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1st September
2004
  

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Robin Duval ended his term as Director of the BBFC in September 2004
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Robin DuvalAt a key moment in my conversation with Robin Duval, the retiring director of the BBFC, he uses a phrase which I never thought I would hear from a censor: 'It's only a movie.' Duval is remembering an on-air confrontation with BBC presenter John Humphrys regarding the board's decision to pass the controversial rape-revenge movie Irreversible without cuts.

'Irreversible may have been shocking,' explains Duval, 'and it may even have been offensive to many people. But our position was that unless we had clear evidence that it was actually harmful, we were not going to interfere. John Humphrys had difficulty accepting that, because he belongs to the constituency which believes that if something looks pretty brutal, then common sense tells you it must have a malign effect on society.

'Well, I've spent 15 years reviewing that proposition and the one thing I know is that adults simply aren't affected in a malign manner by material which is merely shocking. Personally, I think that Irreversible was actually highly moral, if a little sentimental. But if common sense tells us anything, it's that it's only a movie.'

This phrase is heavy with irony, not only because it has long been a battle-cry for those who oppose the iniquities of film censorship, but also because it was the tagline of another violent rape-revenge movie over which Duval and I had clashed publicly a couple of years ago.

In 2002, I had written a staunch defence of Wes Craven's long-banned shocker, Last House on the Left, a grisly retelling of Bergman's The Virgin Spring, in which parents wreak bloody vengeance upon the gang of killers who raped and tortured their daughter. Described by Craven, who went on to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street, as a depiction of the true horror of violence, this deliberately revolting work had been uncertificated for nearly 30 years when Duval finally agreed to pass it on video with minor cuts. The distributors, however, were holding out for an intact release and took their case to the Video Appeals Committee, where my written defence was duly submitted as 'expert evidence'.

The appeal failed badly (the VAC actually concluded that more cuts were needed), and the board received 'the first clear endorsement of our guidelines on sexual violence by a quasi-judicial review'. So was the Last House case, which received relatively little press coverage, a defining moment in Duval's leadership?

'Let us say that there was a principle which was protected by that decision which might be more important in other circumstances,' he says, choosing his words carefully. And would he have resigned if the decision had gone the other way, if the VAC had bought my high-falutin' argument about Last House being 'an important historical artefact' rather than a piece of trash?

'At the time, to tell you the truth, that option was in my mind. I did mention to one or two people that if we lose this, and we lose it on the grounds that our sexual violence policy was non-viable, that I would have to go.'

There is a brief silence as I consider the prospect of having unintentionally plotted to bring about Duval's resignation. In hindsight, this would have been a bad thing. For despite the Last House debacle, in his five-and-a-half year tenure at the BBFC, Duval has probably done more to make the board open, accountable and credible than any previous chief censor. Describing 'the introduction of transparency' as a key objective, he is 'proud to have espoused the principle that you don't impose your views on 18-rated movies - movies for adults - unless you have the soundest possible reason for doing so'. Accordingly, under his watch a bewildering array of formerly banned titles, from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to The Story of O, have been granted uncut cinema certificates, while classics like Sam Peckinpah's savage West Country western Straw Dogs have finally been allowed onto the video shelves.

Parents are now permitted to make up their own minds about whether their children are ready to watch titles such as Spider-Man or Lord of the Rings: Return of the King thanks to the introduction of the newly advisory 12A category in 2002. Meanwhile, adults can buy legally classified hardcore pornography through licensed sex shops, thanks, in part, to the establishment of 'very clear and specific' guidelines laid down by BBFC to walk a path between the restraints of the Obscene Publications Act and the newly enshrined freedoms of the Human Rights Act. For those who believe in freedom of choice, Duval's leadership of BBFC has provided several rays of sunshine.

'When I arrived at the BBFC, it was a very dark place to work,' Duval admits, 'both literally and figuratively. The building was Dickensian, full of dark corridors and people working in conditions to which I hadn't been exposed since working for the Central Office of Information back in the Seventies. There was a real air of gloominess about the place. The staff were demoralised and a little bit paranoid.' Part of the source of this paranoia was a stream of excoriating articles in the Daily Mail, which had taken to 'naming and shaming' examiners responsible for passing 'filth' such as David Cronenberg's Crash. Considering attack to be the best form of defence, Duval decided to 'get the retaliation in first' by transforming the board into a proactive 'centre of excellence for information'.

Under his leadership, an extensive public consultation exercise was carried out, resulting in the publication of newly defined and clarified classification guidelines in September 2000. For the first time, the board got a press officer and its website was revamped to make running times and cuts information freely available to the public. Meanwhile, Duval set about untangling the various 'problem cases' which had festered under the reign of his autocratic predecessor, James Ferman, none more notorious than the unofficial banning of The Exorcist on video for more than 15 years. 'I was always on your side about The Exorcist,' laughs Duval, who was aware that I had become the film's most vocal supporter, regularly bemoaning its mistreatment by the BBFC. 'In fact, I had a confrontation with Jim [Ferman] about it as far back as the Eighties when I was working at the Independent Broadcasting Association. Jim had rung me up to tell me that he expected the IBA to forbid any transmission of the film, and I had to tell him that I did not agree with his worries. Then when I came to the BBFC, Jim, who was still around, got wind that we were contemplating passing it uncut on video. So he again gave me his standard lecture on how unwise this would be, how it would traumatise viewers, particularly young women. But we had trawled through the film's history around the world and we knew that the stories of its traumatising effects were exaggerated. So we passed it. At which you, Mark, should be happy.'

While I was indeed delighted about such decisions, Alexander Walker, the Evening Standard's fiery film critic, regularly charged Duval and his colleagues with dereliction of duty for failing to protect the public from a 'tide of filth'. 'I do miss Alex,' says Duval with a hint of genuine sadness. 'Since his death, our profile in the Evening Standard has virtually disappeared.'

Walker's favourite ploy was to pen outraged reviews, claiming that the BBFC had passed material which was clearly in breach of its guidelines, or even of the law itself. Did such claims ever worry Duval? 'Well, I remember that in his review of Gone in 60 Seconds, Walker accused us of passing material which showed audiences in graphic detail how to break into a car. I hadn't actually seen the movie at the time, because the examining team had been clear that there were no problems whatsoever. But when the story came out, I rushed to the local cinema to watch it for myself. I was relieved to find that Alex was wrong and the examiners had been entirely correct.'

On the subject of pornography, Duval maintains a world-weary detachment. Having helped to establish a 'pretty specific set of criteria' which redefined the boundaries of consensual screen sex, he now exudes an air of depressed resignation about the mechanics of enacting such standards.

'No matter what anybody imagines,' he says, sighing, 'regulating porn is the least attractive and most exhausting task of an examiner at the BBFC. We have had to be vigilant that at no point should any of our examiners start to find themselves overwhelmed by this stuff. Nearly 20 per cent of all submitted porn has to be cut, and the reason is simple: the distributors have been using us as their editors. They save money and time on viewing their films by simply sending them straight to us. You ring up and say, "You do know there's bestiality in this film?" And they say, "No, we didn't. But thanks for telling us!"'

Less shocking, but rather more troublesome, is the issue of the 12A certificate which has presented some unforeseen problems. 'When we researched the idea of an advisory 12 category, 70 per cent of those questioned were in favour. And although we expected a certain amount of people to complain about five-year-olds being able to watch a James Bond film, we were caught off guard by complaints that those five-year-olds are so bored that they run up and down the aisles and disrupt the film for everyone else. Put bluntly, cinema staff are indiscriminately letting babes-in-arms and toddlers in to see 12A rated movies, despite a very clear understanding that it was not expected to accommodate very young children.'

So will the certificate be rescinded? 'No, I don't think so. But what might happen is that a formal lower age limit may be imposed, which is what they have in Sweden and Finland. But of course, that does to some extent undermine the whole principal of the 12A, which is asking parents to take on the responsibility to be media literate.'

For Duval, such media literacy is the key to the future of the BBFC itself. To his successor, David Cooke, who takes over tomorrow, Duval has this advice: 'Watch out for opportunities, because if you don't, you may find that the things you took for granted are going to slip away. The future has to do with providing information rather than taking preventive measures. I see the BBFC becoming a gold-standard of classification and advice information across all the different channels of communication. And classification is, I think, going to thrive. But what probably is going to go away, in the very long term, is the mandatory element.' As for Duval, he is taking the opportunity to return to the noble profession which he once plied before becoming a regulator. 'I was actually briefly a film critic in a former life. And in a curious way, the latter part of my professional career has been a move away from what I wanted to do. So now I'm going to give myself some time and do some writing.'

 

24th September
2003
  

Robin Duval...

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At the OFLC International Ratings Conference
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OFLC logo1.The BBFC is a grand-daddy among moving picture regulators. We were set up in 1912, by the cinema industry, to provide a centralized and consistent ratings service in the UK.

2. The industry trade body which set up the BBFC in 1912 ceased to exist after the 1940’s and the BBFC became a wholly independent, private, non-profit organisation. We are funded entirely by the fees we charge by classifying movies. In 1985, the BBFC took the additional responsibility of classifying all video, later also DVD’s of course, and the more violent video games. We remain independent of the industry and of government.

3. Last year we classified 10 000 videos or DVD’s and nearly 600 cinema films, plus around 900 cinema advertisements and trailers. This year the total number of works classified by the BBFC is likely to exceed 13 000. To process all this we have a staff of just over 60, of whom 20 or so are the examiners whose full time job it is to classify all the works submitted to us.

4. Also the nature of what we do has changed. We put more and more emphasis on providing public information. Every video or DVD sleeve now carries a box explaining the classification. Was it for strong violence, sex, language, drug taking? The advertising for cinema films, particularly for children has to carry a line of useful information. Here is a very short film which has been shown in every cinema in the United Kingdom this year.

5.This is 21 st century regulation. Certainly I hope so.

6. The greatest professional challenge today is to achieve consistency. So we base all our judgements on our published classification guidelines and the practical criteria they express.

BBFC GUIDELINES

7. The BBFC Classification guidelines are to an important extent about harm.

8. Harm to children from premature exposure to certain kinds of images and experiences. And harm to society through the promotion of violent or dangerous activity. The trouble with harm, however, is that it is part of a wider and extremely complex media effects argument that I will talk about later. Our guidelines, which apply equally to video and film also reflect what the law requires.

9. The laws we have to take into account are, in particular, to do with obsenity, the indecent portrayal of children, cruelty to animals, public order including racial abuse (essentially harm-based laws, incidentally). We must also take into account the European Convention on Human rights and the law ther relating to fair procedures, privacy, discrimination and especially freedom of expression. But the credibility of our classification criteria, and of the BBFC as regulator, depends upon public consent and regulatory transparency.

10. What the public expects and requires shifts over time which is why 3 years ago we embarked upon what we believe may be the most comprehensive exercise in public consultation and opinion research undertaken by any content regulator. That included extensive focus groups, a major public survey, and targeted questionnaire based research; plus consultation with local authorities, the industry, broadcasters and other affected sectors. All the evidence and views were finally weighed together and a final version of the guidelines produced.

11. The guidelines cover a very wide range of issues which all bear upon the acceptability of a film or video at every classification level from "U" through to "18" or "R18": theme, language, nudity, sex, violence, imitable techniques, horror, drugs. They are all listed against the individual classification ratings, and the limits of acceptability described.

12. This has to be a balancing act. On the one hand, the expectations of the British public, on the other the duty in a civilised society to preserve freedom of expression. We also have to factor in the law. And crucially any evidence we have that certain images or content may cause harm.

13. There are two ways of addressing the harm issue. One is to look at the academic research – the literally thousands of studies, many American, into media effects: how for example watching violent films or television effects children or adults. We should be able to identify certain dangers and make sure our Guidelines allow us to address them through restrictive classification or cuts.

14. The other way of addressing the harm issue is to take advice from the clinical experts – the specialists in child and adult psychology, sexual harms, the police who deal with and recognise paedophiles, teachers, doctors and lawyers.

15. But let me first look at the evidence of media effects research.

16. There is a great deal of violence in the media – in newspapers, on televsion, in films and DVD’s, in viodeogames. I do not like it. As a reglator my instict is to take action against it: give restrictive qualifications or even cut it. However, again as a regulator, I am bound to be fair to the product. If I cut or even over classify it, I must be able to show good reason.

17. I have read dozens of scientific papers about media effects and reviews of them. I have even read a number of so called "meta-analyses" which do the work of reviewing all the literature for me. As the UK film, DVD and violent videogames regulator I may be the most interventionist censor here. Last year the BBFC cut works than for many years. We cut 20 cinema films, and 324 videos or DVD’s (out of nearly 9000 submissions). And all that leaves aside the BBFC’s tendency generally to classify works more restrictively than many other countries.

18. So I am, to say the least, open to persuasion that my interventionism can be justified by scientific evidence. Let me quote a typical recent conclusion by American media effects researchers: "It is now known that even brief exposure to violent TV or movie scenes causes significant increases in aggression, that repeated exposure of children to media violence increases their aggressiveness as young adults, and that media violence is a significant risk factor in youth violence".

