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Film Festivals, Perverts, “Baise-Moi” & Censorship



Sir John Kennedy-Good KBE QSO
Professor T V O'Donnell MD FRACP CBE
Marilyn Pryor
Patricia Bartlett OBE
Media Release
3 August 2002

Film Festivals, Sex Perverts, “Baise-Moi” and Censorship

In an article entitled “Perverts and censors have a great deal in common”, Barbara Sumner-Burstyn expresses her disgust at the banning of the French sex-violence film “Baise-Moi” (Fu** Me”) from the Beck’s Incredible Film Festival as a result of the actions of the Society for Promotion of Community Standards Inc. She argues that “[sexual] perverts have a lot in common with members of the Society” as both share an “inability to see beyond the depictions of sex and violence to the deeper story within.” (NZ Herald July 22, 2002).

Society President, Rev. Gordon Dempsey, concludes that “most thinking people will judge this attack on the Society as one that risks resorting to similar degrading, demeaning and dehumanising methodology as that employed by the purveyors of sexual perversion. By trying to link those who are genuinely concerned about the harmful nature of such material with sex perverts she undermines by such hyperbole the credibility of her own thinking and worldview.”

The Society has laid a formal complaint with the editor of the NZ Herald over this article that was first published as “Baise Moi, Plain Smut and Violence? Perverts and censors – they have more in common than you think” (16 May 2002: www.scoop.co.nz.)

The “whole purpose” of film festivals we are told by Barbara Sumner-Burstyn in her NZ Herald article, is “to screen challenging films, to encourage us to peel back the layers, to shift our perspectives and to create that sense of inner horror that causes us to redefine our approach and thought on certain subjects” She heralds “Baise-Moi” as a “challenging film”, worthy of screening at a festival because for her it “fulfil[s] the true promise of cinema”: “They make you think”. Elsewhere she states: “But don’t think I’m promoting this movie. I’m not. It made me sick….. It’s exigent and repulsive, a brutal, savage and disturbing film”? (Scoop 16/5/02). Later she states: “Personally I think the value of Baise Moi is in the personal development that comes from confrontation, from being affected and challenged, …horrified and repulsed and from reconsidering the consequences of our own roles and actions in society.”

But can a film that contravenes the censorship laws and makes some people “think”, be cleared by the censorship authorities for restricted screenings at a film festival just because it stimulates thinking? The simple legal answer is no. A publication is deemed to be “objectionable”, that is “injurious to the public good”, for the purposes of the Film, Videos and Publications Classification Act (“the Act”), if it “promotes or supports, or tends to promote or support” one or more of six listed “objectionable” activities; regardless of any merit, value, or importance it may have in relation to literary, artistic, social, cultural, educational, scientific, or other matters. The listed activities in section 3(2) of the Act include: “The use of violence or coercion to compel any person to participate in, or submit to, sexual conduct” and “acts of torture or the infliction of extreme violence or extreme cruelty.”

The Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) decision on “Baise-Moi” discusses both of these “objectionable” activities which are depicted throughout the film. It notes: “The publication contains material which could be read as tending to promote and support the infliction of violence…. in most instances, the violence is graphic, glamorised and in many instances, sexualised… The publication … depict[s] sexual violence, or violence in association with sexual conduct… to a high extent and degree.”

In a major article by Graham Reid published in the NZ Herald (1 Dec. 2001) entitled “Censorship is no easy matter” Chief Censor, Bill Hastings is reported as saying: “The Act does not require proof that something be injurious to the public good, – for it to be classified objectionable - the phrase is ‘likely to be’ [injurious]... Increasingly, research is telling us how likely it might be.”

"There are now journals and so on which pretty well define that for anyone with a propensity to sexual violence, that [propensity] will be heightened by exposure to sexually violent images. Other studies show that negative attitudes towards women can be maintained by exposure to demeaning images.”

It is an indictment on the Classification Office that despite this evidence films containing glamourised depictions of sexual violence, graphic violence and degrading depictions of women, in particular, are being cleared for general restricted (R18) release.

