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Response To Chief Censor Bill Hastings

Press Release 7 April 2004

For immediate release

Response To Chief Censor Bill Hastings Attack On “The Passion” Re-Rating

The fact that the Chief Censor of Film and Literature, Mr Bill Hastings, has the audacity to describe the dropping of the rating of The Passion of the Christ as ‘setting a “new benchmark” for acceptable levels of violence in films’, (NZPA 6 April) raises further questions about his suitability to hold this statutory position.

He is reported as having “vigorously opposed lobbying by religious and community groups to drop the rating for the film, which he has described as traumatic because of the high level of violence.”

Does Mr Hastings not realise that these groups have a perfect right under s. 47 of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 (“the Act”) to seek the leave of the Secretary of Internal Affairs to apply to the Film and Literature Board of Review (“the Board”) for a re-classification, an option which was successfully taken up by the film distributor, Hoyts?

Does he not realise that these groups have a right under the law to make submissions to the Board? Does he not realise that the independence of the Board and the integrity of the review process is seriously compromised when a chief censor enters into a public arena with his personal views on the rating of a film before its classification decision is registered and after the review process has been activated?

Mr Hastings broadcast his own personal and highly critical views on The Passion on public radio over a period of three days before his Office had even completed and registered its classification decision on The Passion, and before he had formally consulted any religious leader or scholar outside his Office on the film.

This is the same chief censor who cleared the films Baise-Moi, Ken Park (both banned in Australia), Visitor Q and Irreversible for film festivals and tertiary media and film studies courses, despite the fact they all set new low benchmarks in their gratuitous and degrading depictions of sado-masochism, necrophilia (sex with a corpse), sexual violation (including anal and vaginal rape), auto-erotic asphyxiation (by a teenager), corpse mutilation and sex acts involving human excrement. (Visitor Q, contains no censor’s descriptive warning note and yet it contains material covering most of the categories listed).

Mr Hamish Dixon, a senior psychologist and director of Wellington STOP, described Baise-Moi as setting “a new low in sadistic sexual violence” in his submission to the Film and Literature Board of Review. The Classification Office’s report on the film acknowledged that it could be read as tending to promote and support extreme violence and noted the unrelenting juxtaposing of scenes of graphic violence with those of explicit sex (using in the latter, techniques commonplace in hard-core pornographic films).

Other films passed by Hastings such as Kill Bill-Vol 1 contain some of the highest levels of gratuitous and bloody violence ever made available to adult audiences in New Zealand cinemas. Significantly more films containing high levels of brutal sexual violence have been cleared consistently each year by Mr Hastings since he has headed the Classification Office, than by any other NZ chief censor.

Mr Hastings, speaking from Vienna, told National Radio on 5 April 2004, that the decision of the Board, released on 5 April 2004, to drop the rating of The Passion of the Christ from R16 to R15 “set a new benchmark for new levels of violence at R15”. A NZPA report published on 6 April 2004 states that he considered that “the lowering [of] the rating … set a “new benchmark” for acceptable levels of violence in films”.

What he actually stated in his submission to the Board dated 11 March 2004 is as follows:

“A classification below 16 would set a new benchmark for depictions of violence permitted in film on general release, exceeding that established by Saving Private Ryan. A classification below 16 could also be seen to privilege one religion ahead of others on the basis that the film’s depictions are historically accurate, a basis that is in fact contested”. [par. 15]

The Society, in its oral submission to the Board on March 15 2004 concerning The Passion, reported that Mr Hastings had granted a R15 classification to the film Saving Private Ryan which contains levels of violence, in terms of impact, that few would dispute are in excess of (or at lease on the same level as) those found in The Passion.

In a review of the film in The Sunday Star Times Frank Haden, a widely respected columnist, stated:

“The fools who say it [The Passion] is too graphically bloody should think again. The phoney shock being mealy-mouthed from film writers and columnists is hypocritical in the context of what these pundits find acceptable in contemporary productions.

“Gibson's work gives no cause for complaint from a film-going public inured to routine slow-motion close-ups of gangsters being shot in the chest, with cameras following every last bit of blood and gobbet of flesh sliding down tiled bathroom walls, all rationalised as justifiable cinematic realism.”

The level of hypocrisy demonstrated by those who decry the violence depicted in The Passion and yet are willing to speak favourably about films like Baise-Moi and Visitor Q – as our Chief Censor did on Radio 95bFM on several occasions - is breathtaking! Yes, the level of violence (and consequent suffering) is high in The Passion, but it is apposite. It’s justifiable in terms of what we know of history. It is clearly not intended to, nor does it, titillate the audience, but rather overwhelms the audience with the sense of genuine self-giving sacrifice, love and forgiveness that overpowers and defeats the force of evil motivating perpetrators of violence.

Mr Hastings is reported as having said: “Whether it’s Jesus or Allah or a secular King or Queen, I don’t really think it makes any difference.” [in terms of how censors should classify publications containing violence]. (NZPA 6 April 2004).

He demonstrates again his inability to grasp the real issues which are:

(1) Is the level violence depicted gratuitous or not?

(2) Are the effects of the depiction of violence on the minds of the average viewers for whom the publication is intended, counterbalanced and lessened by any other factors introduced?

(3) What is the context of the violence in terms of cultural, historical, religious or educational factors, that might lead a censor to take a different view of the violence, if any of these factors were absent, and

(4) What is the dominant effect of the publication as a whole on the mind of the viewer? (For, example does it treat the reality of violence as something to be scoffed at or emulated? Does it incite copy-cat violence?).

When we do get a chief censor who can address these matters with maturity and balance and adhere to and apply the Act in the classification decision process, the public will be better safe-guarded from the insidious and injurious content matter that is polluting our theatres in the form of films like Baise-Moi, Visitor Q, Kill-Bill – Vol, Irreversible and Ken Park.


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