19. Well offcourse this is exactly what I need.

20. Or is it?

21. I am afraid that what I learnt 18 years ago, when I first took a senior job regulating the content of British television, is that this is an academic battleground. For every piece of research that shows a correlation or even claims a causal relationship between viewing films, and behaving violently and aggressively, another is likely to show the opposite, or fail to replicate the original finding. Even the meta-analyses fail to agree.

22. British analyses by Guy Cumberbatch (who is also here) Professor Barrie Gunter and David Gauntlet conclude that the evidence is actually inconclusive. In America, MIT’s Henry Jenkins has said: "it takes a series of interpretive leaps and speculations to move from (statistical) data to any meaningful claim that media images cause real-world violence… decades of research on media violence sill yields contradictory and confusing results."

23. Similar criticisms have been made by Professor Ellen Seiter of UC-San Diego, Professor Jib Fowles of the University of Houston and Professor Jonathan Freedman of the University of Toronto.

24. Just to give you a sense of the sheer range of opinion here, I should tell you that some eminent professors in Britain and the USA actually incline to the view that – on balance – media violence may actually have positive effects.Professor David Buckingham of London University – who is probably the leading academic analyst of media effects on children in the UK – has argued that children may indeed benefit fictional violence: it helps them to conquer the fears they experience in real life".

25. Another academic view is that violent movies are not dangerous and unhealthy but instead provide a safe environment in which to explore issues of violence.

26. Another problem is that academic researchers frequently overclaim for their results/ Very recently – earlier this year in fact – a major and lengthy study was published which drew a lot of attention. You may have heard of it. It was called "Longitudinal Relations Between Children’s Exposure to TV Violence and their Aggressive and Violent Behaviour in young Adulthood 1977 – 1992. The world’s press reported its claim that: "These results support the hypothesis that the causal effects of media violence that have been demonstrated in the laboratory extend into real life from childhood into adulthood."

27. Of course, this was taken by journalists to prove that violence on television turns children into violent adults. Did it?

28. Of course not. It was another sad example of over-claiming. Doubly sad because the study itself was actually quite cautious. It acknowledged the view that violent behaviour "seldom occurs" unless there are many non-television factors involved such as "neuropsychological abnormalities, poor child rearing, socio-economic deprivation, poor peer relations, attitudes and beliefs supporting aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, frustration and provocation and other factors."

29. It acknowledged that the study was based upon only 329 young adults who had been children in Chicago in the 1970’s. It acknowledged that the kind of violent programs that supposed influenced the children included typically the Roadrunner cartoons (rated very violent). It finally even acknowledged that "the effect sizes for media violence on aggression revealed in this longitudinal study are modest" Here is a brief but typical example of what this recent "major" report considered "very violent".

30. Interestingly, very recent research (published this autumn in the UK) shows that children do not regard cartoons in any form as "violent" because the yare not "real". What children find violent is the news.

31. So how did the research arrive at the conclusion that the "causal effects of media violence" have been demonstrated? And that viewing violent programmes as a child can turn you into a violent and aggressive adult.? Well, and to be frank, by committing the most basic error of confusing correlation with causality.

32. What the study shows is that aggressive children (who grow up to be aggressive adults) may like violent (or at least moderately violent) entertainment. Does that make them aggressive? Which is the chicken and which is the egg? The researchers touch on that in the study, but even though it is the most important question, it gets only a few paragraphs in which they fail to resolve the issue. Basically, they argue that, because not all the aggressive adults still watched as many violent programmes as they did as children, it follows that their aggressiveness did not cause them to view violent programmes … I leave you to pick the bones out of that.

33. Thus the research – like so many other studies – fails to show any causal link between watching violent entertainment and being violent (or aggressive).

34. This confusion of correlation and causality is endemic in much American violence research. So is the frequent assumption that aggression equals violence. We know, for instance, that watching comedy or sport can raise energy levels also and make people feel more aggressive – more "up for it". That seems like commonsense: we all tend to be a bit bouncier when we have thoroughly enjoyed something. And that, one strongly suspects, is often what these laboratory studies are measuring. So should we then ban comedy and sport?

35. Another problem is the failure to take account of other possible equal and opposite effects from televsion or film viewing. Aristotle’s catharsis theory, whereby violent entertainment purges the viewer’s own need for violence, seems to be under an academic cloud these days. It’s time will surely come again.

36. But, quite aside from that, what about the huge and diverse range of positive and pro-social images on television and in films. Do they count for nothing? In the movies, the good guys generally come first, the police usually catch their man, virtue is rewarded, family values upheld and so on. Any acquaintance with American entertainment will find these images in abundance. I would suggest they are at least as endemic, taken over the entertainment media as a whole, as images of violence. Have they no influence at all? Certainly it is a very long time since I read any American research which attempted to weigh the positive images in the media against the negative ones.

37. And finally… do we really believe that Roadrunner cartoons, or Tom and Jerry, are more dangerous than all the things older generations grew up on: Hans Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, all those fairy tales about ogres and monsters, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf and so on? Perhaps, again, a measure of practical commonsense might be in order.

38. I have been, I suppose, fairly rude about the current state of play on research about media violence generally. But that is not to say that there are no reliable indicators when you begin to move form the general to the more particular, and especially if you are dealing with in extreme portrayals. Here I think we can, as regulators, draw comfort- if that is quite the right word.

39. The most troubling issue my organisation has to deal with – and the one most likely to lead to cuts in films even at the adult level – is sexual violence. Here the situation is rather different. When extreme violence is mixed in with explicit sexual or erotic elements, my earlier scepticism about the research becomes more difficult to sustain.

40. There is a large body of evidence over the years from respected and responsible researchers that shows that, where violence and sex are intermingled, the effects upon some people are likely to be harmful. The people concerned may only represent a small minority of the population (though some experts would go further than that) but they themselves may be harmed and their actions may have a disproportionate and harmful effect upon society.

41. When we reviewed all the sexual violence literature last year, we found quite an impressive body of work about the stimulation of aggressive thoughts and fantasies by violent pornography: evidence that it may teach men how to treat women badly, relax their inhibitions about doing so and condition them to experience sexual arousal in relation to such acts. Sexual criminals are most likely to seek out and respond to sexually violent material; and exposure to violent sex scenes has increased male viewers’ rape myth beliefs (e.g. that women enjoy rape) suspects, is often what these laboratory studies are measuring. So should we then ban comedy and sport?

42. Overviews or meta-analyses in the 1990’s have continued to find a persuasive consensus that violent and explicit sec scenes excite dangerous anti-women attitudes.

43. But censorship should never, with respect, rely wholly upon academic research.

44. In restricting or cutting sexually violent material, the BBFC also calls in aid a range of clinical specialists. We regularly take advice from consultative groups which include child psychiatrists and psychologists and other experts in harm to children or in adult behaviour. Frequently, when we have a problem with a film, we take advice from forensic psychologists who specialise in dangerous or disturbed people. We ask them how likely a film might be to stimulate an anti-social or criminal response in a viewer.

45. Not so long ago, we asked some clinical experts to look at a French Film A Ma Soer! We were concerned that one particular scene in it might have serious potential for harm. The scene occurs right at the end of the film. The 12 year old heroine has just fantasized the murder of her mother and sister by a passer-by. Then this happens.

46. We took advice from two very senior forensic clinicians who worked with disturbed or abusive patients. Basically, we asked them if there was any significant danger that the scene, taking the film as a whole, Might encourage paedophile behaviour. They advised that A Ma Soeur! Could only be shown in the cinema un-cut providing it had an adults-only "18" rating. This offcourse means in Britain that no-one under 18 is allowed in the cinema at all. We do not allow accompaniment as the Americans do with their "R" rating.

47. However, both consultant psychologists advised, strongly, that the video version should be cut. They took the professional view that the final scene, in which a 12 year old is raped with her breasts forcibly exposed, was exactly the kind of material which could be used by paedophile males when grooming a prospective victim in a domestic environment. That is something they could not do of course in and adults only cinema.

48. Accordingly, the BBFC cut all the scenes from the couple entering the wood to the police at the murder scene. But only for video, because of the clear forensic advice given to us.

49. Now I’m not suggesting that our method, which you may find rather painstaking, commends itself to all regulators in every country. Indeed there are many differences between us. I know for example, that the British place more emphasis upon research and evidence than most other countries. I have illustrated the extent to which we take advice from medical and forensic consultants. I have touched on our use of media effects research. But we also monitor, continually, the expectations of the British public. Last year, for example, we changed our "12" cinema rating, which forbade children under 12 to enter a cinema at all, to a "12A" rating which allows them in providing they are accompanied by a responsible adult. We made that change only after we had piloted it for 8 weeks in a British city, and then taken the views of 4000 representative members of the British public. All that takes time – about 12 months on this occasion – and money. It is not for everyone.

50. But if you do not test your classification or censorship policies against the professional and public evidence, what do you rely on? How do you avoid subjectivity and arbitrariness? In some cases this probably reflects very accurately what individual national publics expect. In some cases, one suspects that national regulatory standards reflect more significantly the views of government, or even the film industry itself.

51. Be that as it may, I think the general perception is that at least we in the United Kingdom are not very different in our standard setting from the other English speaking countries. Like the USA and Canada, for example, we do not like strong language in films for children. But we are probably a little more relaxed about sex than they are. For example, the BBFC gave Halle Berry’s Monster’s Ball a "15" rating but the MPAA in America gave it their highest practical rating, "R", and then only after cuts to the sex scene which we were happy to pass at "15". In Australia incidentally, Monster’s Ball was classified "R18" for adults only. You don’t like sex either apparently. This then, is what the American’s cut, Sweden and Denmark rated for 11 year old, the French rated for 12 year olds, Norway, Finland and the British rated for 15 year olds, and the Australians – and the Spanish – rated for adults.

52. It is well known that in Europe, there is a big difference between France and the other nations. For the French, the quality of the film can affect the rating – if it is culturally significant it may even get a universal rating so that the youngest children may see it. Certainly, films like American Beauty or Titus Andronicus which have been rated for adults in other parts of the Europe and the world have regularly received general ratings in France.

53. It is even more common for films rated for adults only in most parts of Europe to be given an "12" rating in France. Famous examples are: Tarrantino’s Pulp Fiction, The Exorcist, Hannibal and Gangs of New York. Also the graphic sado-masochist activity in Secretary by Maggie Gyllenhall and James Spader (a "12" in France but an "R" in America and an "18" in the UK).

54. But even if you put the French to the side, there are also big differences between the rest of us. The Germans and the Scandinavians tend to rate higher for violence. The British are pretty much alone in Europe in their Anglo-Saxon sensitivity to strong language. The Spanish tend to take a harder line than anyone on sexual morality. It is possible for one film to be classified (not always France) for children and in another for adults only. The most extreme case in recent years was Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots which ranged from a rating for all ages in Italy via a "12" in France to being totally banned in Ireland. Here is another wide-ranging example.

55. That was from the very popular Hollywood teenage comedy, American Pi e. It was passed for all ages by Sweden, Denmark, Franc, Italy, Belgium and Iceland; rated for 11 or 12 year olds in Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands; rated for 14 or 15 year olds in Austria and Britain; for 17 year olds in Greece; and given an "18" rating in Spain and Ireland. It got the adult R rating in America. Its sequel American Pie 2 had a similar range of ratings from all ages in France to 18-rated for adults only in Ireland. This years American Wedding looks as though its going the same way.

56. That of course tells us something about particular national sensitivities. The Scandinavians, French and Italians are pretty relaxed about sex and what you might call immorality. The Spanish and the Irish are the opposite. The rest of us, with the Americans and Canadians etc occupy the ground in between – some more concerned than others.

57. What about violence, though? Here is just one example of a similar range of European views.

58. That was an American War movie, Behind Enemy Line s, set in Bosnia. It was rated for all children in France, it was a PG in Singapore, for 12 year olds in Britain, a PG13 in America, for 15 and 16 year olds in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland – as well, incidentally, as Australia; and Germany gave it an "18". Here the issue was mainly violence, though the use of very strong language bumped it up in Britain from a possible "PG" to a "12". What is interesting is the greater concern among all the Scandinavian countries about the violence in the film. But Germany found it violent enough to restrict it to adults only. This is not untypical European profile. More extreme perhaps than usual in its outcomes, but nonetheless providing a useful insight into some of the other differences between us.

59. Amongst the further differences, it should also be noticed that some countries – Ireland, Italy, Norway, Iceland, Britain even France – cut or ban films. Others – Austria, Denmark, Finland – prohibit censorship for adults. In some countries, the age rating is mandatory. In others it is advisory only. I’m afraid there is a long way to go before anyone can talk sensibly about European harmonisation of cinema regulation. A report published by the European Commission in May this year revealed that no less than ¾ of movies classified in Europe got the full range of classifications from "all ages" to restricted to "15" or "16" year olds. Not surprisingly the record concluded that harmonisation of rating practice throughout Europe "may seem currently impossible to achieve."