Others who have viewed “Baise-Moi” like representatives of Auckland Rape Crisis, the National Collective of Rape Crisis and STOP (an organisation dealing with male sex offenders), were also made to think. They have called for it to be banned because they argue that it contravenes the Act.

The Commissioner for Children, the Hon. Roger McClay and the Deputy Leader of the NZ First Party, Peter Brown MP, who have both seen “Baise-Moi”, were also made to think and described the film as “sick” and “disgusting”. They, along with the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards Inc. (SPCS), have also called for its banning because they too believe its contents contravene the Act. The Society, following a recent successful appeal to the High Court over its general R18 classification (made by the Film and Literature Board of Review [“the Board”]), have forced the Board to reclassify it.

Few would disagree that screening “challenging” films, in the best sense of the word (which excludes films like “Baise-Moi”), is one important purpose of film festivals, but it is certainly not the “whole” purpose. Other purposes include giving exposure to the work of new and gifted film makers, both homegrown and from overseas; celebrating the differing and unique perspectives of film makers from other cultural backgrounds; and providing a rich and varied smorgasbord of film experiences over a short period of time at one place.

The question of whether “Baise-Moi” qualifies as a “challenging” film, even as defined by Sumner-Burstyn, is beside the point. This is a matter of personal taste. For example, one graphic scene from “Baise Moi” presents a terrified naked man crouched on all fours, forced to squeel at gunpoint like a pig and with a shotgun inserted by a woman into his anus. The trigger is pulled to execute him and spray his bloodied entrails around the room. The manner of the killing as the Classification Office decision notes “has a clearly sexual tone to it” with links to the acts of sodomy depicted earlier in the film. Some viewers like Sumner-Burstyn may find this sequence “challenging”, however most New Zealanders would find it repulsive, degrading and extremely offensive.

Paedophiles would relish the chance to see child porn and would not only find it “challenging” but also titillating. Rapists would not only find “Baise-Moi” “challenging” but would relish the chance to play voyeur and get some “action”. The real question to be answered is a legal one: whether this film qualifies under the law for a classification that would allow it to be screened at all, in any film festival or cinema or via other media. This is the key matter currently being investigated by the Board.

In an article entitled “Censorship Must Be Stopped” David Miller argues that film festivals are “celebrations of art … designed to showcase a variety of work and subjects”. He adds that “so often those responsible for bringing such work to life push the boundaries and explore different subjects that many consider taboo” (www.scoop.co.nz 19 July 2002). Such works, he says, “often … deal with the darker side of life and this makes people [a reference to SPCS] who believe that society’s rules are being broken uncomfortable.” He fails to appreciate that “the darker side of life” can still be portrayed (and the Society is not opposed to this per se) without infringing the censorship laws.

Miller rejects as “total nonsense” the suggestion by some, including the Society, Auckland Rape Crisis and others listed above, that films like “Baise-Moi” may be “having an adverse influence on people”. If Miller is correct, why did the Classification Office place restrictions on it? Clearly the censors believed its “availability” to those under 18 years of age was “likely to be injurious to the public good.” Miller ignores a wealth of research that the Chief Censor, Bill Hastings, and many others have highlighted, that shows that exposure to images of sexual violence is “injurious to the public good”, including adults.

Miller argues that rather than feeling “uncomfortable” about the gratuitous depictions of brutal rapes, serial killings and sexualised violence depicted in films like “Baise-Moi”, we should be “celebrating and embracing” their screening under the banner of “freedom of expression”. Much to the chagrin of Miller and his ilk, there has been no reason to throw a party over “Baise-Moi” as it has now been banned throughout Australia in a unanimous decision (dated 10 May 2002) by the Australian Classification Review Board and has yet to screen in NZ.

The use of the term “challenging” by Sumner-Burstyn to describe films like “Baise-Moi”, is disingenuous. It is designed to try and put a positive spin on what in reality is a thoroughly “objectionable” publication full of “degrading”, “demeaning” and “dehumanising” depictions of human behaviour. She defends “Baise-Moi” because it made her “think”, even though she admitted elsewhere that it made her feel “sick” and described it as “exigent and repulsive, a brutal, savage and disturbing film” (Scoop 16 May 2002).

