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X Confidential - When censorship threatens debate

By Robert Cetti

November 15, 2013 | 7 min read

A politically charged documentary film, deemed suitable for inclusion in Australia’s national film archive, which examines the ethics of censorship has found itself unable to be shown publicly after seemingly falling foul of the very laws it explores. Unable to obtain a rating or certification, the film is now effectively banned by the very censorship it sought to expose. Robert Cetti explains.

Now you see it. Maybe.

The Australian Film Classification system does not have a working definition of “pornography”.

Since the early 2000s limited scenes of actual sex are allowed in Australia under an R18+ rating, despite technically immediately qualifying for an X18+ rating. Films like Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, Lars Von Trier’s Anti-Christ, Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses can be shown.

However, while the X18+ rating prohibits any violence, sexual violence or assaultive language in a film with actual sex, the presence of limited “actual sex” within the R18+ rating allows for an aesthetic combination of hardcore sex, violence and sexual violence, subject to the “impact test” (exceeded in the cases of Baise Moi, Ken Park, A Serbian Film which remain banned in Australia, classified RC).

The effect of this classification system is the delineation of a set of prohibited aesthetics, banned on grounds of offense, a de facto “aesthetics of offense” if you will – certain iconographic combinations are prohibited.

The argument is one of free expression – consensual adults performing legal acts specifically to be recorded and exhibited: indeed, the fetishes banned from depiction on screen are in fact legal acts performed in bedrooms across Australia – you can do it, just not see it being done on screen: a prohibition of free expression, free speech if one takes iconographic content to be “speech” (ie. as semiotic text and thus of discursive content).

The intent of ‘Confidential Report: an Australian Transgression’ is an exploration of these aesthetics and the censorship agenda that supports them, in the context of the specific underground Adelaide, South Australian community that deploys them as artistic tropes and is not in any way “offended” by them.

It concerns a peculiar intersection of disability arts, pornography and censorship law in Adelaide, South Australia at a time when Australia was planning a mandatory Internet filtering system (a blacklist – which Julian Assange published via Wikileaks) primarily at the bequest of the Australian Christian Lobby and handled by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, a Catholic: not unlike the filtering system proposed now for adoption by the UK.

The film thus deliberately includes examples of all prohibited content – actual sex, assaultive language, violence, sexual violence, blasphemy – but staged in such a matter as to be constantly self-referential and, in terms of the impact test, comparatively mild and as aesthetics, unpolished, raw, home movie and social media inspired.

In so doing, the film depicts (interpretively) exactly the “offensive” aesthetics that straddle the R18+, X18+ and RC classifications.

The censorial standard is “offense to a reasonable adult” but nowhere is there a concrete definition of what constitutes a “reasonable adult”: hence, following laws introduced during the John Howard government, religious and morals groups have been able to exert pressure during censorship appeals to have movies banned – the most recent case was action specifically by Melinda Tankard Reist and her lobby group Collective Shout which saw the film A Serbian Movie banned outright in Australia.

As ‘Confidential Report’ film includes sexually explicit scenes as well as both violence and sexual violence (and sexually assaultive language in performance), it deliberately includes taboo aesthetics as delineated in the Australian Film Classification Board Guidelines as prohibited. It arguably falls between Australia’s two adults-only ratings R and X (for non-violent erotica). The cost of classifying the film in Australia is more than it cost to make, or – given its highly limited audience – is likely to recoup: however, all films must be classified in order to be legally screened or sold in Australia.

The film centres on a government arts grant recipient – a former fetish escort (a disabled woman) who names in the film the prestigious Arts journal whose staff member was her favored client at the time – the same journal of whose moral sensibilities in type demanded the arts grant winner’s exhibition at a disability arts venue had to be held in a locked, access-restricted room.

The disabled fetish escort was filmed in performance and interview, her contributions augmented by interviews with a representative from the government arts body responsible for her grant and – on location in Canberra – the political lobbyist for Australia’s sex industry, Robbie Swan, on the eve of his co-founding of the controversial Australian Sex Party ostensibly to fight the encroaching censorship of adult material.

The escort wished to include sexually explicit material as part of her “performance” – transgressing the line between sexual performance in pornography and prostitution. The film documents the fetish escort’s participation in an underground filmmaking collective – Trasharama – and includes scenes (however campy and inauthentic) of violence and sexual violence, alternating between the “offensive content” and the staging of same by the underground collective.

This film, however, proved intriguing enough to collections managers to be added to the collection of Australia’s National Film & Sound Archive in the capital Canberra, where the filmmaker was a former SAR Research Fellow researching representations of disability in Australian cinema at the time the film was added to the collection. As it contains sexually explicit material, and is unclassified, the film is on restricted access at the NFSA, requiring clearance prior to any viewing – so too, such viewing cannot be in the form of a public screening.

Given its problematic content, and that all films at festivals in Australia must be either classified or granted an official exemption from classification, it is an unclassified, barely-seen anomaly: the only way to see the film is through official government library / archive channels where it remains on restricted access.

The issue is not whether the films are good or bad, art or trash, merely the discourse on porn, censorship, disability, sexuality, punk + transgender inherent in them. They were never intended for conventional exhibition, being experiments in ethnographic digital video feature filmmaking using only available resources that attend the subculture being filmed and social media aesthetics similarly representative of the discursive milieu of the participants.

Censorship image via Shutterstock


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