Society in Film: Why the perception of taboos needs to change

In a society where if you’re not PC you’re not nice, are movies in danger of being over-censored?

Current controversies around films such as Raw, A Serbian Film and Would You Rather? suggest restrictions on cinematic freedom of expression are very much of the present rather than the past.

One of the earliest debates in cinema is what you can and can’t show. What is morally right or wrong to portray. When is a realistic portrayal too graphic for an impressionable audience?

Over the past few decades,  a stream of “movie inspired” attacks or deaths have been blamed on various films. Understandably this is cause for concern.

Rules have eased, censors do sometimes agree to re-release but films are still being banned.

The Ninth (2013) explored a number of taboos including the neglect of fathers

One of the most well known was A Clockwork Orange. On its release and submission to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), it was certified 18 with no cuts.

Scenes of a sexual nature, rape, and extreme violence meant this was not a film for the faint-hearted – and its release caused uproar.

Many members of the public were against this film and its easy certification. After a number of threats and concerns over copycat attacks, director Stanley Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation in 1973.

It wasn’t until his death that his family re-released the film in 1999, allowing it to become a cult classic and a focal point in education around taboos in cinema.

At the time the BBFC’s secretary, Stephen Murphy defended the decision saying:

“Disturbed though we were by the first half of the film, which is basically a statement of some of the problems of violence, we were, nonetheless, satisfied by the end of the film that it could not be accused of exploitation: quite the contrary, it is a valuable contribution to the whole debate about violence.”

Essentially, this film was challenging the taboos of its time but in a way that satisfied the censors. Many of the subjects tackled are still relevant today which could explain why this film remains so controversial.

Italian western Django faced more of a battle to be certified, but gained less notoriety. The spaghetti western, dubbed into English, made in 1966 did not receive classification from the BBFC until its video release in 1999.

It was rejected first in 1967, then again by the more liberal BBFC secretary Stephen Murphy in 1972 and again in 1974, despite a change in ‘X’ rating from 16 to 18.

Even with cuts the examiners were torn, stating: “It was concluded that the ‘loving dwelling on violence’ was the ‘sole raison d’etre’ of the film and that a rejection was therefore still justified.”

The scenes that caused most concern were of a woman being whipped, a man’s ear being chopped off and put in his mouth and of Django‘s hands being smashed with a rifle.

It finally received an 18 certificate in 1999, as by then the rise of more high-action, violent films meant Django was deemed relatively tame in comparison. The biggest concern was a horse-fall breaching the BBFC policy on animal cruelty.

In 2004, it was re-examined and got a 15 certificate. It took 37 years for this film to go from being refused a certificate to receiving a quite lenient 15  certificate. We had reached a point where brute force violence no longer made a film unworthy of a certificate.

At the time it was argued that the violence in Django was violence for the sake of violence per se, whereas A Clockwork Orange was trying to portray a deep political message and tackle the taboos of society. While Django was less violent, it lacked the deeper message portrayed in Kubrick’s classic.

As society changes so do our perceptions of what is OK to portray.

In the UK since 1913, there have been 87 banned films.

Of these 87 there are 28 still banned.

Of these 28, only seven are from before the 1990s.

Of these seven, four are from between 1953 and 1980.

Does this suggest that people were more respectful of taboos when cinema was born, or is it simply that the untouchable subjects at the start were much tamer?

As times changed, the taboos changed. From the depiction of Christ to harming children or animals, to the encouragement of mindless violence, these have got more extreme as time has passed.

In the ’70s, the rise of home video recorders led to a number of people trying to produce their own films, with these productions being referred to as ‘Video Nasties’ due to their graphic, violent nature.

The only act in place stopping certain films was The Obscene Publications Act 1959, which was amended in 1977 to cover erotic films.

This was designed to rule out films that could be interpreted as something which may “tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it”.

This ambiguous definition meant that the then Manchester Chief Constable, a devout Christian, would often use this law to raid video stores and seize films he deemed too extreme, even if others did not feel this way.

“I think a responsible take on these real life topics can be good but they need to be handled with care.” – Al Bailey, The Ninth

Director Al Bailey, whose 2013 film The Ninth explores various taboos, knows those debates over where to draw the line have not gone away.

“I think a responsible take on these real life topics can be good but they need to be handled with care,” he said.

His own film tackles the issues of neglect under the guise of abuse, creating a shocking portrayal of the emotions a guilty father may feel.

