Last week, I took to Kickstarter to stage an undeniably petty act of protest. I asked for financial backing to send my new film Paint Drying—a single, unbroken shot of white paint drying on a brick wall—to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the UK's film censorship board. BBFC viewings are charged on a per-minute basis, so the final length of Paint Drying will be determined by how much money is raised by the time the campaign ends on December 16. At the time of writing, the film is set to run a little over ten hours.
This project is the culmination of a decade spent aimlessly railing against the BBFC—a decade that began when I was 13 years old and, like every other 13-year-old I knew, was convinced that the movie Fight Club represented the pinnacle of western cultural achievement. One day, while poring through the trivia section on the film's IMDb page (did you know that cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth's sister appears in the film as an airline check-in attendant?) I noticed another tab labeled 'alternate versions.' There, I discovered that the cut of the film I knew so well was in fact censored, with around six seconds removed by the BBFC to "reduce the sense of sadistic pleasure in inflicting violence."
My mind was blown. I was well aware of the BBFC's color-coded age rating system, which had been seared into my mind by a series of stern, early-90s advisory ads, but it had never occurred to me that the board might be able to restrict movies altogether. After all, censorship was something I learned about in history lessons: a relic from the past, the preserve of dictators and despots. In a society that balked at the very suggestion of censoring literature, music, visual art, or theater, why were movies fair game?
The answer is: They weren't always. When film first came to the UK at the end of the 19th century, it was largely unrestricted, but as it evolved from sideshow gimmick to legitimate art form, it came under increasing scrutiny. The Cinematograph Act 1909 required cinemas—for the first time—to secure licenses from local councils. Initially, this was an attempt to curb the growing number of nitrate fires in Britain's movie theaters by ensuring safety standards, but the following year, a court ruled that councils could also take the content of films into account when issuing licenses. Shortly afterwards, the British Board of Film Censors was born, and its authority over UK film culture has remained in place ever since, even if it did rebrand as the British Board of Film Classification in 1985.
Despite the name change, the board continues to ban—or, to use its euphemism, reject—films on a regular basis. Earlier this year, the home invasion thriller Hate Crime was banned for scenes in which a middle-class Jewish family is tormented by a gang of neo-Nazis. Director James Bressack, himself Jewish, claimed that he made the film in order to explore his most deep-seated fears. Nonetheless, the BBFC decided that "the unremitting manner in which Hate Crime focuses on physical and sexual abuse" was unacceptable. That film's UK release was ultimately scrapped, though most distributors prefer to re-edit offending films in order to appease the BBFC. In 2010, the remake of I Spit on Your Grave was released with 43 seconds missing from its runtime. In 2011, The Human Centipede 2 lost almost three minutes.
The BBFC justifies its censorship activities on the grounds that some films pose a "risk of harm" to the public, with "harm" defined broadly enough to encompass such wooly concepts as "encouraging anti-social attitudes" and "distorting a viewer's sense of right or wrong." But if we censor art on the basis that someone somewhere might be hurt by it, we'll be left with no art at all. Should The White Album be banned because Charlie Manson used Helter Skelter to justify murder? What about Catcher in the Rye, which has at least three high-profile shootings to its name? More recently, the killer of Welsh five-year-old April Jones was found to have psyched himself up for the murder by obsessively re-watching a rape scene from The Last House on the Left—a film passed uncut by the BBFC in 2009. Did the board fail to spot a "risk of harm" in that instance, or is it simply impossible to predict the way art will be used and misused?
The BBFC's own guidelines admit that "expert opinion on issues of suitability and harm can be inconclusive or contradictory." Unfortunately, to the BBFC it therefore follows that examiners should use their "experience and expertise to make a judgement" on whether or not a film should be censored. Well, how's this for experience: BBFC employees have been viewing uncensored versions of supposedly harmful films for more than a century and as far as I'm aware, none have gone on killing sprees or started masturbating with sandpaper. What makes them impervious to this moral decay that threatens the rest of us?
Of course, the BBFC's censorship is easily circumvented. In the 1980s, the board's prohibition of various so-called "video nasties" led to a roaring under-the-counter trade in video stores across Britain. Today, markedly less effort is required to watch a forbidden title. Of the rejected works mentioned above, The Human Centipede 2 can be watched on US Netflix with the installation of a browser plug-in, while I Spit on Your Grave and Hate Crime can be illegally downloaded in a matter of minutes. Piracy robs filmmakers of the chance to earn a living from their work, so it's only them that lose out when the BBFC ensures UK audiences have no legal way to access films. Bear that in mind the next time some smug anti-piracy ad urges you to consider of the effects of illegal downloading on the British film industry.
All of this isn't to say that the BBFC doesn't perform a worthwhile function. Its ratings, and the content reports available on its website, are a valuable resource for parents keen to moderate their children's viewing habits. The board could continue to fulfil its role as an advisory service without also acting as a censor, if only its services weren't government mandated. That way, films that the board refused to classify could simply be released "unrated," as they are in the United States, rather than being consigned to the Pirate Bay.
Currently, it's effectively illegal to distribute a film in the UK without a BBFC certificate, and the cost of getting one disproportionately impacts independent filmmakers looking to self-release their films. The BBFC charges £7.09 [$10.68] per minute to classify a theatrical release. If you want to put the same film out on DVD, it has to be rated again, because the BBFC says its "ratings are issued according to their intended use at the point of submission" and may therefore change when films leave the cinema and arrive in the nation's homes. (The last time this happened was in 2007, when 30 Days of Night was reclassified from a 15 in cinemas to an 18 on DVD.) The combined cost of these certificates can run into the thousands of pounds.
Since I announced my plan to submit Paint Drying for classification, a number of people have pointed out that my complaint should really be with the various pieces of UK legislature that empower the BBFC, rather than the organization itself. That's largely true, and rest assured I have nothing but antipathy for the likes of the Video Recordings Act 2010 and the Obscene Publications Act 1964, among other bits of obscenely antiquated text. But I also think there's a value in attacking the public face of censorship, if only to show that—a hundred years in—we haven't totally numbed to the absurdity of its existence.
And besides, the BBFC doesn't perform its role as censor with an air of stoic duty, but with barely contained zeal. When it rejected Hate Crime, it didn't express somber disappointment that it had been forced to limit speech in order to protect the public from harm. Instead, it mocked the film's attempts to comment on anti-Semitism, calling them "unconvincing." The BBFC assured me that it doesn't take artistic merit into consideration when classifying films, but qualitative judgements like the one handed to Hate Crime betray the subjectivity at the heart of the process. Are these people classifiers, censors, or critics?
One thing's for sure: They're cocky, and I suspect that's because tradition is on their side. The BBFC has been censoring films for so long that nobody can remember a time when they weren't, whereas any new organization that sought to limit access to an art form—say literature, or music—would likely be met with outrage. (For what it's worth, I asked the BBFC if it would consider classifying these media in the future, and it said it was "open to helping classification of other media in addition to film and video in order to protect children and empower consumers as long as we have the expertise to do so.")
On a recent edition of the BBFC podcast, former examiner James Blatch posited the notion that "this generation are far more comfortable with classification than my generation were. I think we were a little bit more questioning about the need for censorship… whereas this generation see it as part of the landscape." He seemed to see this as a positive development. It sounds to me like a challenge.
Follow Charlie Lyne on Twitter.