60. And if we are so divergent in Europe. What hope is there for us of worldwide harmony? I am in Australia now – a country that occasionally bans films even the British have passed, Baise Moi for example. After much deliberation, we in the UK agreed to pass Baise-Moi "18" for cinema release, subject to 10 seconds of cuts. In line with our strict policy on sexual violence, we removed a single close-up shot of actual penetration because of concerns that this might add an erotic charge to an otherwise purely horrific depiction of rape. In Australia, by contrast, the film was refused a classification outright and in neighbouring New Zealand it was restricted to festivals and universities only. The New Zealanders have also restricted Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible – a film which I believe has yet to arrive in Australia – to festivals and academic institutions. However, Irreversible has been passed "18" uncut for cinema and video release in the UK and "16" uncut in France, and "15" in Sweden.

61. Is harmonisation at any level achievable? Well this is really part of a wider subject, which is to do with convergence. And that is intended for other and separate sessions at this conference. I do not want to overlap too much into that territory but there are a few things I think I can say.

62. In Europe, as the European Commission report this year found, there is in fact no desire for harmonisation even amongst the film industry or its audiences. At the same time, there is a lot to be said for diversity- which is the opposite of harmonisation and convergence. At its most obvious, the cultural differences between the nations of the world, which define who we are, are expressed and sustained by our different languages.

63. Harmonisation would progressively remove the present barriers which prevent Hollywood rolling everything out from a single matrix generated in Los Angeles.

64. It would considerably lower their unit costs and make them more dominant than ever before. Our different national industries, making films with different national languages, will be squeezed even further. Would they indeed survive?

65. And it is worth looking at the models available for harmonised regulation. There  are really only three ways of regulating films. One, the most common in Europe and elsewhere, is regulation by government department or at least by a body which reports directly or indirectly to government. The second is self-regulation by the film industry itself – indeed, the American model, represented by the MPAA. The third is the rarest: regulation by an independent body. This is very difficult to achieve. The BBFC in Britain is the only clear example I know of. Our independence of course is really an accident of our history rather than any deliberate act of policy.

66. So any future harmonisation, which by definition has to be international, probably only has two models that are pragmatically available: self regulation by industry and government based regulation.

67. It is difficult to see how this can ever work. In Europe, where we have economic union, and have achieved a degree of administrative harmonisation, there is no serious prospect of similar politicisation of cultural harmonisation. The British, the French, the Germans – to name but the three largest nations – would oppose it. Indeed, I do not believe there is any desire within the European Community for harmonisation of film regulation under a single body reporting to Brussels where the union has political headquarters.

68. That leaves only self-regulation. This already exists in Europe for video games. It is called NICAM and is based in the Netherlands. It is relatively new but should work for videogames because they are highly adapted to trans-national regulation. There is no problem with regionality of video games – the all (nearly) come from Japan and America and share a common language. There are no cultural or regulatory complexities in videogames: 95% are rated for violence only. As the European Commission Report I referred to earlier said this year: the NICAM system "has in the opinion of some experts, only been possible because the form of the content is so new and because it, in general, does not carry the ‘cultural’ connotation [of film]…

69. There are no arguments of context, cultural merit, social significance etc to be made when you are rating a videogame. Rating can be codified in fairly simple terms. You can tick boxes for violence, sex, drugs etc and trigger an automatic rating. The more complex issues of address, appeal, context, aversiveness, message, effort etc which a film regulator – at least in the UK – must address have a very limited relevance when you are dealing fairly mechanistically with the amount of violence in an off-the-shelf videogame.

70. It is interesting nonetheless that, in order to achieve agreement among all the participating European countries (Germany is the only major country not to participate because of legal developments there), the harmonised Euro ratings had to settle for the standards of the most restrictive nations. In cinema terms, that would mean the French would have to raise their standards to the much more restrictive standards of Spain and Ireland, and all the European countries would have to accept the British obsession with strong language. As I have previously made clear, any films would be uprated not just one or two classification levels, but all the way from available to all to adults only.

71. NICAM incidentally reports to a controlling body called the ISFE. This is a self-regulatory organisation, made up of Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and other multinational businesses. The implications for cinema regulation are obvious. A similar cinema system would be controlled by Sony, Fox, Warners, Disney, etc.

72. I am in favour of different standards.

73. I would hate a single, harmonised, unitary system which regulated for whole continents or even, God forbid, globally. Even Orwell’s nightmare vision of a

standard setting Ministry of Culture did not envisage something as all-embracingly monolithic as that. So let us aim to share our knowledge and experience on a cooperative but nationally and culturally independent basis. The Internet is not the end of the world and the digital revolution will not replace cinema, or the DVD and all its personalised successors. There will remain infinite scope for diversity, if we want it.

 

  Board Talk...

Robin Duval answers readers questions online on the Guardian Talkboards


Melonfarmers.co.uk
Link Here 31st January 2002
Robin DuvalRobin Duval has been at the BBFC since January 1999, and has been responsible for introducing greater transparency in the board's operations as well as liberalising the 'R18' category, that effectively legalises hardcore pornography in Britain. In 1991, 12.4% of films shown in the UK were cut by the BBFC. Last year, that figure was only 2.8%. So is the BBFC getting it right?
theTramp

To what extent do YOU believe that the pressure groups and press' opinions effect your choices for classification? i.e. Natural Born Killers

RobinDuval

I honestly don't think by itself it affects our judgment one way or the other (though there is one film critic at least who keeps trying...and trying...). What does affect us is the public. Before we finalized our Guidelines we went through the most comprehensive public consultation exercise ever engaged in by a content regulator. Of course we also took account of the views of pressure groups - but only as one element in the total mix. We also gave a lot of attention to the views of experts (social researchers, psychologists, children's issues) and to the requirements of the law.

Your reference to Natural Born Killers may be the first urban myth of the day. The BBFC passed it 18 for film and video with no cuts. It was the distributing company that decided not to release the video.

dfic1999

Name the critic!

How can the public have an opinion on classifying films which they've yet to see (and which they may have been 'primed' by the media)? Also, do you stand by the Newsom report which (as I recall) claimed that watching violent videos was worse for kids than smoking?

RobinDuval

I'm sorry. You will have to work that out for yourself (it's not very difficult). As for the public, of course we would make sure they have seen the movie before we took their opinion on it. I am sure the Newsom Report was very valuable. For the BBFC, it could only be one element of many to consider.

WolfieK

My guess would be Chris Tookey of Daily Mail. I remember him from programme on TV when he recalled that he was despatched to screening of of "Kissed" because it might something he might like to ban.

sezzyboy

I live in Sweden and they seem to have a completely different set of criteria for classifying a film compared to the BBFC. They also don't cut nearly as much as you do (The last time they cut a film it was the notorious headvice scene from Casino, which Scorsese more or less admitted he expected every board to cut where it saw fit).

Recently, A.I. got the highest rating (15) in Sweden because they thought its portrayal of child abandonment may be alarming to children younger than that. 7 year olds, however, could have gone to see Saddam Hussein sodomising the devil in South Park if they had wished because it got a low rating.

My question(s) are this:

  1. Do you ever compare your ratings/concerns with other classification boards
  2. What is the justification of the 18 rating? (I find it ridiculous that someone who is legally allowed to procreate, drive and marry cannot go and see a film such as Trainspotting. It seems the government trusts a 16 year old to raise their child with good moral judgement but not to watch a film.)
  3. How is the pilot of the new PG-12 certificate going?

RobinDuval

Of course different countries have different standards. Some are tougher than us here in the UK, some are more relaxed. Sweden is a good example of a country which can, according to the issue, be either more or less relaxed than us. In answer to your questions, the BBFC keeps closely in touch with many of our colleagues overseas and we regard the Statens Biografbyra Filmcensuren in Stockholm as particularly good friends. The European film regulators meet every year to compare notes. Last time we gathered in Dublin in September 2001 and agreed that we were very broadly in step with each other (with some local differences) but that the French were quite different from all of us. As for the 18 rating, that (or its equivalent) is quite common outside the UK. We asked the general public (not the government) in 1999-2000 what they thought of it. They said, very clearly, it should stay and it should continue to be mandatory. That's the way we Brits are.

How is the pilot for the new PG-12 certificate going? Too early to say I'm afraid. We have only just completed the first experimental use of it in Norwich just before Christmas. I expect we will need to pilot it in other cities in the UK (not just England) before we can be confident we know what the British public thinks about it. [For the benefit of other readers, this is an experiment to find out if the public would prefer the 12 rating to be advisory rather than, as at present, mandatory. Would parents in particular be happy for their under 12s to go to a 12 rated movie, so long as the cinema provided enough information about it for them to form a reliable judgement?]

barquing

Yours must be a pretty tough job, and I don't envy you it in the slightest, however I often find myself defending some of the BBFC's decisions against various knee-jerk reactions to a cut.

How much does it bother you that you get the blame for various cuts from films which were edited by the studios themselves before submission (or in the case of - say - A Clockwork Orange - not being submitted at all) ? By this I'm thinking about the various moans levied at Tomb Raider given the removal of a head but to ensure a lower certificate rating rather than to eradicate it from the film.

While you're at it, would you like to blast any myths regarding the "refusal" of various certificates?

RobinDuval

On your question, you have to get used in my job to being misrepresented. The press is not always very accurate. Also, the job is about taking flak from both sides most of the time: from the people who think we are too liberal, and from the people who think we are too censorious. We don't expect to win. As for all the myths...where do I start??... Next question, please.

jessfranco

Given the fact that cinema runs are seen as financially unviable without the possibility of a video release do you understand the feeling many people have that 'Baise-Moi' has been effectively banned by the back-door?

A senior member of staff at the BBFC said something along the lines of "we wanted to see how people would react to the film before granting a video certificate" - i understand that you feel the need to be responsive to the public but is this not simply playing into the hands of the tabloid press? If they can stop films from coming out by orchestrating a large enough campaign against them it makes a mockery of any concept of fair and even-handed classification.

RobinDuval

I think the idea that the absence of a video classification for Baise-Moi somehow 'bans' it is pretty fair rubbish. It is very common for films (including much less well-publicized films than B-M) to get a cinema release before they have been classified for video. The problem here appears to be that the cinema exhibitors simply don't like it. The decision to give B-M an 18 with only one cut was possibly the most difficult I have been involved in. I think it is only sensible to wait and see how people, feel about it in the cinema before making up our minds on the video. And really, I don't think the tabloid press has anything to do with this. We have never since I have been at the BBFC yielded to 'an orchestrated campaign'. Indeed I suspect the press generally has better things to do than chase after BBFC classifications. We will look at the situation as a whole, including importantly the views of ordinary people and film-goers.

dfic1999

Does the BBFC still have plans to persuade the rest of the EU to censor to British levels, as the former Home Secretary Jack Straw hoped?

RobinDuval

In short. No.

SpankTM

Are you aware of the work of The Melon Farmers, as linked to in the discussion header? Has their campaigning had any effect on the BBFC's changes in direction?

RobinDuval

(i) Yes. (ii) No.

SpankTM

Is there really still a case for the cutting or banning of videos, at a time when importing uncut material from overseas has never been easier?

RobinDuval

We have a set of guidelines, agreed with the British public (qv above). We also have laws like the Obscene Publications Acts, The Protection of Children Act, The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act which represent the public will expressed through Parliament. Ditto the Video Recordings Act and even the Human Rights Act which both put constraints on content. The vast majority of imported copies would comply with BBFC requirements anyway (though they may breach the industry's copyright). That tiny proportion which would be illegal in this country is still a very marginal activity. Crime also is a marginal activity. Does that mean society should change its rules simply because someone breaks them or seeks to undermine them? You'll be suggesting we should let all the worst criminals out of prison soon - just because some of them escape anyway.

dfic1999

So who gets the last word on the film or video? I recall a case, where Customs and Excise threatened the BBFC with prosecution for attempting to import an adult video simply in order to classify it.

RobinDuval

The BBFC has the last word on classification. Actually, it has the only word. C&E would not wish to intervene in our business any more than we would interfere with theirs. They have never threatened the BBFC with prosecution.

dfic1999

How has the move to Culture Media and Sport affected your work?

RobinDuval

Maybe it's a bit early to say, but I don't think the transfer of the government's interest in the film/video industry from the Home Office to the DCMS has affected the BBFC's business at all. I arrived at the BBFC at the end of 1998 and quite honestly neither the Home Office nor the DCMS have ever in all my time sought to influence a BBFC classification decision or the BBFC's guidelines. They both have kept us very well informed about developing legislation which might affect us - the new Communications Bill for instance - and of course they ask us for advice and information when parliamentary questions come up.

FilmFan

What's the point in releasing a heavily-cut version of 'I Spit On Your Grave' - the labelling on the video and DVD is extremely dishonest.

Regarding Baise-Moi (which I've seen), what's its current status with regard to a certificate?

RobinDuval

I think you have to ask the distributor this question. I am afraid it is not our business to refuse to classify something if the distributor wants to make money out of it in that version. Indeed it would be unlawful for us to do so. Similarly, the labelling/packaging is a matter for the industry. There are certain rules set by Parliament. If you feel you have been misled, you can of course seek retribution under the trades descriptions legislation. On Baise-Moi, the film has an 18 certificate (after one cut). The video has not yet been classified. I won't intrude on the ongoing exchange at 10-17.

loungelady 

Amores Perros, a film with a substantial amount of graphic violence towards dogs: certificate 18.

