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Banning and Censoring - A necessary evil?

Shears.jpgThere's been particular focus on this topic of late as Mission Impossible III (review) faces delay and possible cuts in China, more noticeably The Da Vinci Code (review) is banned in some Middle Eastern countries, and now the American army are pushing for cuts on the film Baghdad ER, and getting them.

Yet it's not just these movies, films have had enforced edits and faced bans through the entire history of cinema. Although these days, and mainly in the West, censorship is the most lenient it has ever been as the recent story on the BBFC showed.

So why is it such a problem, why should we be concerned, after all a film gets cut and edited all the time, what's the problem? Well there are various levels of censorship, and some of them are integral to making a movie, others are not.

A film is edited throughout its creation, it's a natural evolution of a story. The screenwriter removes material and rewrites, the Director continually alters and refines the film, then with the Editor often changes the story entirely. There are the investors to think about with the production company making their demands, and next we get test screenings and more edits before finally being released. Oh, but then it faces the individual countries classifications which might mean individual edits for each country and perhaps no release at all.

It's quite a minefield, but many of these steps are part of the film making process and aren't really an issue. What I, and many others, have an issue with is what happens after the creative process ends, after those who are responsible for creating the movie say it is complete and ready for an audience. After all these are the people who are creating the characters and the story to entertain, scare, make happy or sad, or even just freak out. It's their work.

Once they've finished the investors sometimes try to use their cash to push things around, they may try to do this during the film process, but at least then the Director can control it. One of the most recent and extreme examples of this was the Exorcist prequel. Paul Schrader made his film and the main investor didn't think there was enough horror and so he buried the film and looked to a new Director to create a more blatantly horrific version.

What was produced was Renny Harlin's unsubtle and unfulfilling film, and Schrader's was never seen until public pressure made the investor think that there could be a market for both films, and an opportunity to make even more money. Then it saw the light of day. That very same investor was responsible for forcing a recut of Exorcist III, with the original Directors version being lost forever.

This is perhaps to me one of the worst aspects of Hollywood, where the money decides whether someone's movie creation even sees an audience and gets a chance. We'll never see the version of The Exorcist III that the Director William Peter Blatty intended us to see, instead we see someone elses version of his film.

Somewhat of a grey area are the test screenings. Here the completed film, or often uncompleted as the recent tests of Rocky Balboa attest to, are shown to a small group of people to find out their opinion of the film. They are polled to find out how they enjoyed the film, how they connected with the story, the characters, etc.

This is really to make sure that the film hits its intended audience, and to ensure that they are affected in the correct way and at the correct time.

For me test screenings are a difficult choice. It would be great to find out how the film appears to the outside audience, but deliberately altering it in places to ensure maximum audience returns somewhat sits uneasily with me. Still these can be a natural part of the filmmaking process, it does depend if the Studio and Producers allow those who created the film to have the final say or not.

The biggest issue is the enforced cuts from people entirely outside the industry, and the acceptance of these so easily. It is quite telling that the BBFC haven't asked for cuts to 18 rated movies for some time now and they say that these should only be made if…

…they encourage illegality or if the content is likely to encourage someone to harm themselves.

I think the BBFC that have the right idea. They don't actually ask for cuts, they provide a rating for a movie and then sit back. It's then left in the hands of the filmmakers to decide if they want to recut their film. Films will only be enforced with cuts or even banned should they break the above rule.

What then happens is the Studio decides if their intended marketplace is outside that rating and if it needs to be toned down, they then approach the BBFC and find out where they found particular issue with the film. They don't specifically tell them scene by scene, but they will indicate general areas and tone, and from here the Studio then ask the Director to make cuts on the movie to resubmit to the BBFC to try and achieve their desired rating. This continues until they make their rating.

Here I don't hold issue with the BBFC, they are trying to give an indication to the audience about the content and suitability of the film by assigning its classification. What the Studio is doing is suddenly worrying that they might not hit their sales targets and profit margins by allowing the film to be released with this rating. So then the cuts come, the cuts for cash return, not for creative storytelling.

There's also the individual country banning of films, most recently seen with Da Vinci Code. Here there are other things being said than entertainment and creativity, this is about religion and politics. Middle eastern countries banning a movie that should be more offensive to Christians than anyone else.

Why ban it though? Time and time again we see the banning of films and music causing their massively inflated sales, and this is something we've seen with Da Vinci in both the book and the film. Here the very controversy intended to turn people away from the movie has had the opposite affect and people are actually going to see the film, so much so it is now in the top ten list for highest takings in the first three days of opening. These very people who are hoping to quash the tale have helped advertise it.

The latest, and perhaps most worrying story, is that of Baghdad ER. This is a harrowing documentary about a military hospital in Iraq, dealing with wounded soldier's day in day out. It uncompromisingly shows some of the horrors of war with soldiers breaking down, limbs being removed and death a routine. When it came to the US it was shown on some military bases and received a very strong and positive reception, however now some Army politician is now saying that there need to be cuts made. Not cuts to the graphic content either, but to other aspects of the movie.

This is the worst kind of censorship that I find. Enforced from an outside source with no involvement in the creative process of the film whatsoever. How do they have the right to rewrite and recut someone else's story?

