This is where I stand on the subject of censorship: every single aspect of the human condition – no matter how dark, difficult or inconvenient – should be allowed to be explored in any medium. Therefore, censorship by third parties should have absolutely no place. It’s unavoidable that some will formulate, express and explore with better intentions than others, but not even the work of those who seek to exploit and/or are devoid of discernment or talent should have to endure such ‘involuntary circumcisions’. Condemnation in such cases should be restricted to the critical realm, where everything that falters in such works can be identified with some sort of lucidity.

No-one has the right to stop someone else’s form of expression from being known to the rest of the world. No-one should be allowed to dictate what can or cannot be said or seen. I’m talking from the perspective of someone who generates artistic work in a specific format, but there’s a flipside that is equally disconcerting; that of the public or audience. We are all, by default, recipients of what is put out there. Taste and interests may vary but, in principle, our right to experience, digest and even be offended by unsavoury or challenging material should be unquestionable.

The problem with the medium of film is very specific, in this instance. It lies, first of all, in its apparent proximity to real life by means of a permanent invitation to suspend disbelief. A film that succeeds in what it set out to express must, above all, convince the viewer. By convincing it may very well influence. Such influence can be on a philosophical level, but also in the ways in which it can appeal to the viewer’s morals and orientations. In the censor’s mind, this is one tiny step away from corrupting, but the way I see it, such a view is more like a giant, patronising, condescending leap that assumes an awful lot about us and, in fact, doesn’t encourage free thinking.

It is very tempting to think of the censor as someone with utter contempt for the efforts of artists, but in this article I’m setting out to present a democratic dissection of censorship. This is why, unlike the old British Board of Film Censors’ practice of ‘cutting things out’, I’m choosing to splice in ‘evidence’ that may very well undermine my most fundamental points…

BBFC EVIDENCE #1

‘We are paid to have dirty minds,’ John Trevelyan, Chief Censor of the British Board of Film Censors between 1958 and 1971, allegedly stated. Whilst he was upfront with the notion that ‘at that particular moment in time’, the British public was not ready to see certain things on screen, he also had no qualms in saying that he was ‘very much interested in the films the artist wants to make’. To the exasperation of many, he would quite candidly express his biases and predilections to do with art cinema, even going as far as to say that he understood that part of the artist’s duty is to shock and provoke, that he knew that ‘the artist is often ahead of their time’ and therefore he would always encourage filmmakers to work in partnership with him. That way, he could continue to simultaneously fulfil the core aspect of his duties: to protect the British public. This paradox would verge on the endearing if a bigger, uncomfortable question didn’t loom over this entire issue: what is it that the British public needs so much protection from? Sex, apparently.

Throughout the years, the BBFC has enabled mainstream cinema to get away with a lot of violence. The problem is always when depictions of sex are thrown into the equation. The grounds on which the Board determines if a film is suitable for consumption vary, but one doesn’t need to look hard to spot sex as a key ingredient. There seems to be a self-perception in British Society which is informed by strict parameters of what is decent. This moral-abiding trait is at the root of the BBFC and other historical moralistic crusaders, with their attempts to dictate what is proper.

Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), the last film by the renowned Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, was originally submitted to the BBFC by its American distributors, United Artists, in January 1976. In a nutshell, the film is an extreme metaphor of what a totalitarian state can do to its children. It explores such notions through transposing the Marquis de Sade novel to a claustrophobic community where fascist figures of an older generation indulge in the ritualised torture and degradation of a large group of youngsters. Crucial to the impact that the film continues to have is not just its slow-paced realistic depiction of the acts, but the adoption of the Circles of Hell from Dante’s Inferno as its basic structure.

Salò was denied a certificate on the legal grounds of gross indecency. It needs to be clarified that British Law defined gross indecency as ‘anything which an ordinary decent man or woman would find to be shocking, disgusting and revolting’, or, of course, which ‘offended against recognised standards of propriety’. Unlike its cousin law the Obscene Publications Act, which back then could not be applied to films but was also devised to protect the unsuspecting British public, gross indecency erradicated any possibility of defence based on artistic or cultural merit. Even a film’s valid message, based on its whole, could be ignored if any part of it was deemed indecent and therefore illegal.