Black Hawk Down, a film with a huge, non-stop amount of graphic violence towards humans: certificate 15.

What is the criteria in use here?

RobinDuval

I have to point you to our website which should provide most of the information you need. The Guidelines for the various classifications are set out there, and you can also get information about any titles we have classified. Needless to say there is a lot more to Amores Perros than violence towards dogs (which in fact is not very graphic - definitely more to do with film illusion than actual harm). The guidelines set out all the relevant criteria very fully and I hope clearly.

joekingR18

which word is more offensive according to the BBFC, slut or animal? Answer: animal.

'sluts with nuts #3' is okay.

'Rocco: animal trainer' is changed to 'ROCCO' SEX TRAINER'

RobinDuval

Nice try. Unfortunately, it was not the BBFC that changed the title of 'Rocco: animal trainer'. Indeed it is news to me that it ever had any other name. Another urban myth?

gateroler

This question is on "wider censorship" issues

Clearly the R18 category is now more liberal than anything the UK has enjoyed in the past. However there is clear evidence that the stipulation that the supply of such material may only be made IN a licenced sex shop is discriminatory to law abiding UK business.

UK sex shops cannot operate mail order R18 sales, wheras individuals may import unclassified material via the internet etc. quite legally (provided that it is R18 compatible - which in the vast majority of cases can be taken as read - since such material is the mainstay of the porn industry).

Have the censors (as a whole)recognised this impediment and given thought to amending the rules?

Until they do the overwhelming majority of DVD and video sales of R18 type material can be expected to go overseas. As will the profits and, jobs of this legitimate trade.

These effects are, to my mind now unnaceptable since they are wholly arbitrary in their effect on UK business, and can only be seen to be the unexpected side effects of the changing world and in particular the inability of the censors to have a measurable effect on the trade in r18 type material because of its origins (i.e. overseas).

for one am in favour of the role of censors, and in particular the BBFC for at last allowing r18 material to be legally supplied. But the fact is that the rules on supply are now out of date and need a re think to fit in with the modern world.

What do you think Mr duval?

RobinDuval

This question is probably best directed at Customs & Excise or the Home Office (which still has a law enforcement responsibility). Your complaint is about the present state of legislation, not about the BBFC's role. At present also, R18 videos can only be sold through sex shops which have a local authority licence. Because some local authorities do not want such premises in their area, licences are refused which may result in members of the public turning to illegal mail order or the internet. Nevertheless, it is clear that the UK R18 business is currently thriving, so I would not shed too many tears about the supposed threat to their profits and jobs.

wendygrrl

Can you please explain why vaginal fisting is NOT permitted in R18`s, when the insertion of 8 fingers on two hands is perfectly fine.

Surely, the issue here is one of "harm", and as long as fisting is done carefully it is perfectly safe ( and enjoyable I might add :)

Isn`t the role of BBFC to use "judgement" to decide what should and shouldn`t be permitted rather than simply applying a simplistic rule ? ( Fisting = BAD, Monster Dildo = GOOD, "Hand shaped" Dildo = Err. )

RobinDuval

Dear Wendy, I do not propose to talk dirty online. All I will say is that the R18 rules were worked up with a few key principles in mind. One was that they should not infringe the Obscene Publications Acts or any other legislation. Another was that all the activity in the videos should be consensual and non-violent. A third was that the activity should not be potentially harmful. The activity you describe can (whatever you say) have a violent dimension and be harmful. It may indeed also be actionable under the OPA.

ratfink

It's good to see some old under-the-counter classics like Cannibal Ferox and I Spit On Your Grave recently getting releases. However, are there plans to give certificates to any worthwhile films for a change, such as Straw Dogs?

RobinDuval

We do not have 'plans' for certificates. It all depends on what distributors choose to submit. In any case I could not reveal to you what the future may hold: (a) because I cannot predict the outcome on a particular title until it has been properly through the examination and classification process, and (b) because the first party to get that information has to be the distributor who actually paid the BBFC for it.

dfic1999

Is there a 'class bias' in the poilicy at the BBFC where sexually-explicit 'arty' foreign-language films (Sitcom, Romance) are passed with few if any cuts, while English language and/or 'genre' material (ie porn for 'the proles') is more likely to be cut?

RobinDuval

No. I would have thought our decision on Intimacy would have laid that canard to rest. We make no classification distinction between foreign language and English language films, or between art-house and popular cinema. The trouble is of course that the most challenging material tends to be both art-house and foreign language. And I am surprised you think we cut 'porn for the proles' (your expression). I think you will find that porn appeals to all classes. You might also like to check the guidelines for R18 works.

WolfieK

One of your main reason for banning and censorship is "protection of children". Where is your proof that children are negatively affected by image of sex and violence?

RobinDuval

Where is your proof that we 'ban and censor' mainly for the protection of children? Protection of children does come into it of course and that is a common concern in most civilised countries. We would not for example think it a very good idea to show a movie to very young children which suggested that hanging was a jolly game and entirely harm-free. We know that in real life children play dangerous games with ropes with occasional tragic results. We take the same view about drug-taking or using knives to kill people. Even so we do not 'ban and censor'. We simply insist that material of that kind be classified upwards away from children. It is for adults and should be seen by adults. So far as sex goes, we know from our public consultation that the great majority of parents prefer younger children not to be exposed to the most explicit sex and that is the chief criterion. That too is available uncut, but not below the 18 rating. However, if you saw Shakespeare in Love or other 15 rated films you may be aware we do allow in the words of our guidelines for that level 'sexual activity and nudity...but without strong detail'.

WolfieK

Ultimately, best form of censorhip is in home exacted by parent. Most home now has access to internet where child have access to undesirable material. Do you think that state censorship is counter-productive to breeding responsibilty in home?

RobinDuval

I too am in favour of the exercise of parental responsibility. But parents require information and guidance. That is what the British classification system provides. Our most recent research has reinforced our understanding that parents would like more content advice from us (eg on the packaging of a video or DVD). It doesn't seem to me that censorship comes into it. The BBFC (which is in fact entirely independent of the government or the 'state' as you express it) deals with 97% of the works it receives by classifying them appropriately without any cuts at all. If we do cut, then the usual reason is that the distributor wants a lower classification to maximize his audience and so has to accept cuts to achieve that. An uncut classification is almost always available from the BBFC - if the distributing company wants it. This may be a form of self-censorship by the industry, but it is not - except in a very limited form - censorship by the BBFC.

WolfieK

If you were entirely independent of Government your organisation would have no legal enforcement.

WorldSexNews

I notice that the BBFC isn't too good at actual classification. As a parent and consumer, I want to know in more detail what to expect in a film. What DEGREES of violence, sex, drugs, profanity can be expected, but instead there are vague generalities.

Editor, www.world-sex-news.com

RobinDuval

Have you tried reading our website? You'll find some pretty detailed guidelines there. You may find the R18 guidelines the most enjoyable (and detailed) reading of all.

WorldSexNews

I'd be curious to know how many at the BBFC have had to seek counciling or psychiatric treatment, as a result of seeing so much material that can "deprave or corrupt"?

RobinDuval

Strangely, we do not see a great deal of material which is in breach of the Obscene Publications Acts (which is where you got the 'deprave and corrupt' test). Nevertheless, we do see some and we do censor it. At the same time we are very careful about the exposure of our staff. Counselling is indeed available. Also examiners are on limited contracts, partly because of our concerns about the effect that too much of this extraordinarily unpleasant material might have on them. We do take this issue very seriously.

MIGHTYJABBA

There seems to be a growing trend for certification within the actual certificates that films are awarded, recently both Lord of the Rings and Black Hawk Down have arrived with 'special warnings'. Why not give them the next certificate up if they do not fit into the guidelines provided? Why is it only films released by influential Hollywood people that seem to benefit from these 'special warnings'?

RobinDuval

Lord of the Rings and Black Hawk Down are in fact the only films in the past year to have had what we call consumer advice on them - on posters and television commercials for example. You have to go back to the Jurassic Parks 1 and 2 for similar announcements. We think nevertheless this is an important step forward and intend now to build upon it. The basic problem is that the different classifications each cover a wide range of material. People simply don't know why something has been given a 15 (for example). Is it because of drugs or violence or sex or just very strong language? We hope that the industry will provide that information and these two experiences prove that it is not so difficult to arrange it. Black Hawk Down was a fairly straightforward 15 (not more difficult that Saving Private Ryan which also got a 15 - remember that?) but we know that some people including many much older adults would find the gung-ho battle violence unwelcome. That is why we thought it helpful to alert people, possibly especially older people, to what they would be getting. PG is a particularly interesting problem. If you look at our published guidelines (on our website again) you will see that PG is stronger than U and the guidelines warn that it may disturb the youngest children (the rule of thumb age we give is below 8). We had no doubt that Lord of the Rings was a PG because it would be hugely enjoyed by children aged around 8 upwards. As indeed it has turned out to be. For them it is a thrilling ride, like being on a scarey roller coaster in a theme park. But we also knew that some very young children would find it too much.That is why we insisted upon a warning that it 'may not be suitable for under 8s'.

CherylA

Jabba> I think you'll find only LotR has an official BBFC warning - Black Hawk Down just has put it on its advertising material as a sneaky bit of sales pitch to make it look like it has.

RobinDuval

Sorry, Cheryl. MightyJabba was right. I think you have stumbled on the newest urban myth so far. We specifically asked the Black Hawk Down distributors to publicize our consumer advice, which they did verbatim on posters and TV advertisements. In other words, the situation was precisely the same as for Lord of the Rings. I was very pleased with the result (see above).

joekingR18

Could the BBFC put 'Cut by the BBFC (no of min:sec)' on the packaging of all vids/dvds so to better inform the consumer? Would 'cut by supplier to get this rating' also be useful? How much would this information cost the vendors (and classifiers)?

RobinDuval

Well, you are welcome to try and persuade the distributors, We have no legal powers to force them to include cuts information. Sometimes they will acknowledge cuts; mostly I guess they prefer to keep it quiet. It's not exactly something to boast about or likely to bump up sales. Also do bear in mind that videos often arrive with us pre-cut anyway. That may be because it was the only version the distributor could get the rights to. Having said all that, I would advise anyone who is at all interested to go into our website where you will find that any cuts made (whether for a lower rating or for any other reason) are clearly identified alongside the relevant film/video/DVD title.

joekingR18

What 'robust' research does the BBFC refer to re:male aggressiveness in the concern of sexually violent material.

What percentage of males respond aggressively to sexually violent imagery?

RobinDuval

I refer to research by amongst others Donnerstein, Malamuth, Check, Penrod and Linz. Nobody can say what percentage respond aggressively and dangerously. Some people might say that dangerous behaviour by one person as a consequence of watching certain material would be of sufficient concern. It is certainly much more than that.

joekingR18

Principles of harm. Does the BBFC use a rather subjective principle of harm (i.e. we only consider some things harmful that doctors (or rather 1 doctor) thinks might possibly be harmful in a particular context). Why isn't smoking considered 'harmful'(and therefore cut)?

RobinDuval

We take advice from psychologists, doctors, child specialists, media effects researchers and a wide range of specialists and experts in harm issues. For example, a recent documentary about sadomasochism was viewed by three leading clinical specialists in the field and they concluded that vulnerable viewers (perhaps those individuals most likely to want to watch this work) might well be stimulated by it to cause actual harm to themselves. In terms of the requirements of the Video Recordings Act (which directs us to take action against any harm that may be caused to potential viewers), it was clear that cuts were required. Smoking, unlike SM, is unfortunately a fact of everyday life and we have to use commonsense. Nevertheless we do of course recognize that smoking is harmful. We would for example not allow direct encouragement to smoking at the most junior classification levels. At the adult levels, there is rather less point in attempting to intervene and I am quite clear that the British public would not expect the same kind of intervention as they would in relation to extreme violence, say, or incitement to illegal drug-taking.

dfic1999

For example, a recent documentary about sadomasochism was viewed by three leading clinical specialists in the field and they concluded that vulnerable viewers (perhaps those individuals most likely to want to watch this work) might well be stimulated by it to cause actual harm to themselves.

Eh? Are you suggesting that: (a) the clinical specialists knew how the 'client group' (for want of a better term) would respond? (b) that they didn't ask 'those individuals'? (c) that certain people ought to be protected from themselves? (d) 'Monkey See, Monkey Do'? There's a whole series of assumptions here that recall the argument about 'bad behaviour' in movies being imitated by the so-called feeble-minded - or have I missed something?

RobinDuval

In answer to your questions: (a) certainly they do. (b) they have direct professional experience of dealing with them - sufficient to predict their future behaviour. (c) I am afraid so. (d) not everyone is as mentally or psychologically healthy as you. We do have a duty to protect the weak and vulnerable in society.

Kittt

CONSUMER ADVICE and VIDEO LABELLING

I notice that a single line of consumer advice is now provided with film certificates. On the back of DVD boxes we get the certicate logo in a big white box with "Suitable only for persons of (eg) 15 years and over."

