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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 14. 1966.

Film censorship in New Zealand

page 14

Film censorship in New Zealand

"The Biggest mistake we have made is to consider that films are primarily a form of entertainment." (Orson Welles, 1954.)

New Zealanders are living in the dark ages with regard to films, and I shall try here to examine the reasons for this state of affairs, and demonstrate some of its consequences.

It is not possible to attach the blame for the lamentable state of films in this country to any particular agency, but the prime criminals are of course the exhibitors, who determine what films we are able to see. However, I suggest that the exhibitors are aided by critics, the general public, and the censor and registrar of films, in keeping the best of the world's cinema from our screens, or else releasing it so late that it has lost its relevance, or in allowing mutilated versions of great films to be shown.

First, let us consider film censorship, for although not the most important part of the picture, it is the most readily amenable to change. The censor is a civil servant, supposedly fulfilling a public duty, and if we can show that his work is not necessary, or even harmful, then we can trust that the Government will see fit to abolish or change his position.

Why do we have a film censor? The usual reasons given are that certain members of society, particularly children, must be protected from potentially harmful experiences: therefore an office is created whose task it is to examine every film admitted to New Zealand and see whether it is fit to be screened in its original form or at all. It is assumed that films have some power to affect social behaviour, and that a censor is averting some dreadful social consequences. There are hints that crimes of sex and violence will increase if we have no censorship.

While I have no quarrel with the contention that children should be protected from potentially harmful experiences, I would point out that the system of restrictive certificates would seem to cope with this problem perfectly well. It is one of the censor's jobs to give each film a certificate, for general or restricted release: some certificates (A and Y), contain recommendations to parents on the suitability of films for children. If the censor feels that children should not see a certain film, he gives it an R13, R16, R18 or R21 certificate.

This aspect of the censors work is probably too valuable to abolish, but the same cannot be said of the censor's power to cut or ban films which he feels should not be seen at all by anyone. The assumption is that the public is so retarded that they will be adversely affected by films containing scenes of sex and violence. We, the members of the public who pay to get in to the pictures, are denied the right to discriminate for ourselves between films worth seeing and films not worth seeing, but are only permitted to see what we are judged capable of taking in without being incited to rush outside and beat someone about the head.

Not only is this suggestion patently absurd, it is positively harmful, for the system of censorship it has engendered deprives us of a full experience of life and art, reduces us to less than full human beings, and prevents our developing an appreciation of the only indigenous art form of the twentieth century.

Come, come, you say, this is an exaggeration. The situation is not really this bad. Isn't it? Let us look at some facts about censorship. First, just a few of the films released in New Zealand in the last five years to which the censor gave R16 certificates and then went ahead and cut pieces out of them. Ingmar Bergman's The Magician, The Seventh Seal, The Silence, The Naked Night and Smiles of a Summer Night; Fellini's La Dolce Vita; Cacoyannis' Phaedra, Polanski's Repulsion (refused a certificate until the distributors cut it); Anderson's This Sporting Life, quite the best British film released here for some time, and among other fine British films, Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater, Forbes's L-Shaped Room and Desmond Davis's The Girl With Green Eyes. Remember, these are films to which children will not be admitted: therefore they are films which could corrupt, disturb or offend you or me if we saw them as their makers intended them to be seen. Space precludes an exhaustive list of films given this treatment, but just one or two more to dispel any illusions about the censor's 'liberality": Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, Look Back In Anger, Love At 20, Marnie, Two Women and Nothing But The Best.

On top of this mutilation of works of art, the censor is able to ban films which he feels are undesirable in the public interest. Mr. McIntosh has thus banned The Balcony, Diary Of A Chambermaid, Une Femme Mariee, The Knack (later admitted by the Appeal Board) and Repulsion (admitted when cut by the distributors). These are all important films, made by world-famous film-makers, and to ban them is to worsen our ignorance of film in the world today. Diary Of A Chambermaid is the work of Luis Bunuel, one of the all-time greats among film directors, ranked with Welles, Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni in any consideration of the most significant contemporary film makers. This is not the only one of his films to suffer from the censor: The Criminal Life Of Archibaldo de la Cruz, imported by the NZ Federation of Film Societies in 1962 was cut in three places, although it was to be restricted to film society screenings only! Thus it is not even good enough to show a serious interest in films—even film society members are subject to the censor's "protection".

After the Appeal Board admitted The Knack, a film by the maker of both Beatles movies. Mr. McIntosh said "The public can now see the reasons why the censor banned it and the appeal board passed it. It is now up to the public to judge." Well, the film ran for an unprecedented three weeks in Wellington, so The Knack is popular if nothing else. (Its popularity probably testifies to the effectiveness of censorship in increasing the attractiveness of what is forbidden—another argument against censorship in itself.' But the most Interesting thing about this film is that it is hard to find anything that could justify the censor's desire to ban it, and it is not hard to find much to explain its high critical ratings all over the world.

