incresing numbers of local councils began creating their own censorship codes. This made effective UK-wide film distribution incredibly complex, and expensive; by setting up an industry standard, the film industry dramatically cut its distribution costs, and reduced the pressure for potentially tougher censorship.
Like IPSO and its predecessors (GCP, PC, PCC), it has nothing to say on ownership. Given this is an industry that is globally dominated by just six US vertically integrated conglomerates, the so-called 'big six' (some would say 'big seven', including Lionsgate), it looks like the BBFC, like IPSO, also functions to make the concentration of ownership invisible or non-controversial (hegemonic would be another way of putting that!). Chomsky, of course, includes concentration of ownership amongst his 'five filters' in the 'propaganda model'.
Should we ignore the issue of ownership as a concern solely of Marxists like Chomsky? Consider these examples:
- Sweet Sixteen is a typical Ken Loach film: unscripted, its cast workshop their own script; social realist and sympathetic to its working class protagonist; low budget and Indie. Its also a teen movie, designed as a 15 ... but awarded an 18. The young lead was banned from his own premiere, to protect him from exposure to words (the 'c-word') he himself scripted as natural for his character, vital for verisimilitude. Some local councils overturned this to give it a 15, but its already low commercial prospects were wrecked with a major part of its target audience banned from seeing it
- This is England is a typical Shane Meadows film produced through Warp Films: social realist and sympathetic to its young teen working class protagonist; low budget and Indie. It is autobiographical. Its also a teen movie, designed as a 15 ... but awarded an 18. Some local councils overturned this to give it a 15, but its already low commercial prospects were wrecked with a major part of its target audience banned from seeing it. Strong language was a factor, but primarily it was the climactic violent scene which was seen by the BBFC as too disturbing, and with too much risk of inspiring sympathy for the racist. Again, this was the actual life story of Meadows who, like Shaun in the movie, rejected the path he was on after witnessing this attack, a message that couldn't be more clearly expressed in the film, with Shaun symbolically throwing his Union Jack into the sea.
- Lara Croft Tomb Raider is a studio movie featuring frequent violence, awarded a 12 once a knife fight scene was partially cut (seen as a risk of copycat behaviour, just as the nunkchuka scene from the 1973 Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon was - a ban that stayed in place for 26 years!), as the violence was judged to be 'cartoon-like'
- Dark Knight was a 2008 tentpole movie featuring frequent, intense and explicit violence with a very dark overall tone and look. It was judged to be cartoon like in nature and awarded a 12, though many local councils uprated it to a 15, and there was significant newspaper controversy over the low rating.
- The World's End was a $20m 2013 movie produced by Working Title, a subsidiary of big six conglomerate NBC-Universal (itself a mere subsidiary of Comcast!). It featured many uses of 'the c-word' and the term 'm-f'er [that abbreviation is ridiculous, not one I'd use in an exam, but necessary to avoid getting blocked by catch-all web filters], as well as extreme, gory violence. The violence was judged to be cartoon like and the language used in a comic context, so it was given a 15 rating.
There was some concern noted about the level of violence and one examiner points out that the film was awarded a PG by the MPAA in America. However the universal appeal and adventurous tone of Star Wars won the team over and the film was passed at U, a category decision that has remained unchanged for over thirty years. (quoted from BBFC, ditto screenshot below)
Hmmm, they also sound kind of ... similar. Now consider this:
- In the documentary film This Film is Not Yet Rated, Matt Stone is interviewed. He produced a crude, vulgar comedy for an Indie firm on a low budget, and found it hit with many cuts, which the MPAA would not explain or engage in any dialogue over. It got an NC-17 rating, which means that the biggest physical retailer of DVDs, Wal-Mart, won't stock it. He later produced the South Park Movie for Sony (again with director Trey Parker), a crude, vulgar comedy that the MPAA were extremely helpful in guiding to a lower R rating.
Are the film censors in both the US and UK biased towards the majors? Hmmm...
Now consider these:
- Baise Moi features actual penetrative sex, and an extensive rape scene.
- Irreversible features actual penetrative sex and an extensive rape scene.
|The BBFC's explanation of the banning of Last House ... banned by the web filter used here! Julian Petley argues that web filters are an incredibly powerful, important form of censorship which are little discussed and highly undemocratic|
What's the difference? Horror movies are associated with a mass market, mainly C2DE audience. In a UK context, foreign language films are seen as arthouse, viewed by a niche audience which is heavily skewed to ABC1s. The ABC1s are judged as more discerning and less likely to be influenced (harmed) by filmic material.
Is the UK film censor biased towards ABC1s? Hmmm...
At this point, and its a theme you can link to other media, not least with the watershed example, lets simply raise the question: is the BBFC relevant in the digital age? Whats the point of it when children can so easily bypass it and download films, including non-UK cuts with material banned from UK releases? The BBFC acknowledges this issue, and makes an interesting argument, which is essentially that they continue to provide parents with the information necessary to make informed choices on behalf of children. It always comes back to the protection of children. The BBFC does, of course, also fulfil the role of ensuring that wider laws, such as obscenity (see the Hate Crime example below), are observed, and (again, read on!) are actually expanding their reach to rate music videos and mobile providers' content.
Now, finally, consider these two films:
- The Human Centipede II (2011) was refused a certificate by the BBFC, who considered it as an obscene work, without the artistic merit required to justify its explicit content and themes
- Hate Crime (2013) is also a low budget US Indie horror that was refused a certificate by the BBFC.
The distributors of THC2 appealed the decision and, with several minutes of further cuts, won.
This U-turn is the result of a successful appeal launched by studio Bounty Films, who proposed a series of cuts after the BBFC's decision in June. The board required more extensive edits, to which Eureka acquiesced. The BBFC said: "These cuts produce a work which many will find difficult but which I believe can properly be classified at the adult level. The company has now accepted these cuts, withdrawn its appeal and the work has been classified, as cut, at 18." [Guardian]The distributors were delighted with the huge amount of publicity this generated!
Hate Crime's distributors have simply failed though. The BBFC website (if you can actually get to view it through a web filter!!!) is superb overall with its clear detail and explanation on cuts and ratings. Disappointingly, there is zero detail or explanation on why this film is not granted a rating.
NB: note that the MelonFarmers site [linked below] is very useful as an anti-censorship resource but features some adult ads, and is NSFW, so use with caution
A MelonFarmers article reveals is a sharp disparity between the BBFC judgement and mainstream critical consensus. The BBFC essentially view this as an exploitative racist film, which fails to condemn the racist violence against a Jewish family, noting that titles at the end of the film are unconvincing and actually strengthen the sense of this being a racist film. The film is judged therefore to pose a social threat by encouraging harmful attitudes, and this taps into the ongoing discourse around limitations on freedom of speech and what constitutes hate speech, which is already a criminal offence but which the Home Secretary is seeking to more widely define (and ban). We have seen many prosecutions for racist abuse (most often of footballers like Stan Collymore) on Twitter, and the BBFC judgement appears consistent with the logic of this and the changing social attitudes such law represents.
The following are also my own notes (quotes highlighted) from MelonFarmers