This seems a statement of the obvious and rather useless as a guideline to the film's content, so has the BBFC any plans to replace this with a line of consumer advice?

I imagine the content of the white box is mandated by the Video Recordings Act and any change would require a change in law, but surely the BBFC liases with the DCMS on the matter of amendments to the law? Or does the BBFC take a politically neutral stance, with all changes in the law coming from government proposals?

RobinDuval

Yes we do have plans to develop our consumer advice. The content of the white box is not in fact a legal requirement, and progress on this front depends on the willingness of the industry. It also depends upon the BBFC providing useful information in a form that can be accommodated on videos, DVDs etc - which is not as straightforward as it sounds. There are an awful lot of competing pressures on the limited space available.But we are working on it. Like most useful developments this must depend upon the goodwill of the industry involved. I see no point in threatening anyone with more laws. I think it is worth doing and I believe the industry is coming round to that view too. Indeed, important parts of the industry already take that view.

joekingR18

How many dildos can a woman put into her vagina/anus/mouth before it will be cut by the BBFC?

RobinDuval

What a lot of questions you are getting...no, this is not one I will be answering.

joekingR18

'In 1991, 12.4% of films shown in the UK were cut by the BBFC. Last year, that figure was only 2.8%. '

12.4% (good, bad or alot or ?)

2.8% (good, bad or alot or ?)

Please tell us what this is supposed to mean. Do you cut less? Or do the suppliers cut more? Is is good to cut 2.8% of the titles? Are you more liberal if you seemingly cut less?

6% of R18 titles are cut (calculating from august 2000) is that good, bad or something else?

RobinDuval

Briefly, the figures mean that we cut proportionately much less than we used to do, However, our workload has doubled since 1991, and so the actual number of works cut has not declined to the same extent. The majority of the cuts are at the request of distributors in order to achieve a lower classification and appeal to a younger audience. It is also worth mentioning that distributors now (since 1998) have our published guidelines to assist them and these may encourage them to get the classification right in the first place, without having to lose valuable time going through a cuts process with the BBFC. But the extent of that is very hard to quantify. In the case of non-British movies I doubt if it is a factor at all (or very limited indeed).

MIGHTYJABBA

Do you regret the introduction of the '12' certificate, especially given the amount of films that now remove scenes to get this audience friendly rating?

RobinDuval

No. The public clearly finds the 12 a helpful point between PG and 15. If we abandoned it, a 14 year old would only be able to see a PG or U rated movie and be deprived of a huge amount of enjoyable material. Don't forget the USA has a 12 equivalent (called PG13) which means that a great number of films come out of Hollywood specifically targeted at the early teens audience. If we lost 12 entirely, the need to cut for PG would create severe difficulties.

ratfink

I seem to recall that Dazed and Confused unfairly received an 18 certificate because of its proliferation of dope-smoking. With this funky new liberalism concerning weed, is there any chance DAC's certificate will be lowered [as, for instance, was The Terminator]? In fact, are there any plans to lower certificates on any other films [a huge list of potential candidates is forming in my head as I type], and what is the reasoning behind such a decision?

RobinDuval

We have no plans to lower (or vary) any certificates we have previously given. We will treat each submission on its merits. What arrives at the BBFC depends entirely upon the distributors. We have no power to call anything in.

dfic1999

Do you feel you have any pet hates as Chief Censor that might affect your decision to cut or classify a film?

RobinDuval

Only people who leave their mobiles on in cinemas and theatres and concert venues.

SpankTM

What was the first X certificate film you saw? And how old were you when you saw it?

RobinDuval

Dieu Crea La Femme. I was probably 17 or 18.

moto748

What was wrong with the old A, U, and X ratings? In other words, if, as a parent, I can be bothered to get out of the house and take my children to the cinema, why can't I be the judge of what's suitable for them to see? Especially considering that in France, most films seem to be "12" certificate.

RobinDuval

Thanks for joining in! The present ratings reflect what the public now requires. We asked them 18 months or so ago and got a strong vote in support. These days people do expect greater clarity. The old ratings were pretty vague and unsupported by public classification guidelines. Using age ratings rather than letters of the alphabet clearly helps people understand what it's all about. The public also requires that the higher levels be mandatory. We are in the process of examining, through a series of pilot exercises in different cities, whether the public might prefer the lowest age rating (ie 12) to be made advisory rather than mandatary. But I am sure that, if the public does agree that proposition, they will need rather more information about content than they get at present. The recent experiences with the Lord of the Rings and Black Hawk Down show how we are working on providing that information - hopefully at all levels.

DaveXXX

Given that the majority of mainstream films are now being passed supposedly uncut (especially the "18"-rated ones) is it now the case that the BBFC are looking to justify their position by finding something else more "censor-worthy" i.e. porn ? The cuts made to R18s mostly seem ridiculous, especially now that obtaining such material uncut from other countries is virtually effortless.

There is also the issue of cost - R18s are restricted to "specialist" shops thereby keeping prices way above acceptable levels and forcing customers to again look abroad, defeating the whole purpose - or does the BBFC get some revenue from this ?

I would guess most people aren't aware that they can buy such material !

RobinDuval

Hello! The BBFC is not basically a censorship organization. Over 97% of our work is simply classifying material with no cuts of any kind. And certainly we do not need to look for more work. We now deal with more films/videos/DVDs than ever before in our 89 year history. R18s are a very small proportion of that. I would not be worried if it were even smaller.

WolfieK

Why do you censor man pleasuring woman but not killing other human being?

RobinDuval

If a film appeared before us which showed in graphic detail someone really killing another human being - and that was for entertainment - then you bet we'd censor it. Do bear in mind that violence in movies is all pretend (you did realise that?) but that explicit sex in porn movies is actually real. Since our public consultation in 1999-2000, we have relaxed our 'sex' guidelines and tightened up our violence guidelines in line with what the public now requires.

WolfieK

Cop out reply, I am afraid, Mr Duval. Surely your job is concerned entirely with material's effect on its audience, not its mean of production. Real shagging looks real. Fake death can look real. If you had two shagging scene, which look at exactly same, but one is real and other is fake, are you saying they might be catergorised differently even though their audience effect would be same?

RobinDuval

Wolfie, if you can't tell if the sex is explicit because nothing explicit is shown, then you treat as non-explicit.

wendygrrl

If Video/DVD classification is removed from the BBFC and becomes the responsibility of OFCOM, as many believe it will be, what do you think will be the likely effect ?

RobinDuval

There is no longer any suggestion that the video/DVD responsibility will be removed from the BBFC. One thing less to worry about.

GasparN

Do you think that eventually, UK censorship will be reduced to European levels?

In France the legal age to buy hardcore is 16 and very few people view this as a problem. After all, the idea that you have to be older to VIEW sex than to partake in it is laughable, right ? ( unless you`re british, of course .. )

Finally, Robin, Do you have any advice for guys suffering from "Penis Envy", as you know, this can be a terribly debilitating condition and often isn`t treated with the seriousness it deserves to be.

Bonjour, Gaspar Noé

RobinDuval

Bonjour Gaspar!

UK regulation is in fact broadly in line with Euro levels. It is the ever-independent French, I am afraid, who are often out of line with the rest of us (and why not?). Incidentally you are also out-of-date on the French regulatory system. There is now an 18 level, a bit like the UK and that is where Baise-Moi was recently placed.

But I am truly sorry to hear about your condition. I cannot really help you myself as I regret I have no direct experience of it. But I might be able to recommend a sensitive British marriage counsellor who could assist you. You may wish to write to me privately.

joekingR18

The New York Ripper (18) 'To obtain this category cuts of 0m 22s were required. Cuts required to detailed, close up sight of a woman's stomach, breast and nipple being cut with a razor blade,...'

Shouldn't that be fake cut with razor blade? Are you saying she was really cut with a razor blade?

RobinDuval

What do you think?

jessfranco

Do you feel that the law preventing you from passing any film that might be considered blasphemous is anachronistic?

RobinDuval

In fact there is no such law. You may be referring to the common law of blasphemy but the test would be much more rigorous than you suggest and these days unlikely to be applied. But yes (like some common law) it probably needs bringing into the 21st century and, if it is to continue, should be sensitive to the needs of other religions as well as Christianity.

dfic1999

I know it was before your time at the BBFC, but do you recall the Visions of Ecstacy case?

RobinDuval

Certainly.

jessfranco

Wingrove v UK (1995) made it quite clear that the blasphemy law was to be upheld and would not be regarded as a breach of the freedom of expression article in the ECHR.

if your legal advisors are telling you that the common law blasphemy rules probably wouldn't apply any more then would you be open to passing 'Visions Of Ecstasy'?

RobinDuval

Our legal advisors are not telling me that the common law blasphemy rules no longer apply. They apply until Parliament decides otherwise.

jessfranco

Can you clarify your position on the 'Bridget Jones' Diary' DVD, please? I have heard on numerous occasions that the BBFC demanded that it be recalled because swearing in the director's commentary made it unsuitable for a 15 certificate. If so, can this be justified when other 15-rated films like 'Memento' and 'Election' contain the same abusive term?

RobinDuval

By agreement with the original distributor, a particularly offensive expression was dubbed over in order for the film to get a 15 (rather than an uncut 18). This in turn was accepted by the video/DVD distributor. Unfortunately, however, the DVD was distributed to the public with two versions on it: the dubbed version and also the undubbed version. The latter version of course had not been classified by the BBFC and so, in the terms of the Video Recordings Act, was illegal. To make things worse, there was a director's commentary with it in which Sharon Maguire drew specific attention to the offensive expression. So we did indeed point out to the distributor that they were in breach of the law and would have to replace the illegal copies with legal ones. There is incidentally no absolute ban on the use of this expression or indeed any other language, even at 15. But the most offensive usages of it will always get a minimum 18 rating.

DrSim

Can you please explain why vaginal & anal fisting along with urolagnia are NOT acceptable under the current R18 guidelines, even though none of the above are illegal to practice in the UK. Due to your refusal to classify R18 such material, HM customs & excise will seize material containing the above activities and the importer will face a "serious arrestable offence" (according to a recent Homeoffice memo sent to HM Customs & Excise) However Homosexual group sex is still a sexual offence in England and Wales (A clear case of discrimination against gay people)But is classifiable by the BBFC if filmed outside England & Wales and therefore, is not an arrestable offence if imported. So how is it you can pass material that if done for real in England & Wales would technically be in breach of the sexual offences act and yet refuse to classify material that is not. You state in the BBFC R18 guidelines that you will not pass material likely to cause actual harm. Consensual Fisting is not harmful if it's done properly & carefully. You also state in the BBFC R18 guidelines that you will not pass material degrading or dehumanising. Is consensual urolagnia degrading or dehumanising???, that's a very subjective argument Mr Duval, one things for sure, It's not harmful. You may state that it breaches the obscene publications act, again that's very subjective It's high time that UK censorship be as liberal as other European countries, after all, we are in Europe arn't we. Any restriction should only be restricted to illegal acts.(except gay group sex)

RobinDuval

This is mostly covered in my reply to Wendygirl (#21). I might just add here that these activities can still be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act and so long as juries continue to find against them, the BBFC is bound to do so as well. That actually is why Customs & Excise take action against such material. I'm glad that they find the BBFC guidelines useful, but that is because they can be confident (I certainly hope so) that they reflect the legal reality. The law on group gay sex does not apply to activities conducted outside the UK - that is why we can pass such material (but not UK-shot material). I agree with you that the law at present potentially discriminates against gay people. But the BBFC cannot pass illegal material. Of course one of the purposes of the new Human Rights Act is to remove legal discrimination which is prohibited by one of articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. It will be interesting to see how things develop on that one

joekingR18

What is the difference between a guideline and a rule?

RobinDuval

This is an interestingly philosophical enquiry. But I do not know why you think it is relevant to the BBFC. We issue 'guidelines'. I think I am right in saying that you will not find the word 'rule' anywhere there. So from my point of view the question is fairly academic. Perhaps it would help if I said that we regard the guidelines as binding in the sense that they express what the public expects at each different classification level, and we have an obligation not to break faith with that understanding. But of course guidelines often have to be interpreted according to the particular context within which an issue arises. So very little is absolute and cast in immutable stone. To that extent they are probably not 'rules'. But the difference in regulatory practice is probably not significant.

pwoods99

Last night Channel 4 showed "Raw Deal: A Question of Consent" which contained explicit unsimulated scenes of a woman being raped (allegedly).

Clearly, the BBFC would have little choice but to allow a video certificate if the film was submitted, since millions of people could already have made copies of it. Indeed, there may be some sick individuals out there who have edited the footage together and are watching it repeatedly right now.

How then, can the BBFC justify the continued refusal of an uncut video release of Straw Dogs ? That film includes a rape scene that was deliberately ambiguous and was intended to provoke a debate over society's attitude towards rape. Do you not agree that the censorship of material which some may find objectionable can have the effect of suppressing a rational discussion of the underlying issues ?