Any depiction of “objectionable” material could make at least someone “think” even if Sumner-Burstyn is incapable of it. Extending her facile, fallacious and spurious reasoning, a film containing “objectionable” content as defined in the Act, can therefore be improved progressively by adding more of it; thereby intensifying the experience of offence, horror or revulsion, that will be concomitant with more “think[ing]”. The more “objectionable” (“challenging”) the film, the more thought would be generated in a “savvy” audience, and the more worthy the film must be of being part of a film festival run by Ms Sumner-Burstyn. The absurd nature of her reasoning is obvious.

In her facile ‘analysis’ of “Baise-Moi” she describes the story as involving “a couple of suburban girls learning that two wrongs do not make a right.” Here she risks the appearance of disingenuously redefining it as a moral tale in order to suggest that it somehow serves the “public good”. Her efforts have a ring of desperation. (The concept of morality never entered into any of the submissions regarding “Baise-Moi” made by the Society to the Board or High Court).

It is ironical that she rightly calls the “producers” of the “promotional blurb” on the film “disingenuous when they state the protagonists are not bad girls”. In a moral outburst worthy of a philistine morals society and emanating, no doubt, from her own “narrow paradigm” she states: “They are [“bad girls”]” and adds: “I refuse to call them heroines.” But why not? Aren’t they the instruments that ensure that “men get their comeuppance”? Aren’t they the “aggressors” who ensure that “the tables are turned” on the filthy rapists? Aren’t they the very paragons of virtue whom gender feminists with scores to settle with men hanker after as role models? Aren’t they the gritty ‘liberated’ women whose cavalier approach to sex and violence provides a mirror image of all that some admire in men who embark on serial sexual conquests and wanton acts of violence for self-gratification?

The film producers certainly believe, as Sumner Burstyn notes, that “the characters portrayed are beyond judgment” and that “we should all understand and feel kinship toward the lead characters because they are beyond judgement”. So how can she seize the “moral high-ground” and lambaste the lead characters as “bad girls” when others take an opposite viewpoint. Is she a “moral-rightist”, a term she uses to name-call the Society for seeking a review of the classification decision?

Sumner-Burstyn asserts that “What we do not see [in “Baise-Moi”] is the stock-in-trade of porn movies – gratuitous, pointless violence or consequence-free sexual gratification.” One wonders if she was so “sick” (her word) while viewing it that she had her head in the contents of her paper bag most of the time. Or did she have her eyes closed most of the time stricken by “inner horror” and thinking aloud as she underwent “the personal development that comes from confrontation, … being affected challenged, ..horrified and repulsed… and reconsidering the consequences of our roles and actions in society”? While these cerebral ‘revelations’ concerning the “deeper story” may have occurred deep inside her paper bag, it might have been helpful for her to have studied those elements of the film that the SPCS has highlighted before the Board and High Court as contravening the Act.

For example, the Classification Office identified examples of gratuitous, pointless violence. “The publication contains material which could be read as tending to support the infliction of extreme violence. There are strong, graphic images of violence throughout the film…”
Elsewhere Sumner-Burstyn has conceded: “Certainly Baise Moi is pornographic in many aspects.” (Scoop 16/5/02). Why the inconsistency?

The Censorship Office reported in its decision on “Baise-Moi”:

“Many of the sexual images are presented using the constructs commonly seen in explicit material intended for adult sexual arousal [hard-core pornography]. The depiction of vaginal penetration in the rape scene is of concern because it may be seen to sexualise the act of rape. The explicitness of the scene bears some resemblance to material intended for the purposes of sexual arousal. However, of equal concern in this scene is the possibility that the violent manner in which the women are treated throughout the rape could be viewed as sexually arousing. This constant juxtaposing of sex with violence has the effect of sexualising the violence as well as adding a violent reading to the sex….Violence is glamorised by the way in which many of the images are presented, by panning bodies, by shots of the women posing in coy positions with guns, and by including scenes of highly choreographed violence.”

