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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 25, No. 5. 1962.

film censorship in New Zealand

page 3

film censorship in New Zealand

In their cartoon called "A History of the Cinema," Halas and Batchelor show the censor as a self-important little man equipped with large scissors, ensconced in his viewing booth snipping bits out of the spicier films and saving them for his own private enjoyment later. This attitude persists, unfortunately, as the popular stereotype of the censor, and the public generally regards him as either a killjoy grimly determined to safeguard the public's morals (i.e. prevent it from enjoying itself) or as a kind of philistine opposing the artist's right to freedom of self-expression unhindered by bourgeois morality.

Both these popular beliefs are completely erroneous. The first can be answered by the observation that as attempts by the motion picture industry to control itself have failed badly, and that as the ordinary commercial product is often geared to the lowest common audience denominator, it is necessary for some outside authority to act as a policeman or some of the meretricious junk offered. The second observation, that censorship is wrong in principle, is quite true even if in practice it fails to be applicable. When we realise that there are certain films (and not poor ones either), that we wouldn't want very young children to see, it is obvious immediately that we, ourselves, are applying censorship.

What is needed is a person who is able to distinguish between the sensationalism of the cheap money-spinner on the one hand and the purpose of the thoughtful and serious film on the other. And this is not always as easy to decide in a clear-cut way as might appear.

Routine Administration

The major duty of the censor is not determining unsuitability, but suitability, and much of his work is routine red tape — classification and grading usually, book-keeping often, and cutting sometimes.

New censorship regulations were gazetted in 1957 covering the registration of films. To quote from the Annual Report made by the Censor in that year:

"The main effects of the regulations have been: to clarify the significance of the five classes of certificate now available and bring the wording of the certificates up to date, with the emphasis on "suitability" rather than "unsuitability"; to make a clear distinction between the great body of films which are either approved outright or approved with merely a recommendation and are in no way restricted, and the much smaller group which carry a certificate requiring the definite exclusion of persons outside the age group or class of filmgoer; to facilitate the enforcement of this manatorily restrictive certificate; to provide for adequate notification of censorship gradings on posters, in newspapers, and other forms of advertising; and to make various improvements in administrative procedure, such as giving the Censor discretionary power to exempt certain types of film from examination."

A film you'll not see—Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

A film you'll not see—Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

The regulations referred to came into force during the time that Mr Gordon Mirams was Censor, and divided films into five categories with a certificate for each.

This is to Certify ....

The (G) certificate replaced the (U) classification and shows that a film is suitable for general exhibition. The (Y) certificate is issued to films suitable for adolescents as well as adults; this fits in nicely between the (G) classification and the (A) category, the recommendation that a picture is most suitable for adults (defined, by the regulations, as people over 16 years of age). The (S) certificate represents that category into which fall those films which carry some special recommendation, usually of being particularly suitable for children or family audiences.

The (R) certificate is the odd man out. While (S), (A) and (Y) certificates all show that a film is suitable for general exhibition, with that special recommendation noted, the picture with an (R) certificate is not so approved. As a general rule, the categories are R.13 (the definite exclusion of people under 13 years of age) and R.16 (the definite exclusion of people under 16 years of age) though some films (e.g. "La Ronde") may have an R.21 certificate awarded to them. This certificate may be attached also to a film intended only for screening before a certain well defined audience, e.g. members of an approved film society or a certain profession.

While these classifications protect the public (or perhaps inform would be a better word), they also protect the films. A picture with a realistic and frank approach to its subject may be passed with an (R) certificate instead of having to be cut down to the (G) level.

Out Come the Scissors

It must be obvious then, that the regulations are designed to guide rather than suppress. Even so, the Censor still has to remove large portions of footage each year because of unsuitable material.

In 1957, the Censor noted that "up till now the spiral of films needing to be cut (particularly on the score of excessive violence) has been steadily rising." He further points out:

"One significant fact which emerges from analysis of this year's figures is the higher proportion of excisions which were made on the score of 'sex', a term including unduly suggestive or vulgar situations and dialogue, by comparison with those falling under the general heading of "violence," which embraces unnecessarily gruesome or terrifying, material as well as brutality for its own sake, dirty fighting, and over-emphasis on crime and killing. For several years past it has been a subject for comment in these reports that excisions made for reasons of "violence" heavily outweigh those made for reasons of "sex", the ratio having remained almost constant in the neighbourhood of six to one. "Violence" is still the preponderant reason for censorship in New Zealand; but last year the above ratio shifted to three to one ..."

"Closer analysis reveals that the chief reason why censorship action was necessary under the latter heading was a pronounced tendency for film producers in several countries to make scenes of kissing which were too uninhibited and intimate for common decency. More than half the excisions made under the broad subdivision of "sex" were of this sort. New Zealand experience in this matter parellels that of censorship authorities in several overseas countries."

But the trend still continues. Thus we see that the number of cuts made for violence have always exceeded those made for sex.

The Censor's remarks continually make this point in his annual reports from 1957 on:

"As has been customary in New Zealand for many years past, the preponderant reason for cutting films is that they contain too much 'violence' . . . This year 80 per cent, of all excisions were made on this score of violence, which was a slightly bigger proportion than in the immediately preceding year, but lower than the average figure recorded over the last six or seven years. The chief reasons for cuts in this category were scenes involving the use of knives and the beating up of defenceless adversaries in fights. There was also some increase in the number of scenes which the Censor had to tone down on account of their portrayal of violence on women." (1958).

Riff-a heavily slashed French thriller.

Riff-a heavily slashed French thriller.

Jekyll & Hyde—favourite theme.

Jekyll & Hyde—favourite theme.

Anti Social Adolescents

"Although the percentage of cuts made on the grounds of violence is a little less than that of the previous year, some 50 of the 364 cuts made under this heading involved sexual assaults, and this in conjunction with the increased proportion of cuts on the grounds of sex indicates a trend away from violence and towards sex. The increase in the percentage of cuts for other reasons reflects a growing tendency to show anti-social behaviour of juveniles and adolescents, such as chicken racing, car conversion, vandalism and drinking, along with an increase in horror scenes aften associated with blood and vivisection." (1959).

"Excessive violence continues to be the preponderant reason for cutting films. This includes 'dirty fighting' and brutality by individuals or gangs. Common assault on females is included in the figures for violence. Sexual assaults have been classified as excisions made on the grounds of sex, and account for a substantial increase in cutting under that heading. The increase in cutting as compared with last year is due mainly to the increased number of horror films showing scenes of blood, vivisection, vampirism, bestiality, sadism, torture, and terror at length, in detail, and usually in colour. A total of 70 cuts was made on the grounds of "horror" alone. A separate section has been included in the analysis of excisions to show the position more precisely. The cuts shown under this heading do not cover all the cuts made in horror films, as frequently such films are also cut on the grounds of violence or sex. Conversely, some "murder dramas" and "thrillers" introduce horror scenes for added impact and may be cut on the same basis as horror films." (1960).

Last Year's Crop

"Trailers, as usual, required the heaviest cutting to qualify for (G) certificates. Violence continues to be the main reason for cutting. The number and proportion of cuts made on sex grounds increased considerably, sexual assaults, often involving teenagers, being responsible for a large part of the increase. The number of films giving cause for concern because of an undue horror content appears to be declining. Offensive dialogue is responsible for increased cutting under the headings 'sex' and 'other reasons.' ' (1961).

[In the next article of this series, Arthur Everard will discuss Censorship of Publicity, the problem of the "Art Film," Rejections and Appeals.]