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The Right to See: The ongoing struggle against film censorship in Australia

David Heslin

For the hundreds filing into the Balmain Town Hall on 3 July 2003, this was no ordinary night at the cinema. The film advertised, Ken Park, had just been refused classification in Australia, rendering the screening illegal. The organisers and audience were participating in an open act of civil disobedience.

A key figure in the events was anti-censorship campaigner Margaret Pomeranz, one of Australia’s most beloved film critics. That night in Balmain, she took a stand against what she saw as an attack on the public’s right to consume art. “It was just the most glorious thing,” she says of the public screening, which was almost immediately shut down by police. “It was a statement from everybody there that they wanted to be treated as grown-ups, and not be part of some nanny state that claims to know what’s good for you. I think most adults in Australia feel that way.”

Ken Park, a film by Larry Clark – the controversial American director of Kids and The Smell of Us, the latter of which is showing at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) – had received overseas acclaim, screening at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals. But Australia’s Office of Film and Literature Classification (now the Australian Classification Board) refused to give it a certification on the grounds that it depicted sexual activity between teenage characters, even though the actors themselves were over the age of eighteen.

For Pomeranz, who had seen the film in Venice, this was an outrageous decision. As a young woman growing up in a conservative post–Second World War Australia – at a time when artistically important books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover were still routinely refused entry into the country – she soon developed a passionate opposition to the concept that adults should be restricted in what they are allowed to see and read.

This, at least in theory, is a position shared by Australia’s National Classification Code. Its opening statement declares that “adults should be able to read, hear, see and play what they want”. However, it refuses classification to material it considers would “offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults”; therefore, such material is effectively banned.

There are many potential ambiguities in that statement, of course. Just as understandings of “morality”, “decency” and “propriety” have shifted over time, the question of who might be a “reasonable” adult is left unanswered.

A little over fifteen years ago, the Office of Film and Literature Classification had a simple rule when it came to the depiction of real sexual activity on screen: the film would either be banned, or restricted to licensed adult movie shops in Canberra and the Northern Territory. A slew of art films featuring explicit content, from Catherine Breillat’s Romance in 1999 to Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs in 2004, made censorship a significant media issue. This predicament, combined with public pressure, forced the board to re-evaluate its stance. In nearly all cases, films were passed on the grounds that their artistic merits justified their depictions of actual sex. A precedent was set.

Over a decade later, a highly provocative, sexually explicit film – Gaspar Noé’s Love – is screening at MIFF 2015 without intervention. What is even more notable is that it has barely generated any public commentary; not even so much as a negative opinion piece in the tabloids. This is an interesting contrast to its reception in France, where controversy has arisen over the decision to place the film in a special age-rating category.

Does this mean, then, that we are nearing the end of censorship battles in this country? Pomeranz points to the availability of films and other content on the internet. “Regardless of whether the Board refuses classification, people can see it anyway,” she says. It was for this reason that the lobby group she once presided over, Watch on Censorship, was disbanded a few years ago.

While it’s true that the internet has reduced the Board’s power to control what people watch, the struggle against censorship in Australia is certainly not over. It should not be taken for granted that the internet will remain as unrestricted as it is now. Successive governments have already attempted to implement various forms of filters, and there’s little reason to think that governments of the future won’t try again. And the fact remains that some films – including Ken Park – still cannot be distributed or publicly screened in this country. In 2014, the Swedish film Children’s Island – winner of that country’s top film prize in 1980, as well as its official submission to that year’s Academy Awards – was banned on appeal in Australia, after initially being granted an R-rating. This decision, relating to a brief shot of a teenage boy’s erect penis, was publicly questioned by free speech advocates – including Chris Berg of the Institute of Public Affairs.

For Pomeranz, the issue of ethics and exploitation in film will always be a difficult one. Like most anti-censorship activists, she does not believe that absolutely everything should be freely distributed. “If it’s material that contains a real crime in the making of it, absolutely it shouldn’t be allowed into the country, or on the net for that matter,” she says. But otherwise, she believes that it’s not the role of government to protect the public from art. “I’ve argued for a long time that the role of the Classification Board is really to give advice about films. The concept of banning anything is ludicrous.”

Although she has retired from her role as a film critic, Pomeranz is still willing to publicly advocate for the issues she is passionate about – “until they tie me up and gag me,” she laughs. Should government attitudes to censorship change for the worse, her voice will be vital. In the meantime, though, she remains an example for other anti-censorship campaigners – many of whom will draw inspiration from her actions one wintry night in Balmain.

Read all of our 2015 Critics Campus features