Another “challenging” film that Sumner-Burstyn and Miller are upset about being pulled from the Beck’s Incredible Film Ferstival along with “Baise-Moi”, is “Visitor Q”. In this film Japanese director Takashi Miike used graphic depictions of necrophilia (sex with a fully naked [female] corpse) involving human excrement in the sex act and graphic scenes of rape involving the killing of the victim by strangulation, as well as mutilation of corpses, to deliver his supposed ‘message’ on a so-called taboo subject – the dysfunctional family. The Society considers the film lacks any redeeming feature. It numbs the senses of any normal person with its “objectionable” content and provides no insight into a solution for a dysfunctional family.

Sumner-Burstyn ‘reasons’ that “the sense of inner horror” it engenders and its “confrontational” elements makes the viewer “think”: therefore the film is suitable fodder for a film festival and should not be banned or cut. Yes, the film makes one think. It makes one think about and question the suitability of the appointment of Bill Hastings who holds the office of Chief Censor. He personally endorsed the film on Radio 95 BFM on 27th March this year in an interview with Steven Grey, as “accomplished and funny” , two weeks after it was classified R18 and cleared for the Beck’s Incredible Film Festival.

Anthony Timpson, the festival director, along with the director of the New Zealand International Film Festival 2002, Bill Gosden, are outraged that this film and “Baise-Moi” were pulled from the festival before they premiered, because of the imposition of interim restriction orders. They view it as an infringement of “freedom of expression” and the “rights” of film-goers to view whatever they want to see.

Those who oppose all forms of censorship and attack “watch-dog” groups that seek to have the censorship laws upheld, whether they like it or not, have to acknowledge that our country has adopted such laws. The laws apply to film festivals, are enforced by the censorship compliance unit of the Department of Internal Affairs and reflect the will of the people in a democratic and free society whose elected members of parliament have seen fit to enact them and ensure that they are upheld.

Gosden has stated that he supports some form of censorship laws. Those we have apply to films he promotes, including one described in his promotional material as “dirty” and “debauched” depicting young people “intoxicated on drugs” (“24 Hour Part People” rated R16), the one featuring a middle-aged woman seducing and having sex with a “naïve 16-year old French man” (schoolboy) in order to explore her sexual fantasies (“Brief Crossing” rated R18); and others depicting sexual violence, graphic violence, pornography, drug taking and offensive language. He has complied with this law every time he has submitted the films he intends to screen to the Office of Film and Literature Classification. His festival has none other than the Govenor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright as its Patron, so it must at least be seen to be operating respectfully within the law.

Sumner-Burstyn’s suggestion that film festival goers must experience the “inner horror” of seeing the boundaries of decency stripped away in order to have their perspectives changed is both simplistic and erroneous. People do change their perspectives as a result of many other types of experiences that may or may not involve “inner horror” and “confrontation”, yet do not involve “inner horror” and “confrontation” with “objectionable” and gratuitous depictions of depraved human behaviour. For example, high quality documentaries skilfully marshal the facts gained through excellent research, assess the evidence and often provide provocative and compelling conclusions that can markedly shift public perceptions and perspectives, while great art and literature explores the heights and depths of the human condition; in many cases plumbing depths of existential horror and inner confrontation that no pornography can ever reach, yet without provoking the slightest need for censorship.

Films that probe the depravity and exploitational aspects of some human behaviour can do so to great effect without crossing the boundaries of decency, yet at the same time challenging people’s thinking. Taboo topics such as incest, exploitation of children through slavery and prostitution, dysfunctional families, racism within the police, death and suicide, and the drug culture among young people, can all be dealt with sensitively and to great effect, without infringing the censorship laws. Historians and social commentators recognise that much change in public perspectives comes about over time through the gradual exposure of the public to a growing body of evidence.

