The BBFC, violent films, and the internet

As the BBFC decides to clamp down on sexual or sadistic violence in movies, how can censorship still work in our interconnected age?

Over the past decade or so, the British Board Of Film Classification has gradually undergone a change in image, from a somewhat stern and remote arbiter of decency to a more open, publicly accountable organisation. The BBFC itself maintains that the number of films it has insisted be cut has dropped from 25 per cent to one per cent since the 1970s, while information about its classification and suggested edits is freely available on its website.

Naturally, the debate over censorship, film classification and screen violence continues. On the 10th December, the market research company Ipsos Mori announced a report about public attitudes towards sexual and sadistic violence in films. A group of 35 people were shown a range of controversial movies, including The Human Centipede II, The Bunny Game, A Serbian Film and Antichrist, then asked for their reactions afterwards.

Mori concluded that, “members of the film viewing public find unacceptable certain depictions of sexual and sadistic violence which, in their view, have the potential to cause harm.” In response, the BBFC has pledged to adopt a harsher stance towards movies that make “sexual or sadistic violence look appealing, or “invite viewer complicity or other harmful violent activities”.

The report once again highlights the back-and-forth argument between freedom of expression and the control of violent images. Since those findings were published, one popular UK newspaper and accompanying website has argued that movies such as The Human Centipede and its sequel are evidence of a “worrying trend”, and a sign of a toothless film board whose grip on its moral compass began to loosen with its classification of Crash in 1996.

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The enduring thesis, put forward by some newspapers and media groups, is that violent imagery can have a profound impact on the young and impressionable. Further, the continued proliferation of movies such as The Human Centipede II or Hostel are a sign of a society in decline, where crime levels are rising and minds are being warped by explicit content in movies, games and on television.

On the flip side, there’s the argument that film censorship of any kind is an impediment to freedom of expression. There are laws already in place – child protection, animal cruelty, the Obscene Publications Act – which provide acceptable boundaries. Beyond that, the BBFC’s job should be to classify movies and provide a guide to their content, and nothing more – it should be up to the individual to decide what they should or should not watch.

Between these two extremes, there’s perhaps a third stance: one that acknowledges the importance of freedom of expression, yet is somewhat perplexed and occasionally horrified by the content of some movies. Even more horror obsessed gore-hounds may have been disturbed by something like A Serbian Film – which may be the filmmakers’ intention, if their defences are to be believed – and if pressed, may even admit that they’d prefer such a film not to exist.

For a century, the BBFC has struggled to get find a balance between these opposing arguments. Although it’s an independent body, its decisions are inevitably affected by moral outcries in newspapers and Parliament. And while its days of outright censorship are long gone, its decisions still have considerable sway; a refusal of classification can spell disaster for a filmmaker hoping to get their movie in front of a UK audience, while the application of a suggested cut can mean the difference between a restrictive 15-rating or a more lucrative 12A.

Inevitably, these decisions can cause as much controversy as the movies themselves. Last year, the BBFC refused to classify The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence, which it concluded was “revolting”. After an appeal from its filmmakers, the BBFC relented somewhat, and agreed to grant the movie an 18 certificate after 32 cuts (amounting to just under three minutes’ worth of footage) were suggested.

On the BBFC’s ‘Insight’ page regarding the film’s classification (which contains descriptions almost as graphic as the movie), the board writes, “[The] BBFC’s guideline concerns will not normally override the principle that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment,” but adds that it will make exceptions in extreme cases, where the material “may cause harm to public health or morals.”

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With the Board reluctantly allowing a cut version of Human Centipede II a home release, and refusing to grant the 2010 horror film The Bunny Game a certificate at all, the most pressing question, perhaps, is this: what more can the BBFC do to assuage the public concerns about sexually violent movies, as highlighted by Mori’s poll?

The answer is, probably, not a great deal. In response to that recent report, the BBFC’s director David Cooke said, “There is no ‘one size fits all’ rule for any theme under the BBFC classification guidelines, as long as what is depicted is within the law and does not pose a harm risk. The decision as to whether and how to intervene in scenes of sexual and sadistic violence is complex, but drawing out and applying these aggravating and mitigating factors is helpful in arriving at a decision which balances freedom of expression against public protection.”

The problem the BBFC faces is two-fold. Number one, highlighting exactly which scenes will or will not cause harm is not an exact science; what may appear to be a morally destructive sequence to one examiner may be borderline acceptable to another. Number two, entertainment no longer exists in a national vacuum, where the ruling of the BBFC makes a movie unavailable for sale in the UK impossible to get hold of. Many of the movies mentioned above are freely available in one country or another, and the advent of technologies of torrenting and streaming video makes the illegal sharing of movies relatively simple.

For decades, the debate about screen violence and censorship has remained largely unchanged. The movies at the heart of the debate may have changed (The Devils or Straw Dogs in the 1970s, video nasties in the 1980s, and so on), but the grounds for and against have remained broadly the same. Artists have long pushed against the social mores of their time, including the writings of the Marquis de Sade in the 18th century to the directors such as Gaspar Noe in the present. In each instance, they provoke such questions as, “what is its artistic merit?” “why would anyone find that entertaining?” “how does such content affect us?”

While politicians and newspaper editors often have their own agendas for getting into this debate – whether it’s gaining votes or selling newspapers by pointing a damning finger at the latest controversial film – the advent of the internet has greatly diminished their overall control over what should or should not be seen.

Wherever our opinions may fall on the censorship debate, the ultimate decision over what we watch is falling, increasingly, to ourselves.

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