BBFC EVIDENCE # 2

Salò was to be screened for the first time in Britain at the Old Compton Street cinema club in 1977, where it was viewed by members only, uncut and, crucially, without a BBFC certificate. When the authorities raided the cinema and confiscated the print, the owners, who were then facing legal action under the offence of common law indecency, tried to appeal in an unexpected way. In their defence, they clarified that it was only after the advice of the Secretary of the BBFC James Ferman that they decided to screen the film uncut.

Here’s what actually happened the year before. United Artists simply assumed that cuts, no matter how extensive, would be enough to attain a certificate, but James Ferman stood his ground, arguing that any form of editing would undeniably ‘destroy the film’s purpose by making the horrors less revolting, and therefore more acceptable’. This is an incredible feat on Ferman’s side. He might’ve officially banned the film from having a commercial release for decades, but his actions and intentions were clear when he stated that Salò is ‘one of the most disturbing films ever to be seen by the Board, yet its purpose is deeply serious… it is quite certainly shocking, disgusting and revolting – even in the legal sense – but it is meant to be. It wants us to be appalled at the atrocities of which human nature is capable when absolute power is wielded corruptly’.

This is a very rare case of a censor protecting the vision and ultimate intention of a filmmaker by refusing to excise a single frame from their work. By stepping forward in its defence the following year – approaching the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions and exposing the legal action as one big embarrassment – Ferman was to make film history. Yet what this most vilified figure of British Cinema would become most known for was his crusade against what were to be labelled ‘video nasties’ in the 1980s.

The advent of home entertainment delivered an onslaught of unregulated violence, gore and sex, which Ferman saw as his mission to curtail. Crowning such titles (at least from the perspective of cultural identity that this article pursues) is Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 masterpiece about a young couple’s descent into tribal protection of territory in a downward spiral of violence set in rural England. The film was passed and released on the big screen with a number of cuts. It wasn’t till its reincarnation on the videotape format that its content became an issue, leading to an eventual ban. At the centre of the problem was (and still is) the unscripted rape scene in which the wife, played by Susan George, is shown to give in to pleasure. The build-up and context for that scene is meticulously crafted in a way that makes it psychologically coherent, no matter how controversial.

But, while this aspect (if fully understood) might pose some fundamental questions about womanhood and how one should aim to depict sexual violence, I propose that Straw Dogs makes the British uncomfortable by touching an altogether different nerve. Like A Clockwork Orange of the same year – which was equally problematic by BBFC standards – Straw Dogs may have been made by an American director, but it is an intensely British film. The key to what Peckinpah’s film expresses is ultimately the ‘discomfort’ a large section of the British people feel around foreigners.

Where I say discomfort, some would say suspicion – which in turn is what leads the locals in Straw Dogs to reject the American husband of one of their own. Since those panicky days, Straw Dogs has been re-released uncut on the big screen and is now available on various formats of home entertainment, with a lot of its troubled history included as additional extra material for cinephiles.

There is a 1976 film that was not so much outright banned, but conveniently ignored and was for decades unavailable to buy in the UK. My desire to watch it could only be fulfilled by ordering an overseas Region 1 DVD copy online a few years ago. It’s remarkable how resonant the transposition of the original oriental set-up of Yukio Mishima’s novel becomes when transposed to Britain. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976) is adapted and directed by another American, Lewis John Carlino, and has at its centre (once more) the rejection of ‘those who don’t belong here’. It moves from the private – with the exception a 13 year old boy takes to his widowed mother’s new lover (played by Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson respectively) – to the secret, in the shape of a gang of schoolboys who gear the protagonist’s resentment towards a cruel revenge that, in turn, expresses a disturbing re-balance of things.

