I attended a 100 YEARS OF THE BBFC event last night, where BBFC Examiner Ian Mashiah, gave a talk and question-and-answer session with the attendees, about the BBFC's work, its history, and some interesting case studies. (Who would know that even Disney have fallen foul of the BBFC in the past?!)
Although I like to think I know a fair amount about the BBFC, and the history of film censorship, even I learned a few things, through this event.
One of which was that local councils can overturn or re-classify any BBFC certificate, if they so wish to do so. Thus, any local council, can, upgrade a rating, downgrade one, un-ban a film, or ban one that's been passed by the BBFC, for any reasons they like. Although almost no councils do this, it is an option open to them. The vast majority tend to leave this area of culture to the BBFC themselves, as it's simply less hassle and less grief. It also saves councils time and money. Something they are all in short supply of, no matter where you live in the UK.
There are a couple of infamous exceptions, both of which were involving Westminster Council in Central London. The first, was David Cronenberg's drama CRASH from 1996, which Westminster famously banned after they deemed it likely to "deprave and corrupt" audiences. The fact that every other Council in London let the film be shown, uncut and uncensored, with its BBFC 18 certificate, seemed to be a rather silly decision in hindsight. The second, was when Frightfest , the London horror movie festival was due to run A SERBIAN FILM in July 2010, but word-of-mouth about its extreme content got passed-on to Westminster Council, who demanded to view it, and then promptly banned it, unless or until the BBFC had approved it. The BBFC didn't, as many of you will know, and it was classified with heavy cuts, but not before the Frightfest organisers pulled the film in its entireity, stating that they weren't prepared to show a censored version of an artist's work. (The irony was that they were more than happy to play a censored, BBFC-classified version of the 2010 remake of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, so their argument was flawed-at-best, and was probably more to do with potential fall-out from A SERBIAN FILM itself, and negative press reaction, than an actual stand against censorship of film as a form of art!)
But this raises an interesting question: if enough people lobbied their local councils, could local councils be pressurised, lobbied or coerced into actually allowing banned works to be shown in certain cinemas around the country, under certain conditions and guises? If there was enough demand from audiences, could cinemas get away with allowing works like A SERBIAN FILM or THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II: FULL SEQUENCE to be shown, uncut and uncensored, to over-18's or over-21's?
I think this is an area that should be investigated further, by those who are vehemently anti-censorship and those who are simply film fans. It's been done before, when ex-BBFC President James Ferman famously allowed London men's clubs, aka Sex Cinemas, to show a version of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1976 opus SALO: OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM on a "club" basis. This essentially meant that the "clubs" were given special licensing conditions that allowed them to show a film, strictly to members, that would otherwise be banned or not be publically acceptable. According to the BBFC:
Following this advice, United Artists sold the rights on to Cinecenta, who were advised by Ferman to show the film without a certificate, on a club basis, so it could be seen uncut as Pasolini had intended. The police prosecution was an embarrassment, and Ferman intervened and spoke to the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions. By that time the campaign to bring films within the scope of the OPA, which was led by Ferman, had borne fruit in the Criminal Law Act 1977, and the indecency charges were dropped. The film could now be considered as a whole, and its cultural and artistic value could be taken into account. Nonetheless, it was made clear to Ferman that charges might still be brought under the ‘deprave and corrupt’ test of the OPA if the film were to be shown uncut. Ferman therefore agreed to take advice from two distinguished QCs and to assist in the editing of a special version for cinema clubs. In 1979, the DPP agreed that proceedings need not be taken against this reduced version. The cut version prepared by James Ferman for club screenings lost nearly six minutes of footage, removing - amongst other things - some of the most extreme violence at the end of the film, and certain elements of sexual behaviour that were believed to be vulnerable to prosecution. It also added an on-screen to legally 'explain' the context of Mussolini's regime at Salo and the writings of the Marquis de Sade. This version was shown at club cinemas throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. The club version was, however, never formally submitted to the BBFC for classification, presumably because there was by that stage no commercial benefit in considering a wider theatrical release.(For further information on this case, see the BBFC Case Study here at their site.)
So, this isn't setting any kind of precedent, but it is something that almost never happens. As I said earlier, I think that this is an interesting area that needs further exploration. Clearly, you're not going to see the likes of uncut or banned films at your local Multiplex. No offence to them, but they aren't the kind of establishments who would consider playing films as controversial as SALO, A SERBIAN FILM, or the original I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. However, most towns and cities have an arts cinema, one that specialises in foreign-language films, unusual and rare films, and which the programming is made by people who really do know and love all manner of films. They are the cinemas who would be best to programme such material. As long as you could convince your local council, that by playing the film(s) you want to play, that you won't be "depraving" or "corrupting" your audiences, and that the cinema makes it absolutely clear that no one under 18 (or in many cases 21) from viewing these films, then - in theory at least - there's a possibility to see banned or contentious films, and see them where they were meant to be seen!
The 21 age-restriction, is to clearly delineate to everyone attending that the works you intend showing, are absolutely and unashamedly NOT for mainstream audiences, and are specialist works that are not generally fit for public consumption. Most councils will let you show a banned film, but will require the cinema/establishment to show it with a strictly enforced over-21's policy. More often than not, they will also ask cinemas to set-up some kind of temporary "membership" scheme, where people pay a nominal fee, such as £1 UK Sterling, and pre-purchase the tickets, once they have been vetted as being over the age of 21. Tickets are almost never sold on the day of the performances themselves, and ticketholders often still need to bring I.D. with them, to the screening. All of this sounds like a lot of hassle, but it's meant as much to protect audiences as it is to protect the council who may award a temporary "club" licence to show banned or uncertificated works.
Other countries may find that their rules differ.
Considering that it was a BBFC Examiner who had told us this, I find that quite astonishing, albeit in a good and positive manner! I think this is something I want to persue further, with my local council, and with my local arts cinema near where I live. I think it would be great if we could have a weekend marathon of banned and contentious cinema! Outside of those two great London institutions, the Prince Charles Cinema or the British Film Institute at the Southbank, seeing uncertificated works at cinemas, is almost impossible these days.
Food for thought, nonetheless!