​What It’s Like Watching Porn and Rating Movies For the Government

It's an emotionally draining job.

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Jul 18 2016, 7:50pm

Adam Garnet Jones gets paid to watch filth. Photo via Adam Garnet Jones.

Watching blowjobs and bukkake scenes all day long may seem like a sweet gig, but it can be a tough slog when you're doing it for a living. While working with the Ontario Film Review Board, Adam Garnet Jones watched hundreds of films (both mainstream and adult) in order to classify them and come up with advisory warnings. We found out what it's like to be a professional movie watcher.

VICE: What are the big misconceptions about what you do?
Adam Garnet Jones: Have you ever seen the Atom Egoyan film The Adjuster? It's actually partially set at the Ontario Film Review Board, and it is a completely bizarre, dark, sexy version of what we do. Which is what people who were watching the film in the 90s sometimes think. In the film, people are having sex with each other during the screenings. So obviously it's not like that.

I think the main [misconception] is that what we do is censor. I think that's what the MPAA in the US does, or has done in the past. We no longer do that. Remember the French film Fat Girl? That was the last film that Ontario Film Review Board actually censored. They challenged our ability to operate as a censor board and they actually ended up winning. My understanding of why they won, and it makes perfect sense to me, is that the films that we were looking at—mainstream films—are free artistic expressions. And it's not the role of the government to say "This is an acceptable artistic expression for the public to view." Our role is to say: this is what's contained in that expression, and if you're concerned about what you're exposing yourself to or what you're exposing your kids to, we can say—almost like a trigger warning—this is what you're about to see. It's not appropriate for us to say "under no circumstances can any member of the public in Ontario see this film." People need to make their own choices. It's not for us to do that.

How did you get into this gig?
I was making films and running a youth arts organization out of Native Child and Family Services. I transitioned into writing more or less full time, and applied for the Board through the public appointments secretariat. It felt like a good fit considering my interests and expertise, and it was a small enough time commitment that I could still do it while making my own films

What are you looking for when you're rating films?
We're looking anything that members of the public might not want kids—or themselves—exposed to. Language, violence, sexual activity, horror (gory, grotesque images) and psychological impact. We look at different elements. Say you have a character that shoots themselves in the head. So, for the element of violence: Is it visually explicit? Does it actually occur on screen? How close is it? Do you see the bullet entering? And so on. For the horror element, that would likely be the aftermath. Anything from a red dot hole in the head, or you know, brain matter splattering all over the wall, all that kind of gross stuff. The psychological element really deals with all of the stuff you can't quantify the same way. It has to do with the context of the story, how attached you are to that character—all of the things storytellers do to give psychological weight.

Do filmmakers ever challenge the ratings that you give them?
The challenges come from distributors, not filmmakers. It really has to do with who they plan to market the film to, who they want to see the film. Distributors want the film to get the lowest rating so as many people as possible can see the films. The MPAA will tell distributors to drop scenes to get a different rating, but that's not something we'll do. Distributors know if there's a violence element that brings it into a 14A category. Our metrics are clear enough that they have a pretty good idea as to why we gave them that rating, whether it's gore or substance abuse or whatever.

Have the ratings themselves shifted over time? Is yesterday's R rating PG by today's standards?
It's definitely a living document—the policies and guidelines that we have—I wouldn't say that they're always changing, but they're always being questioned and evolving. As a culture, we generally have become more permissive in terms of what we allow people to see, so our ratings are reflective of that. I think that's an important thing.

Can you give me an example of that?
A film that uses the word "fuck" more than four times generally gets a 14A rating. But there's two films in recent memory that have received a PG rating even though they had far more than four instances of using the word "fuck." One of those was The King's Speech. The other film was the documentary Bully. In both cases, it was the language that was 14A. And in the case of the King's Speech, it's such a mild film that the word "fuck" was used in a very playful context in a therapy session. The panel members felt that it was so benign. So there would still be a language advisory in the film, but it was decided it would be kind of obtuse to say "well, there's more than four fucks so we're absolutely going to make it 14A." In the case of Bully, they didn't want to make it 14A because they felt this was a film kids really need to see, and a huge part of the way kids are bullied has to do with language. We're not going to give this film a 14A rating because there are slurs and bullying and coarse language—that would defeat the point of the film. Some of how the guidelines do evolve is first through those kinds of exceptions. And then as those exceptions become more common, you start to question whether or not the rule needs to shift.