RobinDuval

Hello Peter! No public exchange would be complete without your presence. I did not see last night's C4 programme. But it is important to bear in mind that the ITC rules governing sex on C4 are generally tougher than the BBFC Guidelines. So it is quite likely that anything acceptable on C4 would be acceptable (at least at '18') to the BBFC as well. That aside, our test of acceptability can only be our Guidelines. It certainly cannot be what may or may not have been shown (legitimately or illegitimately) on a tv channel. So I do not think this bears at all on any decision we may make on Straw Dogs in the future. As for rational discussion of the Sraw Dogs situation, there seems to have been plenty enough of that, and I am sure will continue to be.

MattDP

I've always felt that as adults we should choose whether or not we want to witness potentially disturbing scenes in a film. Do you feel there is any case for releasing a film uncut with some sort of "18+" certificate to indicate extremely dodgy scenes, if that's what the director/studio wants?

RobinDuval

We very rarely cut films at '18' - only once in the last 12-18 months. If we do so it is because there is a very severe problem indeed. So I'm sure we would not want that to go out at '18+' if such a thing existed.

theTramp

You see plenty of films in your line of work. On Filmunlimited we have had some discussions regarding the worst film of 2001. What would you say was the worst film you saw in 2001? And why did you dislike it so much?

RobinDuval

I am sworn to professional silence...

hanifbarik

Has the recent terrorist attacks affected the way in which the BBFC certifies films and games with a war theme? If so, can you give an example of a before and after Sept 11 scenario where films have been certified differently due to these attacks?

RobinDuval

No.

melonf

Is it possible that R18 censorship could become voluntary. The vast majority of R18s dont require cutting and it is obvious to distributors that they are standard fare. The BBFC could still maintain the rules/guidelines and accept submissions where the guidelines are neared eg for Rocco videos

RobinDuval

A very hypothetical question. I suspect that all other classification categories will have become voluntary long before R18 does. And that may not happen until many years after I am gone.

AmbroseBierce

Do you not think that the high cost of having a film certificated R18, and the limited number of outlets for this product in the UK, leads to more people simply buying cheaper and more plentiful sexually explicit material from abroad by mail order? And does the widespread use of these foreign mail order companies not make the BBFC's work in this area somewhat meaningless?

RobinDuval

I think you will find this has been answered at questions 7 and 20.

pwoods99

I have another question. Do you think that the MPAA NC-17 classification is a failed experiment ? Much as though I (and others) are quick to criticise the BBFC, at least 18 films are acceptable and are rarely cut (in the cinema), whereas an NC-17 film in the States is likely to fail miserably, with the effect that studios avoid them like the plague.

RobinDuval

Peter, this is a very boring question. But I do agree that the NC-17 clearly is not working. In 2000 I believe only one film was classified NC-17 by the MPAA.

nina793

Dear Robin, What films have caused most dispute between you and your colleagues?

RobinDuval

Ahh... that would be telling.

FilmEditor

Have you found that your own moral compass have shifted during your (three?) years in the job? Have you grown more conservative? More liberal? Or are you the same as you ever were?

Chris Jeffrey, London

RobinDuval

That is a very difficult question. I do not believe that my personal views have shifted significantly since 1998. But I have to acknowledge that I have learnt more about issues such as possible harm and about the nature of public concern.

Tonyhares

Do you believe in censoring theatre, or literature? If not, why not?

RobinDuval

No I do not believe in the censorship of theatre or literature. A difference between these genres and film/DVD/video is that the classification system we offer would be quite inappropriate. But another crucial difference is that neither genre presents "real life" imagery in the way that film can. There are constraints as you probably know on real sex in the theatre, and violence with the same kind of verisimilitude provided by the cinema cannot be achieved in theatre or literature.

AmbroseBierce

you're right that my query is partially answered by question 20, but you haven't addressed the issue of the high cost of certification. I'm assuming that the BBFC sets its own rates for certificating films (I apologise if this assumption is incorrect) but the point I'm interested in addressing is that the prohibitive cost of submitting a film for an R18 certificate - coupled with the limited points of sale - reduces the number of films that are submitted, and thus the choice for the consumer. As a result, the consumer buys from abroad, thus making a mockery of the whole certification process in the first place. Surely it would make more sense, if the object is to stop the UK being flooded with unregulated material, to reduce the cost of certification and thus encourage manufacturers to sell within the UK, rather than from one of the many foreign companies?

RobinDuval

No. The BBFC's video classification fees are set by the DCMS and our cinema fees are in line with those. Far from the cost of classifying an R18 being prohibitive, I think you will find that the major part of the R18 market is very highly profitable. As I have explained in my earlier answers it is simply not the case that the UK is being flooded with unregulated material.

RobinDuval

I'm off to do some real work now... That's all folks.

 

1st December
2001
  

A 'Liberal' BBFC...

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The BBFC has gained a more permissive reputation. But how deserved is it?
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Robin DuvalRobin Duval was appointed director of the BBFC in January 1999 following a seven-year stint as deputy director of programmes at the Independent Television Commission (ITC). One early problem he had to face was the board's apparent inability to relax the guidelines for 'R18' videos due to intransigence from the Home Office and Customs and Excise. This resulted in two distributors going before the Video Appeals Committee (VAC) in July 1999 to contest the board's refusal to grant 'R18' certificates, without cuts, to seven videos including Horny Catbabe and Nympho Nurse Nancy . The following month the VAC ruled on the side of the distributors. The Home Office thundered, and the BBFC sought leave for a judicial review of the VAC's decision. But in May 2000 the High Court upheld the VAC's ruling and the BBFC decided not to appeal any further.

In the meantime Duval had continued his predecessor James Ferman's policy of holding 'roadshows' up and down the country in order to gauge public opinion of the board's standards and in early 2000 had organised 'citizens' juries' in Birmingham and Portsmouth to gain the fullest picture yet of public attitudes to film and video classification. As a result in September 2000 the BBFC published new guidelines explaining in considerable detail the rationale behind its various classification categories. It announced: 'The public has told the BBFC that the board's guidelines should be more relaxed in the '18' category, but the board should be tougher on violence, drug portrayal and bad language at the lower classification levels.' However, the most notable, and least noticed of all the changes was the considerable liberalisation of the 'R18' category which effectively marked the legalisation of hardcore pornography in Britain.

Julian Petley: How do you take Christopher Tookey in the Daily Mail describing you as 'less notorious but no less permissive' than your predecessor James Ferman?

Robin Duval: I don't particularly enjoy being referred to as notorious and I don't particularly like being described as permissive, but I've no special objection to liberal and I don't mind at all being characterised as a director of the BBFC who has moved things on into the 21st century. That inevitably involves a degree of liberalisation because that's the way the British community as a whole has moved.

You've certainly introduced much greater transparency into the board's operations.

Because it wasn't fashionable for much of the board's history to be up-front about decision-making criteria, it left space for newspapers and others to fill in their own interpretations. So transparency isn't just a duty but is also advantageous in making sure that the starting point for any public argument is factually accurate.

You've also speeded up the classification process, which makes it more difficult for the press to agitate while controversial movies await certification.

I came to the board with certain priorities, one of which was to make its processes as efficient as I could. Another was to engage with the public in such a way that I could be confident that the basis for the board's decisions would reflect what the public found acceptable. But overall I derive my policy from the same fundamentals as my predecessor, namely the law, the concept of harm and what is likely to be acceptable to the public. If there's a difference between us, it's that I inherited his mantle with a background of experience at the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and the ITC, where the emphasis was on collecting evidence of what the public expects.

The BBFC Annual Report 1999 states: 'Whatever the outcome of any particular case, harm will remain the abiding and central concern of the BBFC.' But what difference can cutting little bits of violence from films possibly make - as in the four seconds of changes to David Fincher's 'Fight Club' required for its video release?

I come from a film-making background so I'm sensitive to the effect small elements of a film may have on the whole. I don't know any director who would accept that taking 10 seconds out of a movie makes no difference; that moment may seal the effect he or she is seeking to create. Looking back on Fight Club , I'm not sure the cuts made as much difference as we believed at the time. But on the other hand I'm absolutely clear that the 10 seconds we removed from Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's recent Baise-moi remove the erotic/ pornographic element from the rape scene. What you're left with is still extraordinarily powerful, but the message it conveys is slightly different. It's now entirely to do with the pain and horror the women suffer; you no longer have the erotic element that confuses the viewer's response - or, depending on your point of view, that adds another important layer, but it's not a layer we felt we could accept.

Certain horror titles still seem to be presenting problems on video. For instance, Stuart Gordon's 1985 'Re-animator', which remains cut, and Lucio Fulci's 1990 'Nightmare Concert', which is banned.

These are works about which decisions were taken in the early months after my arrival at the BBFC. I'm not sure that quite the same decisions would be taken now. First, my views aren't necessarily the same as they were at the beginning. We spent the first 18 months of my time here researching with the public the suitability of our guidelines and there have also been legal developments that have changed the environment in which we operate. So these factors could mean, though I'm not saying would mean, that were these titles to be resubmitted, we might take a different view.

Doesn't the 1984 Video Recordings Act (VRA) simply mistake offensiveness for harmfulness? The board certainly found it extremely difficult to 'prove' that pornography was harmful to children when it appeared before the Video Appeals Committee in 1999 to defend its refusal of 'R18' certificates to seven videos, as it frankly admits in its Annual Report 2000.

The elements the 2000 amendment to the VRA lists as those to which the BBFC should have special regard, including the matter of harm, were not novelties grasped out of the air for the purpose of amending the act. They had featured as criteria in the way the BBFC had been operating for a long time, and if you look at the IBA programme guidelines, which were then superseded by the ITC code, you would find the same kind of categories.

Far be it from me to argue with you over the ITC code since you drafted it! However, it's surely significant that Section 1 of the code is entitled 'Family Viewing Policy, Offence to Good Taste and Decency...'

Perhaps we can come to a compromise here. Because the code has to respond to paragraph 6:1a of the Broadcasting Act, which concerns offence to taste and decency, I acknowledge that there is throughout a responsiveness to that. But I think you will find if you look that a great deal of Section 1 is couched in terms of concern about harm. The entire violence code of Section 1:7, for instance, is to do with an analysis of different kinds of potential harm.

OK, we'll compromise. But at the Video Appeals Committee your witness Dr Milavic had such a hard time trying to convince the other side's counsel of the harm pornography could do to children I almost felt sorry for her.

She knew her facts and she spoke as someone who is one of the leading experts in child harm. The problem was that she recognised, from a lifetime's experience of dealing with children, that if material of that kind was presented to the kinds of children who are most likely to be her patients, then they were going to be harmed. But she had only one recent case to which she could point a finger, and in that case the pornography to which the child had been exposed was not an 'R18' video, which is what the appeal was about. So you might reasonably argue that we were a little unfair to put her up. But she was happy to appear and I thought she did bloody well.

What's the position concerning the rerelease of videos originally on the 'nasty' list drawn up by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP)?

Over the last two years we've tried to develop a flexible common-sense policy in this area. If a title was on the DPP's list then we need to know why, in particular if it received any prosecutions under Section 2 or Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act (OPA). Properly speaking, it shouldn't make any difference to our view whether it was tried under Section 2 before a jury or simply forfeited by a magistrate under Section 3, because if the police achieve a result in either respect it still marks that title as unacceptable. But time does pass, and if we look at a film now and we're clear that we would not ourselves have a problem with it if it didn't have an OPA record, and if we also discover that no jury has found it obscene for, let's say, 10 years or more, then that's the point at which we can move towards a more liberal position, although very cautiously and carefully because we don't want to put up a challenge to the law. In general terms, the only way to deal with films fairly is to start from first principles in terms of the way things are now.

According to the Annual Report 1999, 1973's 'The Exorcist' was passed on video because 'the Board decided that the passage of time since its first release had done much to date its special effects and generate familiarity with the film's contents.' For 1974's 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' it was decided that 'the film's horrors were unlikely to be taken too seriously.' But surely the whole point of horror films is that they are horrific and disturbing for their viewers?

Since BBFC president Andreas Whittam Smith and I have been here, the board has taken a fairly relaxed view on horror films because we recognise that going to horror movies is a roller-coaster experience. However, just as there are certain people, for instance those below a certain height, who are not allowed on certain roller-coasters, so we say that people below certain ages can't legally have this roller-coaster horror experience. If you start making decisions such as passing The Exorcist or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre , which you know will appear to parts of the outside world as being a sea-change, you have to explain why, in their terms, they shouldn't be anxious about this. But I don't think that now we'd use the kind of expressions which you've just quoted, or at least I hope not.

The Annual Report 1999 also states: 'Whether or not something is acceptable still depends ultimately upon how it is treated i.e. its context.' Doesn't this offer ammunition to those who accuse the board of being softer on arthouse than on commercial movies?

It was difficult to combat this argument as long as all the films that posed a challenge to our guidelines were non-English-language movies and therefore almost by definition arthouse - until Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy turned up earlier this year. Of course we applied exactly the same criteria to Intimacy as we would to anything else, and lo and behold we passed uncut an English-speaking movie with the same kind of content which people thought had been reserved for such arthouse work as Ai No Corrida , Romance and The Idiots . But now we're told that Intimacy is a British arthouse movie. You can't win - but nor do we expect to. So we're sitting waiting for a popular movie that sets identical challenges, and we will treat that exactly the same. If it's a movie which within its own internal context justifies something unprecedented, then it's possible we'd take a liberal view of that.