So where does creativity end and censorship begin? I would say as soon as the Director completes the edits he and his team are happy with. Should Directors accept cuts on their movie in order to meet a certain classification, or should they just accept it and go with the work they intended? Should the investors have any say in a movie once it's completed? If they've handed over their money and agreed the creatives that are working on the project shouldn't they sit back and accept what they have made?

What of the enforced censorship that is still going on? Should filmmakers work to ensure that their film is accepted by all and stay clear of the fear of offending anyone, or should they make the film they really want to and allow people to make their own choices? Frankly I think that's a moot question.

What are your views on these types of editing, recutting and censorship?



you know I'm an artist, and that being said, I used to think that censorship was a bad idea no matter how you cut it.

i dont feel that way now that I have kids.

I want my children to grow up as unaffected by certain influences as possible...and through that point, I think that if a country feels their citizens should not be exposed to certain things in CINEMA and VIDEO GAMES and TELEVISION, maybe it's not always a negative thing...

on the other hand, freedom of speech is also important to keep a balance of power in the world, so some censorship is a terrible thing.

Its' such a thin line between good and bad censorship that I dont even think my opinion should matter...but I still throw it out.

The only type of censorship that scares me is that of the press... the press, above all other media, should have a free pass to do whatever they want.

Censorship and art are not compatible words. If we talk about business we can accept censorship. But there must be no frontiers to artistic creation. The only censorship admittable then is the lack of genius, or the excess of stupidity.

I think we can all agree that the creative art and the industry as an entity in itself are not reaching for mutual goals. A socially important mesage which eductates and enlightens us to be better people can still tank at the box office.

But we are talking about the movie business here. The fact is, in many cases it may be a contractual requirement for investors to have a say in final cut. Now I'm not about to jump on the corporate defense but if a director/studio cannot get funding for a movie they feel is artistically sound, and an investor offers them the means to make this movie which may concern a topic of great import, but only if they have a say in final cut; what should they/we do.

Who's to blame now? We have the creative team who have forsaken their absolute creative control, investors who can't legally be ignored, and the establishment's representatives for decency. All of whom have a say in how the movie should be made/released/presented to audiences.

Are the artists I'm talking about here subject to the same respect we give to directors who assume full control over the content of their film prior to submission for rating?

It's all well and good stating the obvious; that art and business can't co-exist and at the same time reach their maximum potential. Of course there must be compromises. But where do we draw the line? Would we all be happy to have artistically perfect movies which we would have to visit the directors house to see? Similarly would we all be happy to have a thriving movie industry with 10 releases a day and a plethora of choice, all being mindless facilitators of bottom-line business planning?

Of course it would be better if the marketing took a back seat and there were no frontiers to artistic expression, but that is just not going to happen when a principle the audience hold is given up by the artist.

And wouldn't "art without frontiers" be a frontier in itself? Being "free" from a business model leaves us with no distribution, no communication, no awareness and no promotion of a film. I think we have to take the good with the bad.

Censorship however is of no concern to art unless as I have said in other posts before; "unless the medium proactively promotes, encourages, furthers or facilitates, in some way, the direct harm and/or persecution of a person(s) or entity sheltered under legally acknowleged rights (human or otherwise)."

People should be aware of what they are getting into before they make a movie and if they are prepared to push boundaries, then they must be prepared for the eventuality that someone somewhere will eventually push back. If the content is directly harmful, you're gonna be censored. If not, then the censorship is neither neccessary nor helpful. Artists should be left alone to communicate the message which we say we want to hear. And even after the fact, a decision should be made on a person to person basis of whether or not we want to hear this message. Self censorship can be just as powerful in making or breaking a movie as any establishment.

Brilliant comment, Rynndar.

But being only a cinema aficionado, not an investor, I can only talk about cinema as an art, or an entertainment. Considering it from that point of view, censorship editing has done little good.

The example put in the post is quite good. The Exorcist. I have seen both versions of it, and gosh, while Dominion is a masterful reflection on the nature of bad and evil, and the subject of faith, the Renny Harlin version is a crappy low horror flick with little to say.

I personally would love to see the complete, non-censored cuts of movies which I suspect were a failure partially because of that editing: Kingdom of Heaven and Alexander. I am sure the results can be surprising.

Acutally, since you mention it, I don't know what happened with the Exorcist. I was so stoked about it coming out and then both of them seemed to just wash over me. Never went to see em. I must sit down some time and compare em. I'd love to make a few notes just for personal enlightenment.

Wouldn't it be a great exercise to see three cuts from the standpoints we've mentioned?

I'd be dead curious to see the director's cut, investors cut and censors cut to one film and have 'em all sit down and watch 'em.

Wouldn't that be interesting to see what they all had to say about each version. Mayeb there is a pst example I'm missin, aside form say Exorcist/Superman II. Anyone know any other movies with mulitiple cuts? Aprt from the obvious blockbusters like Aliens/Terminator of course.

I'd be interested in seeing both cuts of any film in light of this article.

I have just seen the Directors cut of Alexander and haven't seen any other version. It's not bad, but overly long. I suspect that having read the comments about the original release it is a lot better. Once I've listened to the audio commentary expect a DVD review.

As for the Exorcist prequels I've heard from Schraders very own mouth that there will be a DVD released with both versions on it for comparison.

I'll come back to the rest of the debate later...


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