Friday, 27 July 2012

Prudish film censors have real modern analogues

Panther Woman in Island of Lost Souls, 1932,
a film rejected for classification in 1933 and 1957
in Britain, and finally given a PG rating in 2011.
Film classification is as old as the cinema in Britain, with the British Board of Film Censors being established in 1912 following the passage through Parliament of the 1909 Cinematograph Act. "To pre-empt censorship by central government, the film industry set up the board," writes Kira Cochrane in her Guardian article on the British Board of Film Classification (the name was changed in 1984). Classification might be of long standing but the fact that it continues today doesn't mean that there haven't been a number of bizarre rulings over the years. The image here is from one movie that originally failed to get passed, and only did so in 1958 when cuts were made. But then, in 2012, it's being featured in a special screening by the British Film Institute. The movie is based on the 1896 sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau. So from inception to celebration it has taken the Brits 116 years to face up to this dark fiction squarely, and to realise that censorship is the real bogeyman. Writes Cochrane:
Because of those strong restrictions, most films rated A for adult in the board's early days would now be rated PG. One that's showing in the BFI season, 1932's Island of Lost Souls, was rejected for classification in 1933 and 1957, apparently because its narrative – a scientist conducting experiments to turn animals into humans – was deemed too horrifying. In 1958 it was granted an X certificate after cuts were made, and by last year it was classified as a PG on DVD, with those cuts restored.
Cochrane also recounts that Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film Battleship Potemkin was suppressed by the BBFC. As senior examiner Craig Lapper now recounts:
There was certainly an element, at the time, of worry, with the general strike and so forth, over whether it was possible these films might lead to revolution in Britain. Again, from today's standpoint that seems ludicrous. But perhaps then it wasn't quite so much.
Classic B-movies and arthouse films being refused the right to screen would set the nerves of any dedicated movie buff on edge nowadays, but the fact is that classification of material is all too common everywhere, even in the most emulated democracies. Cabinet discussions among members of government are released in dribs and drabs every year in Australia, decades after the fact. In the US, presidential conversations are likewise only released a generation after the relevant events have passed into popular memory. And some documents, where spy agencies were involved in their production, are never released uncensored at all.

But the most important contemporary analogue for the repressive and prudish attitudes of censors such as the early-day BBFC are today's governments, who are passing into law the latitude for law enforcement agencies and others to have open access to our private online communications. These new laws often receive little public scrutiny. And they are coming into force everywhere, including in Australia, as police struggle to keep up with the volume of activity that has been enabled by ubiquitous internet. In future, will we frown on such laws as we do on the petty scruples of over-sensitive film censors from the early days of the talkies? Or will we just become accustomed to self-censoring in the knowledge that we have no way to know who is privy to what we say to others online?

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