If the boy can be seen to be a young Norman Bates (spying on his mother through a hole in the wall, as she seems to summon her future lover through masturbation and later succumbs to his advances with sheer abandonment) and Kristofferson a perfect embodiment of foreign masculinity, the strict hierarchy of the gang of schoolboys with their weariness towards change can only be perceived as an extreme, unsettling metaphor for British society.

What lies beneath the surface of this particular sense of order has become a key element of my own work, with Britain providing the perfect template for my measured approach to filmmaking. It’s the reserve and general emotional containment that fuel my characters’ behaviour as they wander through a modern world which has been carved by force onto the natural one. This is most apparent in my 2006 feature film Antlers of Reason. Despite obvious parallels with Carlino, Kubrick and Peckinpah – of me being a foreign director, who came to these Isles to make a quintessentially British film – I’m bringing up this personal example to expose censorship on different grounds and on an altogether different platform.

Soon after its completion, Antlers of Reason attained a limited distribution in cinema clubs across the US. Back then, my views on the exploitation of artistic work were certainly more anarchic, so I also placed the entire film online for free. This promotion was mostly co-ordinated by a Dutch agent I had at the time and she certainly took most of the blow of what ensued. She shielded me against the attacks of a vast number of offended viewers and I’m still to know exactly how their vicious response resulted in such swift ‘disassociation’ by people who were enthusiastically showing support for the film. What I know for a fact, by having seen just a sample of the hate emails sent our way, is that these raised voices were definitely singing the Evangelical Christian tune. In America, it only takes a few of those to be influential enough for you to not stand a chance. The already limited distribution was cancelled, radio shows stopped talking about the film and three online sources were removed.

As a struggling independent filmmaker, my only possible source of an answer was Youtube, but this ‘most democratic of online hosts’ went from being generic in their replies to apologising in a way which seemed to say: ‘Don’t ask any more questions.’ Judging by the content removed, it’s very clear why these specific groups had a problem with the film.

The Antlers of Reason narrative revolves around a progressively destructive affair between a support worker and her client, an inarticulate foreigner on the fringes of society. At a certain point, she’s seen falling asleep whilst waiting for him and her dream portrays a less than consensual sexual encounter between them. As it’s been noted, she’s never seen to wake from her dream, but moments later does get up, clearly bruised inside, on the spot where the ‘rough’ encounter took place and the narrative then proceeds. Shot in black and white, the film touches on a range of ambiguities and is punctuated by moments of physical displacement which add to its unease. What is clear is that hardcore Christians don’t do shades of grey.

At a time when artistic merit and a filmmaker’s reputation seem to reign, one would think that anything goes. See, for example, Lars Von Trier’s half-baked Antichrist (2009), whose explicit depictions of sex and violence were to be passed without a single cut by the BBFC simply because… well, it’s a Lars Von Trier film. But just when you think censorship has finally been put to rest in this permissive and unshockable day and age, along comes a certain Human Centipede 2 (2011)…

The film’s sexual violence and moral obscenity was initially rejected by the BBFC, which banned it outright, but that decision was recently reversed when its UK distributors, Eureka Entertainment, were ordered to remove a total of 2 minutes and 37 seconds. These cuts seem to have been applied to the aspects of the content that most concerned the BBFC: graphic imagery of a character’s teeth being removed with a hammer and the killing of a newborn baby.

It is very clear to read in the director’s own words that these scenes were designed as an invitation to that initial UK ban. It makes for a great marketing calling card, especially when violence and gore have been so easily incorporated into the mainstream via films like the Saw and Hostel series. He created the perfect bait and the BBFC gobbled it up. There are still ways of seeing the uncut version, but I am choosing to exercise a personal ban on the grounds of lack of time, everything about it looking pretty contrived and the director being called Tom Six.

JOÃO PAULO SIMÕES IS A PORTUGUESE FILMMAKER LIVING AND WORKING INDEPENDENTLY IN SHEFFIELD. HIS WORKS INCLUDE MERCY, ANTLERS OF REASON AND AN ARRAY OF MUSIC VIDEOS AND DOCUMENTARIES. VISIT CAPTURAFILMES.BLOGSPOT.COM.

JOÃO PAULO SIMÕES.