In 1911 Australia banned movies about bushrangers.
I’m not kidding – this actually happened. Whilst it clearly isn’t in effect now, given that movies about the likes of these ‘Robin Hood-esque figures’ have become such a huge part of the landscape of Australian cinema – it is a bit symbolic of the complicated relationship the country has with film classification and censorship, to this day.
The reason for the 1911 ban was a concern that these films offered a pretty dim view of law and order. The most popular film of the time was The Story of the Ned Kelly Gang and the concern held by Governments was that images of debauchery and ‘immorality’ could have a devastating effect on the Australian public. Consequently, the ban had a more devastating impact on the burgeoning Aussie film industry, which didn’t fully recover from the loss of its most popular genre until the 70s.
There is a place for classification. Arguably, it’s nice to have a guide so we don’t run the risk of taking little Timmy to see the latest entry in the Saw franchise (I’d argue that’s a pretty big mistake to make, but stranger things have happened…). It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that it’s specifically very graphic or “shocking” content that runs the most afoul of our fine friends at the Australian Classification Board. The fact is, though – it’s quite often NOT the case.
Most recently, 2018 Oscar darling Ladybird was given an MA15+ rating because it contained ‘Brief Strong Nudity.’ The scene that got the ACB so hot and bothered contained a shot of a copy of Playgirl magazine and some male genitalia. When the studio resubmitted the film, after making a few changes, it achieved the M rating it was initially going for – but it wasn’t just that shot that was missing. The few instances of the word ‘cunt’ had also been replaced with milder language.
The ACB is very quick to make clear that they don’t censor or edit films, they simply pass down rulings and let studios and distributors decide what to do next. It’s a really nice way to describe the process, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the ‘classification process’ allows them to exercise a level of influence that crosses the aisle to censorship quite comfortably.
Whilst over the years, the ACB has been more open about its decisions and what led to them, it’s still difficult for producers of content across all platforms (films, TV, games) to get a fix on what they can and can’t do, given that the standards the ACB currently bases its work on were set in 1995 and haven’t been updated since. They’re not an accurate depiction of current societal standards and thus don’t allow for much wriggle room in terms of the context of what images or language the audience might be ‘exposed’ to.
With an ever-increasing number of previously banned or heavily censored classic films being released ‘uncut’ on DVD or online via streaming services, in all likelihood efforts made to censor have little impact in the long term on anything but creators and studios bottom line. There has long been a push for a review to the standards the ACB relies on, but with the recent abolishment/merger of the Department of Arts & Communications, under which the classification portfolio falls, it’s difficult to say when this might come to fruition. We’re told that the ACB is made up of a ‘diverse’ group of Australians – but that doesn’t count for much if this group has its hands tied by legislation that hasn’t moved with the times, and guidelines that seem particularly fixated on what a very specific sector of the community fear.