IN Australia, the decision about whether or not movies are allowed to be screened falls in the hands of a designated committee from the classification review board with advice from the "Office of Film and Literature Classification". The committee is chosen from a board of 20 members, who are drawn from all over Australia, and who represent a diverse range of backgrounds, experience and qualifications. The board is also responsible for giving films, computer games and printed publications a consumer rating which advises of the appropriate audience - in some cases, being legally binding.
The board makes its decision based on a number of factors including:
"a) the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults;
b) the literary, artistic or educational merit (if any) of the publication, film or computer game;
c) the general character of the publication, film or computer game, including whether it is of medical, legal or scientific character; and
d) the persons or class of persons to or amongst whom it is published or is intended or likely to be published."
Last month, the movie "Ken Park", directed by provocative New York native Larry Clark, was refused classification, and thus was deemed 'unscreenable' in Australia because of its depictions of teenage sex, incest and auto-erotic asphyxiation. The film is also reported to have explicit scenes of masturbation, a love affair between a teenager and his girlfriend's mother, youth drug scenes, alcohol abuse and use of prostitutes by the parents in the film. Whilst the actors playing the teenagers look young, the director has stated that they are all over 18 years of age.
Naturally, this provoked an outcry from the Australian film community who were horrified with the decision - a film community who believes that this is yet another bad decision in a long list throughout the years. The most vocal parties formed a 'rebel' group, who called itself "Free Cinema" - a group of well known protagonists including a film writer, a television host and a radio film critic. They are guided by their leader, Margaret Pomeranz the president of the Australia Film Critic Circle and co-host of the "The Movie Show" - a national half-hour film review program known for the lively and entertaining differences in opinion between Pomeranz and her co-host, David Stratton.
Ken Park has been seen at film festivals around the world including Europe, America and New Zealand. It has also been sold commercially to 30 countries, including Singapore. It has been described as having "artistic merit" and about the "exploration of the lives of children" by those advocating its screening. In the end, it was a three-person committee from the Office of Film and Literature Classification that decided it should not be screened on the basis that "it offended against Australia's morality, decency and propriety". Additionally, for the record, the vote was 2-1 in favour of not screening the movie.
On the night of Tuesday the 1st of July, a private screening was held in a warehouse in Melbourne. The audience of forty was invited by private email and the copy of the movie was downloaded from the Internet. One of the unnamed organisers, in response to the source of the movie replied "that was the way we had to import it because it's illegal to import it into this country and it could have been confiscated at customs."
Yesterday, the 3rd of July, "Free Cinema" decided to push the boundaries as well, but this time, doing so out in the open. It publicised that the film would be screened at a Town Hall and several of the organisers were interviewed. Australian law dictates that penalties of up to an $11,000 fine or a possible jail term of up to a year were applicable, and police were aware of the screening. When asked whether she was prepared to go to jail, Pomeranz prepared her path to martyrdom. "Prepared? I mean, this is sort of like such a strange question. Yeah, I suppose so, I'm putting something on the line here, and if that involves being arrested for this, yeah I'm prepared to do it."
The first police officer arrived even before many of the protesting film critics had arrived. At around 5pm, he walked into the town hall and asked volunteers, proudly displaying "Free Cinema" arm bands, what was going on. The volunteers who in the midst of setting up rows of chairs and organising milk for cups of tea, replied "We are showing a film."
An hour later, the police officer returned to find the cinema screen displaying "Ken Park banned!" as well as images of the film's young adult stars in provocative positions. Again the police officer asked what was happening. The volunteers coyly replied "Not quite sure what's going on."
The town hall started filling up quickly. By the time the movie was advertised to start, 500 people had packed out the town hall. 100 more people were queueing outside, disappointed they were unable to get in. Pomeranz asked the crowd to raise their hands if they were willing to share responsibility of exhibiting the film. Hundreds of hands went up. She then pressed play on the DVD player containing the copy the organisers had obtained.
Six policeman confronted Pomeranz. One asked her to stop the screening as the opening credits rolled. She said she could not as it was against her principles. The officer in charge pressed the eject button and was immediately greeted with a chorus of boos. Pomeranz pleaded to show the entire film before she was taken away but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Pomeranz and other organisers from "Free Cinema" were ushered next door to the Police Station. In hindsight, perhaps the organisers could have picked a better location but fortunately for Pomeranz and her proponents, no arrests were made. The film community is lamenting what they see as conservatist censorship laws.
Stratton, Pomeranz's television co-host, whilst often passionately disagreeing with Pomeranz on a film review, agrees with her in this war. "It's sad that we in this country today have got to a stage where adults can't choose whether or not to see a film like this, and also that we are misled about the contents of it" Stratton stated on radio, continuing on to say "I think adults in a democracy like Australia should have the right to choose what they want to see, and we used to have that until very recent times."
Censorship is obviously an issue which requires balance. It reflects upon the nature and attitudes of the general community. It is when this "sand line" is unable to adapt to the changing nature of community that public outcries arise and films are 'controversially' banned. But how much censorship should there be in society today? Is censorship the responsibility of government to protect us or is it the grip choking our freedom? Is censorship withholding our privelege to make educated decisions about what we see or is it the blanket of morality protecting society from the danger of sliding moral standards? Different politics answer differently. Different people answer differently. Different religions answer differently but in the end, Government has its say - at least in Australia.
Today, the 4th of July, a time when our American brothers and sisters celebrate their independence and freedom, Australia will be examining its own freedom and censorship. Whilst "Ken Park" is making headlines today, so is another controversial film made by a British historian. The film is called "The Search for Truth in History" and comes from David Irving who contends that the Nazi holocaust did not happen. Jewish groups in Australia are lobbying for the film to be banned, and anti-freedom groups are coming back just as the anti-censorship groups did for "Ken Park".
Censorship has its role in society, and today that role is being questioned.