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burning issue


censorship and the right to shock

jack sargeant: srdjan spasojevic’s a serbian film


A Serbian Film (before banning) A Serbian Film (before banning)
WHILE NOTORIOUS FOR ITS EMPHASIS ON SIMULATED SEXUAL VIOLENCE, SRDJAN SPASOJEVIC’S 2010 A SERBIAN FILM USES SHOCK AND REVULSION AS AN ALLEGORY FOR THE VIOLENCE OF THE STATE. FOLLOWING THE COLLAPSE OF THE SOVIET BLOC SOME FORMER EASTERN EUROPEAN COUNTRIES, INCLUDING SERBIA, SAW OUTBREAKS OF VIOLENCE AND CIVIL WAR ALONGSIDE ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS CONFLICT AND VARIOUS FORMS OF STATE OPPRESSION. THE FILM’S NARRATIVE DEPICTS SEXUAL VIOLENCE, BUT THE TITLE, WHICH IS REMOVED FROM ANY FAMILIAR HORROR OR PORNOGRAPHIC LEXICON, IS INDICATIVE OF A WIDER SENSE OF POLITICS.

In a statement on the film’s website Spasojevic states: “The initial idea was to make a film which would incorporate our desire to make an honest and unflinching depiction of the political and emotional turmoil that governed our lives in Serbia during the last two decades of wars and transition, but also to merge that ambition with the wish to make a philosophical, confrontational genre film which would transcend those agendas into a piece of cinema that we had always wanted to make. We didn’t want to make a hermetic picture that would deal exclusively with our local tragedies, but to tell a story with global overtones, because Serbia is merely a reflection of the ways of today’s New World in general, as it tries to imitate it and fails miserably” (http://aserbianfilm.co.uk/statement.html).

This is not to diminish those films that have no politics or that embrace the spectacle of violence simply for its own sake—these too have a place in cinema. The point is merely to indicate an apparently more considered engagement with extreme material within A Serbian Film than some have allowed.

Following an international release (including the UK and USA) in August 2011, an edited version of A Serbian Film was released domestically under an R18+ classification. However South Australia’s Attorney General John Rau banned the film on the recommendation of the state’s classification board. For Rau the film was beyond description and, by implication, discussion: "Some of the scenes in the DVD are so depraved that I am not prepared to even describe them in any detail. Suffice to say that some of the most disturbing scenes involve children, including an infant" (http://www.adelaidenow.com.au). The politician pursued a similar line on ABC Radio’s PM, where he stated he was “revolted as any decent thinking person would be” (http://www.abc.net.au). Such rationale is dangerously simplistic: it implies that if somebody wanted to watch the work then his or her interest should be considered suspect.

A Serbian Film A Serbian Film
These events did not go unnoticed and the Federal Minister for Justice Brendan O’Conner applied for a Classification Board Review. Melinda Tankard Reist, a ‘pro-life feminist’ representing Collective Shout—“a grassroots campaigning movement against the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls in media, advertising and popular culture” (http://collectiveshout.org)—also made a submission calling for a review. Once again the film was assessed, but now it was deemed unsuitable and refused classification (RC). Collective Shout proudly announced this as a “Win!”

Existing as a separate legal entity from the Classification Board “the Classification Review Board is an independent statutory body whose members are chosen from a range of backgrounds to broadly represent the Australian community” (http://www.ag.gov.au). At the time of writing the board consists of four women, three of whom have law degrees while the fourth is a psychologist. Three members of the Review Board banned A Serbian Film.

While they acknowledged the reading of the film as allegorical their report states that this is primarily manifest in the publicity, with the narrative making the connection between the abuses on screen and wider events only once (Classification Review Board report, Review 19 September 2011, "Reasons for the decision"). This suggests a failure to understand the nature of allegory; moreover it fails to appreciate that the film’s title alone should draw attention to its wider intent. Contemporary audiences do not stumble across a film devoid of context and most viewers would be familiar with the discourses that surround the work.

Without drawing aesthetic comparisons it should be apparent that, like Pasolini’s Salo—that other bugbear for Australian censors—the depravities and psychological abuses of power find their metaphorical manifestation in sexuality and sexual violence. Primarily because the chaos, confusion and breakdown/construction of psychological inhibition associated with sex makes it the perfect arena for allegories of social and ethical fragmentation.

The Review Board is designed to reflect community standards. However, exactly which community is never stated; Australia is a multicultural society and as such has a plurality of communities, each with their own standards. It appears that no member of the board is based in either Melbourne or Sydney, arguably the country’s most cosmopolitan cities, so their understanding of community standards may differ from, for example, an interested urban viewer who attends screenings at film festivals.

A Serbian Film A Serbian Film
There is something unnerving about the contemporary discourses on film being dictated by politicians, conservative religious commentators, special interest groups and unelected bureaucrats. A work like A Serbian Film is designed to be grueling and unpleasant—nobody who has seen it has described it as ‘fun’—its horror belongs to contemporary fears of violence, of being both controlled yet out of control. It is not a film designed for simple pleasures but for confronting an audience. This may not be everyone’s idea of the role of cinema, but that is not the point. It is essential to remember that, as Philip Pullman stated, “no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended” (http://boingboing.net).

It could be argued that I am attempting to justify the offensive, but I am not interested in justification; ultimately that is a process of interpretation that should be up to each viewer of the film. However, the ability for audiences in Australia to make this judgement has been denied them.

Some may argue that A Serbian Film simply goes too far, is too offensive and is disgusting, but then, are the human rights abuses that it mirrors not offensive and disgusting? Artists can hardly be expected to make films that do not engage with this. Denying people the chance to listen to these artists’ voices will not make the violence go away, but it will inure local audiences to censorship’s sterile oppression.

breaking news

Just before going to print, another horror film Human Centipede 2 (to be reviewed in RT107) has been banned. In addition Collective Shout (one of the groups lobbying for the banning of A Serbian Film) is submitting recommendations to the National Classification Scheme Review Discussion Paper undertaken by the Australian Law Reform Commission (www.alrc.gov.au/sites/default/files/pdfs/cia_2477_collective_shout.pdf) calling for even tighter regulations. Changes include the unification of classification bodies into a single regulator; the removal of content types replacing with “platform neutral definitions of ‘media content’ and ‘media content provider’;” and the removal of the “exempt status” for content shown at film festivals, art galleries and other cultural institutions, which would have strong ramifcations across the arts sector. RT


A Serbian Film, director/writer Srdjan Spasojevic, writer Aleksandar Radivojevic, Contra Films, distributed by Accent Films

This article first appeared in the online e-dition Nov 22

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. web

© Jack Sargeant; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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