He's seen some shit in his day.

Have mainstream audiences become more permissive around sex in films
Sexuality hasn't really shifted at all since I started. People are absolutely more tolerant of violence than sex in film. In terms of the complaints we get, we get unequivocal complaints about sex—whether it's sexual language or sexual images—far more than we get complaints about violence.

You also classify a lot of adult films. What are the challenges particular to that?
It's exhausting. It's exhausting in a very different way. The thing about watching mainstream films is that there's so much more to watch for. The way that the films are classified is much more subtle and nuanced. With adult films, you're really just looking for things that are illegal. In general, distributors of adult material aren't going to send you bestiality porn to the government for review. In some ways, it's just more boring because there's not that much to look at or analyze. But it's also just kind of mentally and spiritually exhausting to see that much hardcore sex at work all day. Adult films are either approved for distribution or not approved for distribution. The majority of them are approved. Unless there's an issue of consent that we're concerned about, or sex with extreme pain and blood, or bestiality or incest. But I would say the most common issue would be around consent.

So if it's not clear if the actors are consenting?
It's a lot around the language of consent, I would say. Porn exists in a world of fantasy. So there's a lot of play with power relationships—different kinds of power roles that people have. A very popular scenario is teacher/student. You can't have a teacher threatening the student—they're going to fail them, or kick them out of school if they don't give them a blowjob, or something like that. That's not a situation where you can consent. You can't consent under direct threat. That's the kind of thing where that scene could still take place, but the power roles would have to be flipped a little bit where that student is the person coming on to the teacher.

How many movies would you watch in a shift?
As many as three, but it depends on the films and the length of the film. You need to time to discuss the film after. Because as much as there is a pretty clear set of determinants for classification, there is a ton of stuff that falls between the lines. So you have to have a conversation with the people on the panel—did you feel that crossed the line into graphic, was that simulated sex—because filmmaking is so nuanced, it's not all clear-cut.

How do you stay awake when the films are really boring?
There is a lot to look for when you're noting all of the coarse language, slurs, sexual references, violent images, sexual images—when you're keeping track of it, simultaneously. In most films, it gives you enough to keep your interest. There are some films that definitely challenge that. I have personally sat in the theatre literally biting my tongue or pinching my hand. Because you're sitting in a dark theatre, hour upon hour, sometimes those films are boring, or for a younger audience, and there's not that much to see.

You are a filmmaker also. How has doing this job affected your filmmaking
It's made the role of the audience more real for me. You see within the first couple of minutes of the film whether or not the film is capturing people's attention. I can tell immediately from the body language from the board members whether or not they're going to be interested in the film. But it's so different than filmmaking, such a different way of looking at film—just looking at whatever elements of the film that might really upset people.

Did you ever want to go home and watch a movie after doing this all day?
Not usually the same day. I definitely got out of going to see movies because I was viewing so many in the theatre here.

Do you classify films in your head when you go to the movies?
Sometimes after I watch a film, I'm kind of curious and I'll take a glance at the rating and see if it aligns with what I would have given it. And it almost always does.

Do you think this job has shifted your tastes?
It's made me much more conscious that different people are looking for different things when they go to see films. And part of that is just from looking at an unfiltered stream of what gets distributed, and realizing that a huge number of these films are really popular. A lot of these films are finding audiences, regardless of whether or not I like them or they're to my taste. As a filmmaker, there's a certain amount of peace to be found from that. There really is something for everyone. There's almost nothing that appeals to everyone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Tiffy Thompson on Twitter.

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