Then why does the board defend 'Baise-moi' as a film with 'a serious cultural purpose' which 'offers an important perspective'? Isn't it simply Roger Corman in French and with real sex - and none the worse for that, of course?

I don't think that what you've quoted is a defence of Baise-moi , it's a defence of the position we have taken on the film. However you or I may respond to Baise-moi , it has a serious purpose - it is about women reacting to the violence and humiliation habitually visited on them by men. When I first saw the film I wasn't particularly sympathetic to it, but by the time I'd seen it three or four times I'd come not only to enjoy it more but to begin to understand that it does seriously express a very interesting female viewpoint, although not necessarily a feminist one.

In the matter of DVDs, the Annual Report 1999 states that the board has 'established a policy of only permitting different versions of the same work providing they can be accommodated in the same classification category.' Doesn't this result in unnecessary cuts and further encourage people to buy Region 1 DVDs?

When a distributor first issues a film on video they naturally want to reach the largest target audience possible. So we might offer a '15' uncut, but they might then ask us to tell them what cuts to make so it can be issued as a '12'. Now, especially given the advent of DVD, the distributor might come back later and say they want to issue the film again, this time at '15' with the cuts restored. We've decided not to allow this because it would put us in the position of endorsing a release which is immediately going to be gobbled up by all the kids who were deprived of the cut sequences the first time around. And how can local regulators such as the Trading Standards Officers deal with differently rated versions of the same film and the confusion of local shopkeepers trying to enforce the VRA?

Does the 'gentlemen's agreement' still exist whereby the DPP will not prosecute a film passed by the BBFC?

I strongly suspect the 'gentlemen's agreement' has been as comprehensively forgotten by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as it had been by me until you mentioned it. It's hardly necessary these days. The bottom line is that if we're clear that something submitted to us could be prosecuted successfully under Section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act, then I'm afraid that we cannot pass it, at least not without cuts.

Are you relieved that what is permissible within an 'R18' certificate has to some extent been clarified by the High Court and that the board has been able to liberalise its guidelines in this area?

I need to pick my words carefully here, but let me just say that the 'R18' issue had long been a running sore for the BBFC and was probably the biggest difficulty my predecessor had to deal with. I may not have liked the outcome of the judicial review which brought the matter to a close, but there was a clarity to it, particularly in the acceptance of the fresh guidelines that followed. One of the main things still to be achieved was to get agreement, although not consensus, between all the affected parties such as the Home Office, the CPS, the police, customs and so on which all had to agree that the guidelines we were proposing would not create any difficulty for them, or rather that they were content to make any necessary amendments to their own policies. Having said that, we still cut more 'R18' submissions than any other category, because there's still a lot of material coming in which is probably in breach of the CPS' OPA guidelines and is certainly in breach of our own 'R18' guidelines.

Scenes of urolagnia, otherwise known as 'golden showers', still seem highly likely to be cut at 'R18'. Since these are now a staple of so much hardcore pornography, what's the problem?

The local police, or rather the local police on CPS advice, are still from time to time looking for convictions under Section 2 of the OPA for urolagnia, and they're getting them. And as long as juries take that view, that has to be our benchmark.

Similarly though the board tries for parity between the representation of homosexual and heterosexual acts, there are legal problems regarding the representation of homosexual acts involving more than two people.

Yes, if the films were shot in Britain, because the acts themselves are illegal here. Similarly the common-law offence of indecency in public places can pose problems for videos featuring sex in public - again, if they were made in the UK.

The board has told the distributors of 'Baise-moi' that it will consider the film's video release only after it has been able to judge the public reaction to its cinema release. Why is this?

The decision to classify the film for cinema release with just one cut was a difficult one. So it seems sensible to acquaint ourselves with public reaction to this benchmark decision. We've moved the goalposts and we need to know if people feel we've moved them too far. We may undertake formal public-opinion research or we may rely on the evidence we'll cull from the debate in the media and the responses we receive from people who contact the office. But the key consideration is public , not journalistic, reaction. The days when the BBFC was influenced by the personal, perhaps too personal, views of a single journalist or critic are - I hope - long gone.

What factors led recently to Ray Brady's 1994 'Boy Meets Girl' being passed on video?

The video was rejected by the board in 1995 because it found its depictions of torture sadistic and unrelenting. Interestingly, the film had previously been given an '18' certificate, uncut, for cinema release. Six years later, after a thoroughgoing review of public opinion from which it emerged that the public is rather more robust than we had thought, we felt able to take a more relaxed view. It was not in breach of our new, publicly tested guidelines.

Since the board has passed Uli Edel's 1981 'Christiane F' uncut on video, will it now allow the reinstatement of the cuts in Abel Ferrara's 1992 'The Bad Lieutenant'?

The Bad Lieutenant hasn't as yet been submitted for reclassification, and until it has been, my mind remains open. I would say only that sexual violence and instructive detail of drug use are still issues for us even today at '18'. On the other hand, you are probably aware that the board passed the film uncut in 1992 for the cinema.

How do you see the future?

My personal ambition is that we move progressively towards a better-informed public. And at the end of that very long road, which we certainly won't reach while I'm still at the BBFC, the mandatory ratings system will give way to something more advisory. I think the industry as well as the board has a fundamental duty to provide more information about why a film has a particular classification. Cinemagoers and video/DVD viewers will not take uncritically our ratings for ever - they need to know enough about the ingredients in the package to make their own judgements. Is it '12' for bad language, or for sex, or for violence? It makes a difference as to whether people expect to enjoy the film or not. We are already testing this proposition in Norwich with an experimental advisory 'PG-12' that offers the public an opportunity to decide for themselves whether a particular '12'-rated film is right for their 10- or 11-year-old child. But the crucial ingredient is the consumer advice provided to assist them to make that decision. I think it may well work at '12' because there are no real harm-related issues. An advisory '12' (or thereabouts) is pretty much the norm in continental Europe and North America. I would be much less confident about making '15' or '18' advisory - I think there are serious difficulties there. But whatever happens, the decision will be a public one - not the BBFC's, and certainly not mine.

 

18th February
2001
  

Film Censor to Stop Playing Nanny...

Robin Duval is predicting an end to legally-enforced ratings
Link Here

12A certificateBritain's most influential arbiter of public taste, the film censor, is predicting the end of legally enforced cinema ratings in the UK. In a speech on the future of censorship this week, Robin Duval will argue that greater freedom for film-makers and audiences is on its way.

We are pretty much the only country left to enforce a film rating system by law ,   he said. In most of northern Europe and the Americas, film regulation is advisory and not mandatory. How long will Britain keep this up? As the internet and new media become more available, everyone wonders why one medium is regulated by law and another isn't.

Duval, director of the BBFC for just over two years, does not expect all forms of film classification to disappear. He envisages a grading scheme in which parents would be able to take children to seefilms they deem suitable. Existing legislation covering obscenity and child abuse would then become the only statutory public protection. In contrast, when the late Princess Diana controversially took an under-age Prince Harry to see the 15-certificate film The Devil's Own , the London cinema involved was threatened with prosecution under the 1985 Cinemas Act.

I suspect film producers will still want their product to be given some sort of bill of health, said Duval, but I think the legal nature of it will change fairly soon. Television will have to have its own ratings system too.

Duval will use his speech at the Royal Society of Arts on Wednesday to call on the Government to rethink its policy on monitoring broadcast standards. New Labour plans for one giant, over-arching watchdog to look after film, television and the internet are dangerous, he will argue, and are also based on false assumptions.

The Government's parliamentary consultation document on the communications industry, published at Christmas, outlined plans for a new body, dubbed OfCom, to take over the roles of the Independent Television Commission, the Broadcasting Standards Council, the Radio Authority, the Radio Communications Agency and Oftel.

Duval said: There would be too much power in one institution - a supreme cultural regulator. Video and film would be lost within the broadcast bias of this watchdog.

OfCom has been billed by the Government as a simplification of conflicting standards as the worlds of new media and broadcasting converge. But Duval and his colleagues at the BBFC, including the president, Andreas Whittam Smith, are not convinced by the argument that filmed entertainment will all soon be delivered via the internet. There are a lot of assumptions being made that people will gravitate towards their homes, said Duval. ' It is doubtful whether the expectation of this great convergence is justified. People want to have somewhere to go in the evening. There are actually now three times more people going to the cinema than in the middle of the 1980s. Duval believes it will take a long time for the internet to become a central part of the film business. Sport is still the driving force behind home satellite and digital ownership and no film channel yet receives more than 1 per cent of viewing figures.

Attitudes to sex on screen have been deliberately relaxed since Duval and Whittam Smith have been in charge at the BBFC. We carried out research into public attitudes last year and there was a clear message, said Duval. People believed the BBFC was being quite unnecessarily nannyish when it came to questions of sex, but attitudes to violence were less tolerant . The BBFC's rating categories would continue to be rigorous over violence. Duval said that although the link between people seeing violence on screen and committing it was poor, the BBFC had to respond to public feeling.

Public acceptability is one of the BBFC's main criteria for rating films. The only statutory restriction we have is on violence towards animals under the 1937 Animals Act. We also have some restrictions under the Obscene Publications Act, said Duval.

The BBFC ensures there is no mention of drugs in U-rated films. Even at PG level, however, there is more scope for referring to illicit substances, while at a 12-rating Duval says audiences are allowed to 'enter the real world', as long as there is no appearance of promoting drugs. Broadly, we have to steer away from "imitable techniques". And we will not allow any detail of a hanging in a 15-film, he said.

Duval believes he has seen the end of the recent tide of violent horror films. However, he is concerned that the industry is about to erupt into a spate of brutal adventure movies.

In contrast to current British concerns, American censorship has been tougher on sex than violence. In 1929 the Hays Office Code ruled that married couples had to be shown in twin beds and that one foot must stay on the floor in love scenes, lest the nation's collective morals were damaged.

 

  A Beady Eye for the Sins of the Flesh...

Dodgy spin from Robin Duval of the BBFC


Melon Farmers
Link Here 6th February 2000
End Affair DVD Julianne Moore The film censor Robin Duval is in fighting form. The contest is over the heaving buttocks of Ralph Fiennes in The End of the Affair . Just a minute or two of his bottom and Julianne Moore's breast, but also, as Duval so dispassionately puts it, the very clear mechanics of the act.

Duval has decided to take on the makers of the movie, which is based on the Graham Greene novel. After all, director Neil Jordan and producer Stephen Woolley have publicly complained that the BBFC has given the film an 18 certificate. So, too, have Fiennes and Moore. Behind the scenes, the film's distributor, Columbia-Tristar, also wrote to Duval that the film would not be commercially viable at 18.

So it's my turn to go on the attack , says a clearly angry Duval. It is his first big row since he took over at the BBFC exactly a year ago from the often controversial James Ferman. There's been an attempt to rough-house the BBFC. I think that Stephen might have been looking for a row, too. After all, his aim is to sell the movie .

Duval is adamant about not caving in to pressure. We get it from time to time from producers and distributors . Usually it is kept away from the public. For example, the distributors of The Green Mile , which opens soon starring Tom Hanks, wanted a 15 classification. The BBFC, which had originally passed it as an 18, looked again, showed it to one of its three-strong presidential team (Andreas Whittam Smith is the president), but kept it at 18. We can't give in, s ays Duval. If we did, we would not be seen as independent. We would lose our credibility.

Duval has an intriguing revelation about The End of the Affair. During a phone conversation with Stephen, he admitted to me that the film did have some 18 material, though both of us agreed that the overall tone was a 15. Actually, it's rather a sweet film - a sort of Brief Encounter with some sex. Then Stephen asked if we could make an exception and classify it 15. But we can't make exceptions."

In the land of the regulator, rules are rules and guidelines are guidelines. A 15 certificate allows simulated sexual activity, but without genital images . In The End of the Affair , the BBFC says genital images are evident. We were unanimous in our decision about the certificate , says Duval, whose examiners took two looks at the movie. A cut was never really considered.

Duval is a movie buff whose favourite directors are Bergman, Visconti, Losey and Kubrick, though he also likes 1930s Hollywood musicals and westerns. One of his earliest decisions at the BBFC was to pass Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut , as an 18. We needed no cuts, he says, pointing out that in America the movie had an R rating - the approximate equivalent of our 18 certificate - but needed some cuts from the orgy scene.

Eyes Wide Shut was one of Duval's favourite films of last year, as was Happiness , which caused some eyebrows to be raised at a scene in which a dog licks some sperm off a window ledge and then slobbers on his unwitting owner. No cuts were required. Nor were they in There's Something About Mary , where Mary mistakes sperm for hair gel. It even got a 15 certificate. But it was funny, smiles Duval.

Nor does the BBFC have particular problems with the male organ - even erect ones these days, which made appearances last year in both The Idiots and Romance . Some say that these two movies got away with it because they were both foreign-made art movies. They needed no cuts for the film versions, which received 18 certificates, though the video of Romance will have one snip (the BBFC is more cautious with videos, which can be viewed in the home by youngsters).

