On 18 August 2011, one day before its Australian release, the South Australian Classification Council (‘SACC’) reclassified A Serbian Film as RC. The SACC is arguably a remnant of Australia’s previous classification regime. South Australia is one of only three jurisdictions to retain the right to impose their own film classifications, and they are the only jurisdiction to actively do so. When classifying a film, the SACC — like the national regime — must simultaneously consider: the criteria outlined in the Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Computer Games; the principles espoused by the National Classification Code; and the matters listed in the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (SA), which are identical to those featured in the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth). Many of these considerations are irreconcilable. Therefore, subjective balancing is required.
The last time the SACC banned a film was in 2005, when it reclassified Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs2 from R18+ to X18+. This film voyeuristically documents the year-long relationship of two fictional characters, Matt and Lisa, and predominantly features concert scenes alternated with sex scenes. The sex here is ‘real’, not simulated, although there is only approximately three accumulated minutes of actual sex. It is not so much what is seen but what is known that proved problematic. At first glance, the SACC’s decisions regarding 9 Songs and A Serbian Film may seem incomparable. However, the exhibition, sale and hire of X18+ films are prohibited by legislation in all Australian states. Therefore, both SACC decisions produced the same outcome.
The SACC can review a film’s classification of its own initiative. However, it must do so when directed by the South Australian Attorney-General who is the state’s Censorship Minister. In the case of 9 Songs, then Attorney-General Michael Atkinson received two complaints prior to his intervention.3 However, in the case of A Serbian Film, Attorney-General John Rau intervened only after becoming aware that a DVD store refused to stock it.4
Australia’s film classification system formally aims to uphold community standards. Surely, however, the fact that one or more stores refused to stock A Serbian Film is evidence that the community is able to — and does — uphold its own standards, rather than being a sign that censorship intervention is required. The Australian film classification system’s strength lies in the fact that each time it classifies a film and permits its circulation, it provides consumers with the information necessary for them to decide whether they want to watch it. When films that are made for public exhibition are classified and banned — like 9 Songs and A Serbian Film — consumers need only look beyond jurisdictional boundaries to obtain a copy, as these films are available interstate when banned by the SACC, and overseas or via internet download when banned nationally.
A Serbian Film’s plot revolves around ex-pornstar Milos. As the DVD’s cover states, ‘[t]o secure money for his family, [Milos] plunges again into the depths of hardcore production, only this time, his diabolical employer has unthinkable terrors in store for him’. A Serbian Film is not pleasant to watch but it is not meant to be. As its tag line declares, ‘not all films have a happy ending’, and this is not a bad thing. The further modified version of A Serbian Film contains graphic fictional depictions of sexual violence perpetrated by and against adults, and explicitly implied child abuse. In reality — as on film — these acts are abhorrent and A Serbian Film strongly communicates this to viewers. Having these challenging themes addressed on film provides adults with a space where these issues can safely be explored. It also provides them with the opportunity to denounce these acts, as I am doing now.
On 19 August 2011, the Melbourne Underground Film Festival screened A Serbian Film without controversy. However, when Rau announced A Serbian Film’s reclassification in South Australia, he urged the federal government to follow suit.5 On 29 August 2011, the Classification Review Board announced it would review A Serbian Film’s classification, and on 19 September 2011 reclassified it RC, forcing its removal from sale. A Serbian Film is now effectively banned throughout Australia.
Clearly I am one who believes the Classification Board was right to classify A Serbian Film R18+ and let Australian adults decide for themselves whether they will watch it. However, as previously mentioned, the Board only permitted it this classification upon modification. Therefore, censorship still occurred. Would I be proposing this argument if an R18+ classification was afforded without modification? My answer to this question is ‘yes’ because, as previously discussed, upon classification, the Board provides people with information promoting fully-informed autonomous action; banned films are still readily obtainable and viewing challenging films can be beneficial. However, I would choose not to watch the uncut version of A Serbian Film. That is where I would draw my line, and as a result, I would not be writing this. A mere glance at multiple reviews of the same film will demonstrate that people do not view a film homogenously. Therefore, while all people are able to offer their opinions on generic cinematic depictions, only those who have seen the film in question have the requisite knowledge to comment on its specific content.
CATHERINE SCHUBERT has Honours degrees in Law and Arts (Criminal Justice) from Flinders University. She has watched the further modified version of A Serbian Film and 9 Songs.
Update: The Australian Law Reform Commission conducted a review of the national classification scheme. It released a Final Report Classification — Content Regulation and Convergent Media (ALRC Report 118) which was tabled in Federal Parliament on 1 March 2012.
1. (2010) motion picture, Contra Film, Serbia.
2. (2004) motion picture, Revolution Films, England.
3. SA Classification Council, South Australian Attorney-General’s Department, Annual Report of the South Australian Classification Council (2005-2006) Appendix B.
4. John Rau, ‘Exploitative Film Refused Classification in SA’ (Media Release, 18 August 2011).