Sumner-Burstyn, Gosden and Timpson all defend the ‘rights’ of “motivated and knowledgeable audiences” to view sex-violence films like “Baise-Moi”. However, if it is eventually banned by the Board, as it has been in Australia, these so-called “rights” to access “objectionable” material, claimed by a tiny minority, are rightly denied whether they like it or not. Those focused on the claimed “rights” of film-goers often ignore the potentially “injurious” impact of the “objectionable” content on vulnerable people who have been victims of sex attacks, on those who have the potential to commit such offences and on others who are desensitised to the horrors of rape and torture, or who are psychologically damaged.

In a recent ruling from the High Court in favour of the Society’s appeal against the Board’s classification of “Baise-Moi”, Hon. Justice Hammond stated:

“To many thoughtful people, any kind of censorship of free expression, and specifically censorship of film and television, is in itself an evil: it is an infringement of a basic freedom, it denies people potentially life-enhancing experiences or necessary insights, and perhaps most critically, it imposes the thinking and prejudices of one person or group upon others.

“But that said, this Act of Parliament in fact provides for censorship. And New Zealand is on common ground with other jurisdictions in this respect. Even in the United States, which has First Amendment protection under the US Constitution, ‘obscenity’ is one of a (very few) areas of the law in which prior restraint has been upheld. Nevertheless, any prior restraint is closely scrutinised, on both substantive and procedural grounds to ensure it is no wider than is strictly necessary….” [pars. 32 & 33].

Of course adults are legally entitled to view films that have been passed by the Censorship Office, but this presupposes that the classification decision conforms to the law and this is a mute point in the case of “Baise-Moi” and “Visitor Q”. (Justice Hammond has found a legal error in the Board’s decision on “Baise-Moi).

Sumner-Burstyn states: “By removing and trying to remove them [films] from the restricted viewing of a festival the society [SPCS] is removing the opportunity to assess, to critique, to lambaste or support.” These “segments of human potential gone severely askew” should be open for inspection, so we can “ask ourselves how and why we would respond in similar circumstances.” Extending this flawed reasoning, films depicting bestiality, acts of paedophilia, non-simulated rape and murders (“snuff movies”) and child birth in the context of hard-core sex, should all be “open for inspection” to help us grow “moral muscles”. Why confine ourselves to the “narrow paradigms” imposed upon us by the Classification Act and imposed on us by the “moral high-grounders” in the Censorship Office who regularly classify a small percentage of publications “objectionable” and ban them. Sumner-Burstyn has never complained about these decisions.

No doubt she may choose to draw a distinction between films depicting paedophilia and “Baise-Moi”, by arguing that the latter is legal because the Chief Censor and Board cleared it for R18 viewing, while the former are illegal because they contravene the law. However, the distinction may not be so clear cut. The Society has challenged the legality of the Board’s classification via the mechanism of the High Court and it is perfectly entitled to do so. The film has not yet been banned in New Zealand and defenders of the Board’s classification were given the opportunity to defend it in the High Court. The NZ distributor of the film, Metropolis Films, did not appear, nor did Mr Anthony Timpson.

One cannot justify the use of hard-core pornography which demeans, dehumanises and degrades women by claiming, as the defenders of “Baise-Moi” have done, that it is being used to critique pornography. The inconsistency is obvious. One cannot justify gratuitous depictions of graphic sexual violence (“Baise-Moi”) and degrading and gratuitous depictions of necrophilia associated with human excrement (“Visitor Q”), on the basis of “artistic merit” or as a means for us to experience “personal development” and develop “moral muscles”.

Only a tiny minority of people want to view films that depict extended sequences depicting necrophilia in association with human excrement, bestiality, the use of violence or coercion to compel any person to participate in, or submit to, sexual conduct; acts of torture or the infliction of extreme violence or extreme cruelty; or the use of urine or excrement in association with degrading or dehumanising conduct.

People who label those who campaign to get such “objectionable” material off the public screen as “moral high-grounders” with a “narrow band of understanding” on a level with sex ’perverts”, risk resorting to a similar degrading, demeaning and dehumanising methodology as that employed by the purveyors of sexual perversion. By trying to link those who are genuinely concerned about the harmful nature of such material with sex perverts they undermine by such hyperbole the credibility of their own thinking and worldview.

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