Some films and videos, though, appall Duval. When I first came here I quite enjoyed some of the sex I saw, But now so much of it horrifies me. The nature of his job means he tends to see only the most controversial movies, with the worst examples of sex and violence. He says he will soon be taking a look at the film of American Psycho , which, if it's true to the book by Bret Easton Ellis, will cause problems.

Duval has been particularly shocked by the R18 classified videos that can be sold only in sex shops. I'd never seen the really sadistic sex of the R18s. It's been a voyage of discovery for me. They are dehumanising. No love or warmth at all. Purely mechanistic.

Last weekend Duval was in Holland for a conference of European censors. However, the eye-opener was the television set in his hotel bedroom. Duval says he was really surprised to find that hard-core porn was available, free of charge. In Britain, of course, you have to go through many, many channels before you find any porn. And then you have to pay for it.

On Thursday the BBFC will go to the High Court to ask for the right to seek a judicial review over the release of seven hardcore videos. It will be a test case for Duval. It's the first time we've sought judicial review. Last year the BBFC refused to classify the seven videos on the grounds that they could cause harm if seen by children. The titles included Office Tart and Nympho Nurse Nancy . But the video appeals committee overturned the censor. The committee includes novelists Fay Weldon and Nina Bawden. When they have overturned a BBFC judgment in the past, the ruling has been accepted. Not this time.

The BBFC is also halfway through a huge consultation about its classifications and guidelines. This has meant roadshows around Britain - citizens' juries where "ordinary people" are quizzed - and a large public opinion survey. The BBFC has adopted roadshows because it cannot rely on the letters and e-mails it receives. "These represent the extremes," says Duval. Mainly the view that we are far too lax, particularly on sex and language.

He hazards a guess that BBFC classifications might be modified slightly this year to become more liberal on sex in 15-certificate movies. This might mean that The End of the Affair would be classified a 15 if submitted then. So bad luck now for Jordan, Woolley and Fiennes. But the video version, available in about nine months, could be seen by most teenagers - if they want to. Whatever its certificate, it's an adult film.

 

  Tea with the Film Censor...

Who speaks of many things


Link Here 14th March 1999

Seul Contre Tous Philippe Nahon Tea with the censor is a mild-mannered affair. He is welcoming and courteous, discreet both in size and in demeanour. He has clearly perfected a serious gaze, he feels free to smile when talking about pornography ratings, to ease any possible discomfort. Robin Duval is a model of tact and balance - a model, in fact, of taste and decency, of which he is our national arbiter.

Duval took over from James Ferman as director of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) two months ago. Andreas Whittam Smith replaced Lord Harewood as president at the beginning of last year. The careers of their predecessors had been plagued by difficult films such as Straw Dogs, The Exorcist, The Last Temptation of Christ, Natural Born Killers, Child's Play, Crash and Lolita. But Duval and Whittam Smith have been hailed as the leaders of a clean sweep at the BBFC, instigators of a period when an institution traditionally shrouded in secrecy opens itself up to public scrutiny.

Times have changed , Duval explains. There is a desire now for transparency. In the old days, people wouldn't have been interested at all in the details - or even the broad outline - of what we were doing. Now the public challenges us, saying, "if you're doing this on our behalf, we need you to explain what you're doing." We are into choice.

It sounds straightforward enough, but Britain still has the most stringent film censorship system in the Western world. Will the public want the fact of its repression forced in its face? What can of worms is the BBFC opening? Will it self-destruct under scrutiny, like the royal family? Will censorship continue with equal force but, because we are informed, be called 'transparency'? Will it be called 'choice'?

Duval is a difficult man to challenge. In his previous post at the Independent Television Commission he was criticised for being overly liberal. But here he is in a job which is, by definition, censorial. He has a deft way of dealing with ironies: in conversation, he balances out opposites in clear, slow bureaucratise. He will conduct an entire discussion in a series of even-handed subclauses and will have covered all sides before you can contribute.

A typical sentence goes like this: 'Though it is true that there is no proof - there is evidence, but that's not quite the same - that watching films with anti-social elements produces an anti-social effect in the viewer, it is also unproven that it doesn't - if you can follow my double negative - produce that.' Duval is a man who can't be wrong.

Once upon a time, Duval was employed by the Central Office of Information. He had spent a year as a film critic on the Michigan Daily in the US (his favourite film from that time is Rocco and His Brothers, his best review, he feels, was of Bergman's Persona ). From there, Duval spent three years in advertising. At the COI he wrote and produced short films, and ran their documentary section. (One of his shorts won the John Grierson Prize.) While there, he was recruited by the Home Office. In the early Eighties, after the Brixton riots, he was asked to draw up a race relations policy for the prison department, which he did by forming a working group made up of black and Asian advisers. Most recently, Duval was deputy director of programmes at the ITC and had been there for 13-and-a-half years when he left to join the BBFC.

Amongst his plans for this institution are 'structured public research exercises'. A citizen's jury is due to examine the censorship guidelines from every angle. The guidelines will have to be developed, the criteria made clear, and responses invited from outside , Duval says. He speaks of changes in response to European standards, which will become more relevant to our own . Last year, the BBFC toured the country with a 'roadshow' - a selection of films they had cut and a string of out-takes to prove they had been right to censor them. Duval plans more of the same, but instead of simply showing the public what has been done he intends to put the censors' problems to the viewers and ask for their solutions.

I ask Duval for his response to people who are opposed to the very idea of censorship. I just wonder when people say that, if they really mean to encompass material in which it is evident that the content has been arrived at by cruel or illegal means. Paedophilia, for example, or savagery to animals. I ask whether these means should not be dealt with in the courts. He counters that waiting for someone to file suit is not a very efficient way of dealing with the problem. But his example highlights one of the eccentricities of the censorship laws: one would think that if a film was made of real paedophilia, what would be condemnable would be the act itself, not its representation on film. The censors only deal with representation: they just snip out the picture, as if that changed the facts.

Duval says that he is more concerned with violence than with sex and that, while there is evidence the British public is becoming more relaxed about sex, it is clearly more anxious about the increasing levels of violence. I ask him about a number of new, sexually explicit European art films. He has passed Lars von Trier's The Idiots . Catherine Breillat's film Romance hasn't come up yet, and this week's controversial release, Gaspard Noé's Seul Contre Tous , has not, on the day I speak to Duval, been given a certificate. This French film is a genuinely shocking, slick, repulsive story about a violent butcher. Much of it is told in a rabid interior monologue, and if it weren't for the subtitles the whole film might be considered violent, since the fascist sentiments of its hero run all the way through. The BBFC have had the film for some time and have delayed classification for months.

Duval says he would breach commercial confidence by talking about it, but he tells me about three scenes that are 'specifically matters of concern': one in which the butcher beats his pregnant mistress, one in which he watches a blue movie in a cinema (a scene which is itself a quote from Taxi Driver ) and one fantasy sequence in which he rapes and murders his daughter. The porn scene is certainly the least offensive of the three. I ask Duval if he believes violence can be pornographic.

He coins a few slogans in response. Violence is pornographic when, for a variety of reasons, it is unacceptable. Violence is pornographic if it invites you to emulate it. Violence is pornographic if a degree of explicitness cannot be justified by context. Violence is pornographic if it is also pornographic.

The next day I receive a call from Liz Wren, who, as head of Alliance, is distributing Seul Contre Tous . She tells me it has just received a certificate - 18 - but that the BBFC have insisted on cuts. They are happy to leave the two violent scenes alone, but they insist on cutting the scene in the blue-movie house. Wren is outraged.

This is the first time I've ever talked about a censorship issue, because it's the first time I've felt that there was dissent in the ranks‚ she says. Alliance were given James Ferman's unofficial opinion that the film should be kept intact. This is Duval's first contentious film. He has passed the violence and disallowed the porn. They're going to have to look at the fact that they don't allow any hardcore imagery anywhere, says Wren. I think the Europeans are going to test this law. I think it's time.

Now Gaspard Noé has darkened his film during the sequence in question, so that it is clear to the viewer that something has been cut: audiences will see black for 40 seconds. The censor will have nowhere to hide: he will have left his mark. (This has not proved to be the case, the scenes have been blurred to remove explicit detail)

 

  Idiots at the BBFC...

What's the bottom line in movies? Robin Duval speaks to Carol Allen


Link Here 15th February 1999

The Idiots DVD Bodil Jorgensen When Robin Duval took over from James Ferman as director of the BBFC earlier this year, he was already used to dealing with a certain amount of flak. Thirteen years with the ITC as a senior regulator of public taste had prepared him for the job. But when he was invited to apply to be the new film censor, Duval was aware he could be taking on even more of a poisoned chalice. 

Duval said: I could see it was a job with a very severe downside. Being shot at by both the liberals, who find any censorship unacceptable, and the more censorious lobby, who feel that it's a great failure of duty on the board's behalf to even classify a film like Lolita. But I also knew that if I didn't take this job I would never have another comparable opportunity before I retired. In the end the challenge was irresistible.

This week sees his biggest challenge yet, the release of Lars von Trier's film The Idiots . It deals with a commune of young people who pretend to be mentally disabled as an expression of their anti-middle-class ideology - the sort of storyline which could well upset the disabled lobby. It also features a group sex scene containing a brief glimpse of sexual penetration. The film has been classified as 18 without cuts.

Obviously we had to consider the possibility that the film might offend disabled members of the public, says Duval. But the view of the film taken as a whole is a positive and sensible one, particularly where real disabled characters are involved. The young people's idiot behaviour is specifically shown as the means they use to take refuge from society.

As to the sequence which Duval describes as a very fleeting moment of explicit sexual activity it is, he explains, well within BBFC guidelines, which allow images of real sex in 18-rated movies provided they are brief and justified by context. As, for example, in the Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses . This particular scene in The Idiots marks the critical point at which the commune oversteps its own boundaries of behaviour and begins to fall apart. Given the brevity of the image and its importance to the narrative structure, we concluded it was within those guidelines.

There was, however, a considerable delay in the film receiving its certification, a fact which gave rise to rumours that the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, had attempted to intervene. The rumours are firmly refuted by Duval. " There was never any question that the Home Office would be involved. The notion is just silly. James Ferman took the view with regard to all the material that was coming through at that time that it was not fair to make decisions two or three weeks before I arrived and for me to then carry the can for something I didn't participate in. The principal reason why The Idiots was postponed was simply to give me the opportunity to make up my own mind about it. "

The change in the board's title from BBFC, which happened 15 years ago, is for Duval an important distinction. Ninety-three per cent of the films, videos and computer games which come through the board's offices are uncut, he claims, and most cuts that are made are by mutual agreement with the distributors, clipping out, for example, a few seconds of excessive violence from a film which is otherwise suitable for a 15 certificate in order to reach the wider audience. But what about adult films? Is it appropriate for over-18s to have their entertainment vetted by a censor?

It's pretty rare for an 18 rated movie or video to be cut , says Duval (Duval is either lying or the reporter is misquoting, about 30 videos a month are cut with an 18 rating). The regulator's business is to get the best sense he or she can of what the public believes to be appropriate, and these days there's a visible hardening of the public's view against censorship, particularly of material for adults. What people require is as much information as possible about the material and that's why the BBFC operates such a detailed classification system. When we do cut an 18-rated movie it's almost invariably because it contains material which it's simply not legal to show, because it's in breach of one of the various relevant pieces of legislation.

When Duval moved into his new post in January, there were a number of potential hot potatoes sitting in his in tray. The Exorcist for example, which, 25 years after it first appeared in the cinema, has finally been certificated 18 for video. We now have a great deal of evidence to indicate that the fears we had in the past about the possible harmful effects of the film were misplaced . In fact it's not absolutely clear that there was significant harm back in the 1970s. I must say I was more frightened by Rosemary's Baby.

Despite the reputation Duval's predecessor had in some quarters of being secretive and autocratic in his decision-making, the board has been at pains to make itself and its decisions more accessible to the public. Last summer it mounted a series of roadshows around the country and in its 1998 annual report it published for the first time the guidelines it follows when classifying a film. The BBFC also now has its own website, with information about policy and specific films.

If, for example, you request a search for the recently released French film Seul Contre Tous , which contains a scene in which the main character is watching an explicitly pornographic movie, you will uncover the information that Seul Contre Tous has been passed 18 for adult theme, strong violence and sex and coarse language . . . with optical softening to make two sexual penetration scenes less explicit .

Although he has never made a feature film himself, Duval has a practical working knowledge of the industry. He worked in television commercials and film and television production for the Central Office of Information. In his twenties and thirties he was a keen amateur actor and self-confessed film buff, and he still enjoys a trip to his local cinema, loaded down with popcorn and cola, to see a popular blockbuster. His most recent rave is Shakespeare In Love , while his particular cinematic dislike is sexual violence, which he loathes, citing the rape scenes in Straw Dogs as an example - something which obviously made a strong impression on him in his youth.



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 Blasphemy Ruling European Court of Human Rights upholds BBFC ban of Visions of Ecstasy in 1996
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 Confessions of a Censor by Ros Hodgkiss, retired film examiner
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