For The Knack is possibly the most important film to be released in New Zealand this year: It represents something of a revolution in cinematic technique, the acting is uniformly superb, its photography and music are brilliant. It is a great film: The fact that we were very nearly deprived of the chance of seeing it should give food for thought to those who uphold censorship.

But is it worth all this fuss and bother? Aren't we getting a bit too perturbed by something rather small? Surely the issue isn't this important?

This is what we will hear from those who do not regard films as art. and who are not aware of the number of films which are censored. I hope I have done something to remove illusions about the number of films that are cut and banned (for a fee of 1/- any member of the public may look at the register of films admitted to New Zealand, kept in the censor's office). and I should now like to consider the other aspect of this question.

There is a widespread notion that films are somehow special. It is part of the censorship thing: We shall not treat films as we treat books, because they are somehow mystically different: and it is part of the general attitude to films in New Zealand.

The "special" status of films has no doubt something to do with their "low" beginnings, Roger Manvell, in his classic book "Film" (Penguin 1944) says "Neglected by that section of society which could have brought other values to bear in the making of films, the earlier American cinema stormed the public leisure of two continents and aimed at the lower levels of quick emontional satisfaction . . ." However, as Manvell is at pains to point out. since its beginnings the film has come to be an art form of unique expressiveness, which has been used by highly talented artists to create works of signal importance.

Our difficulty is that the censor, film critics and most members of the public do not seem to realise that this has occurred. I prefaced this discussion with a quote from Orsen Welles which for me illuminates the whole problem. So long as we regard films as primarily a form of entertainment, all sorts of crimes may be excused in the name of public morality or some other convenient bogey: Once we realise that films may be works of art. we shall change our standards radically.

Finally, let us consider the distribution of films in New Zealand. Here again we find the pernicious idea of films as primarily a form of entertainment depriving us of the chance to see the cream of world cinema. There are only three cinemas in New Zealand devoted to Continental films The Auckland and Wellington Lidos, and Wellingtons Paramount International. (It might by now be possible to include the Barclay, a suburban cinema in Christchurch, which has of late been showing a high proportion of foreign films—none of them first releases, of course. But it is necessary to remember that the Lido and the Paramount in Wellington do not show solely foreign films. The Paramount is being squeezed out by the Lido, (which has the first option on new foreign films) and so has to resort to reruns of all sorts of things (e.g. The Big Circus. What A Whopper, Goodbye Again, and Morgan The Pirate) to fill the gaps. The Lido has this year shown two ski films, a nudist film, and recently descended to a re-run of Carry Ons!

The bulk of our cinemas, then, are devoted to screening principally American films, and a number of British films of varying quality. The result is that a number of the most important films being made do not reach New Zealand; and that foreign films, and even films in general, reach our screens a long time after they have been extensively seen overseas. Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni and Godard have all had new films out for periods from six months to 18 months—will we ever see them? Perhaps in 1984.

Professor John Reid pointed out (in Comment 7, Autumn 1961). that ". . . with a living and evolving medium like the cinema, it is important for serious customers to be able to see productions in some reasonable sequence, and regularly." Although it is undeniable that the establishment of foreign film cinemas has improved the situation to a large degree since 1981, we have still a long way to go. How about some of the recent films of Kurosawa. Ichikawa, Godard, Truflaut. Pasolini. Varda and Bunuel? Will we see them? And if so, when?

Bergman's The Silence is the third part of a trilogy which began with Througn A Glass, Darkly. The second film. Winter Light, has never been released here, so we cannot consider the other films in context Godard has made about a dozen films, only two of which have been released here: films, only two of which have been released Attempts at assessing his achievement are doomed from the start since we have not seen enough of his work.

All thinking and talking about films in New Zealand, with only one or two exceptions, has been conducted in the context of the attitude that films are not an art form, and should not be treated as such. I do not suggest that all films are art, for this is obviously not true. What I suggest is that New Zealanders do not see their fair share of the finest films being produced today. America has long since ceased to be the biggest producer of films in the world, but one would not think so to look at the distribution of films here.

In Landfall, March 1959. Catherine de la Roche said "Cinema must to some extent embrace the international scene, simply to keep up with the times." This statement is becoming increasingly true today, but we seem to be as far from the eventual goal as we were when it was made.

The first step New Zealand should take is to overhaul its harmful and outdated system of film censorship. This will enable the cinemas to show films like Godard's Une Femme Mariee or Bunuel's Diary Of A Chambermaid, prevent the mutilation of great works of art. and help to show the public that the film industry can produce something other than Mary Poppins and The Sound Of Music.

Any other improvements rest with the public, the critics and the film industry itself. We cannot expect exhibitors to want to show more foreign films if the public does not make it an economic proposition; but neither can we expect the public to regard the film as something besides entertainment if all the pressures of society say that this is all the film is.

[This article appeared originally In Comment, and the author wishes to acknowledge with thanks permission to reprint here].