The Australian Classification Review Board has deemed A Serbian Film (Directed by Srdjan Spasojevic) too damaging to our souls, psyches and retinas. Distributed in Australia by the alternative AccentFilm, the film suffered an initial banning, then an R18+ rating due to some nips and tucks of the material, and then has come around full circle again to be considered not suitable for purchase by any Australian. In South Australia (Home of the City of Churches) A Serbian Film was outright contraband material pretty much from the word go, or in the case of a film, the anti-piracy warning.
I remember reading a Roger Ebert review of Caligula, which described it as having no merit at all. So erupts the force of opinion that transpires being stimulated culturally by our fellow Homo Sapiens. However, to write a scathing review is one thing, to walk out on the polymorphic theatre that film projects is the empowered motion of the cinema attendee, to switch off a television set is the autonomous control a home viewer wields, to decline to watch is the triumph of the individual in a society flowing with the multiple streaming flux of electronic digital media - but to have a select few or even an overwhelming majority ban a film that neither represents reality or enforces it; is the auto-da-fé of culture, the vassalage of individual freedoms to independently create, distribute, debate, and curate. Classification is purely cultural law with no due process and the judiciary verdict of moral cannibals.
I am no stranger to censorship, having had my own short work 60 Second Relief refused classification in Australia. You can read my reaction to its banning, as well as the MUFF response to the censured films that year on the Refused-Classification website provided by the link over the title of my film.
The most productive method for scrutinising produced works is Technical - the techniques for production. A snuff film clearly crosses legal and ethical boundaries, at the most extreme axis of creativity there is possibility for apparent abuse, even if the participants and producers are all consenting and willing, it still cross references other procedural guidelines for human harmony if purposes are practiced in punitive fashion. Exploitation also comes under theoretical and social scrutiny, as does also Equity Pay for talent and crew, Contractual Obligations, Release Agreements and Copyright.
This is a sliding scale of technical ethics involved in the processes of production. All other scrutiny falls under analytical discourse, which should inquire not whether or not the media should be distributed; but should be about what themes, whether detrimental to what we consider the homeostasis of our public mores or conducive to them - should be in the forum of our focus.
The array and span of films that contain propaganda or psychological priming for the deeds of governments or particular sections of society is overwhelming and always has been, these films are not scrutinised by those who have the Saint Peter power to refuse entry into the kingdom of culture. I give the example all the time of Hollywood films that have content written into the 'entertainment' in order to infuse the masses with some kind of ulterior message. This is an old trick which was used prolifically by George Bernard Shaw for his messages of social change, and the success he reached as a playwright depended on it. However Shaw quite openly admitted to using this device.
The unfortunate expected next phase or stage of such censorship is the actual prevention of people making the films to begin with. Imagine having an idea prevented whilst still on paper. This occurs through-out the world all the time, and artists and creatives are threatened into keeping quiet or shut away under lock and key. Or if things get really nasty, to use another Bernard Shaw perspective, assassination, which in his opinion is the extreme form of censorship. So how far do the censors plan to go, and how quickly will they get there? Will they inch by inch nudge their scope of power to the point where they can prevent an artist from even considering making a work?
To return to A Serbian Film, the representation, the symbolsim, the metaphors what have you, seems to be the key behind the imagery and narrative. Now, I have to disclaim here as I have not watched it, but my position on this matter does not lie with the film's content, and I have had plenty of people I know describe to me in finite detail portions of the most gross aspects of the film. I am a squeamish person, and gore is not something I find fascinating. Indeed, I tend rather to find pleasure in absurdist anthropological madcap cinema, and those who do find gore fascinating would be horrified to know I can easily sit through Manuel de Oliveira's The Satin Slipper, which has a running time of 410 minutes and What's New Pussycat is on my list of Desert Island Films (Horrified? They may even squeal and wretch in disgust). My point of view rests with the techniques used in the film's production, and from what I know, the production procedure was conducted as representation decrees, without harm to those involved. Of course with the reaction of some mobs and individuals being as they are, no doubt some of the cast and crew were personally censored by public moralists which could have long lasting effects on their careers and psyches.
Finally, I have read a number of books that enter into explicit territories of socially uninviting behaviour, some novels that have been around for hundreds of years. I don't think I want to ban them. My mind can deduce the context of the content, and it is the function of my mental faculties to enter into those worlds with the distinct objective of leaving reality for fantasy, fiction, and representation.
Broadcast media is so identifiably accessible, books however are less these days the influence they once were, the content of novels now long forgotten has been replaced by the text on the screen as a focal point of controversy - I can note down easily a few novels that exceed the descriptive travesties that are painted in A Serbian Film. All released by Penguin Classics and Everyman Library.
The plates of Gustave Doré depicting Dante's sinners tortured in Hell is a precise example of what technique A Serbian Film is using to communicate its ideas.
The usage of the word 'promotes' is interesting here, when reading what some argue as the issue regarding the content. Rambo is a film that 'promotes' war it could be said without much examination, Apocalypse Now, a much more graphic film, I would say, is probably not. The trouble is, banning is like a disease, the more that is seen as inappropriate the more that is considered ripe for the top shelf of the hallway cupboard - it's a cleansing disease, no different from other forms of social cleansing (It's OFLCOCD?). In orders and systems that have high levels of censorship, ask ourselves, is there a dramatic reduction in inhumane practices or do they simply occur in another form?
On a general level with this sort of censorship, it always irritates me that we have public supporting, encouraging war atrocity, governments condoning torture, people in our world suffering from the most severe sort of unattended to hardships, freedoms being quashed, manipulation by authoritarians who exploit masses of civilians every day, personal 'rights' of gender, sexuality, lifestyle constantly censured, abused or forced to live the existence of pariahs by organisations and public self appointed police/judges/jury/executioners - and still it is seen fit and a productive use of energy to spend time classifying and censoring representative works of art.
To conclude, with A Serbian Film now banned from sale and distribution, you can always buy yourself a copy of The Smurfs, Hollywood's shallow public money vacuuming abuse of Belgium artist Peyo's little blue creatures. A gentle note; it is rumoured The Smurfs 2011 Trilogy (Yes, they are making three of them) has been refused classification in le Pays maudit.