“This was something, however, that I completely swerved in the sense of making it surreal. My story was a play on guilt, not on abuse, so again the intention was to make – and shock  – the audience into believing they are watching something about the topics of abuse and revenge when they aren’t.”

There are a lot of themes in The Ninth but this simply reflects how we are as humans. There can be so much going on it is sometimes hard to see the bare picture underneath. The complexities of the class system are stripped away majorly in this movie, by showing everyone at a black-tie party.

“I wanted there to be an ‘every man/woman’ persona to the fake glitz that exists in society.”

By the end we see that the characters come from different walks of life, but this is hidden to reduce any prejudice throughout. Portraying everyone in formal attire puts everyone on the same level, except the man in the basement.

Are we back to pushing the boundaries? 

Deadpool was the first of the new Marvel films to receive an R-rating given the dark tone the film had in contrast to older Marvel movies

A new generation of movie-makers are testing censorship to the absolute limit.

The Marvel Universe is producing more R-rated films with Deadpool creating controversy over certain scenes, and Logan being extremely dark compared to the X-Men films.

But are we just exploring the realities of an ‘alternate’ universe? One that we can simply rub off as “that wouldn’t happen in this universe”?

And yet,  films such as Human Centipede 2 was banned until significant cuts were made for it to be given an 18 certificate. How is this possible?

“If the story needs an extreme level of content to resonate with its audience then the writer would not be doing his or her job if they aren’t brave enough to reach for these taboos.”

Al continues, knowing full well that the raw emotion can be used to shock the audience, with his own film using the attack on the paedophile character to express the utter darkness of how human emotion can be portrayed when no words have the ability to portray these emotions.

“However, putting a scene about abuse or torture in a bubble gum movie such as Jerry Maguire would be irresponsible.”

Much worse than this still was A Serbian Film which even still has not had a commercial screening despite having 49 cuts across 11 scenes to allow an 18 certificate to be applied. It has further been refused certification in Australia twice, both uncut and cut and Spanish government blocked it from being screened there at all.

This in itself proves the film’s point. It aimed to push boundaries, to create a talking point about what is morally right and wrong. To create a dialogue about the harshness of life in Serbia.

Could this be the new A Clockwork Orange? Forty years after this film struck cords and shocked audiences, this film is now known simply for its controversy as well.

Much like A Clockwork Orange did in the ’70s, raising conversation about rape, violent attacks on those at home and how the government can control us; A Serbian Film makes people talk about predatory attacks against young children and making video-nasty style films without knowing what you’re getting into.

These are the films that change the taboos in society. The ones that force us to face them head on, talk about them and discover where our boundaries really lie.

Would You Rather? has received a rating of G on Netflix, where it is hosted, which by the site’s definition means: ‘general audience’. This means that as it was not released commercially in the UK, in cinema or DVD, it does not, in fact, need an age rating by the BBFC.

Therefore Netflix advises that parents decide if it’s suitable for their children before allowing them to watch it. If it had been given commercial release this film would certainly have received a rating of 18, as it contains a lot of mindless violence, much like what people thought Django was, but to a more extreme level.

Even at the start, they must choose whether they would electrify themselves or the person next to them, and further in the characters are forced to choose who to shoot and shoot them.

And yet this in a way both reflects and challenges the ways in which society’s views of taboos have changed.

Where in the ’70s, A Clockwork Orange was considered shocking, but given a rating because the violence was needed to create a dialogue, A Serbian Film was not.

Where in the ’70s, Django failed to get a certification due to gratuitous violence; Would You Rather? which depicts a rich man causing pain to others because he can, still received a certificate.

Where in the ’70s, provoking political dialogue was grounds for approval, now it is not, whereas mindless violence is now allowed despite it being a distraction from the real issues in society.

We are challenging certain taboos in order to allow the reflection of others to be acceptable, as some change is considered better than no change.

Will this finally break the circle? Probably not. Until we decide on a universal standard of what is acceptable to show in films and what is not, there will always be controversy as we fight to make our own moral compass the acceptable one.

Al reiterates the importance of talking about such issues.

“I think these topics should always be discussed and given a platform, as long as everyone concerned is aware they aren’t always going to, and shouldn’t always entertain and appeal to a mass demographic of people.”

It will never be easy to reach a conclusion as to what should set the bar because as the individual censors and public expectations change, so will the decision as to what is right and wrong – what we can see and what we cannot.


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