First of all, let me say that although I’m absolutely fascinated by film censorship, I’m also strongly opposed to it on free speech grounds.
If I had my way, the BBFC would be a purely advisory body with no legal powers whatsoever (kind of like the MPAA in America). The idea of legally-mandated censorship and/or classification of an entire art form (eg: film) is fundamentally undemocratic and anti-creative in my opinion.
But, since the BBFC are the people who get to decide what films (or, more likely, what versions of a film) we do and don’t get to watch and also what films the next generation of artists, writers and film-makers will get to watch, they need to be held to a high level of scrutiny.
Which is why I thought that I’d do my bit and offer my thoughts about their new classification guidelines which will come into force later this month.
For all of my many criticisms of the BBFC, they are at least one of the most transparent film classification boards out there and, every five years, they update their classification guidelines. These are the list of criteria they use to determine what certificate a film gets.
Every time that they update their guidelines, they conduct a survey beforehand, to gauge public opinion about what should and shouldn’t be changed. So, at least it isn’t completely undemocratic.
On the whole, the new guidelines are fairly similar to the old guidelines – with about two major changes which I’ll talk about in detail here.
These changes relate to how the BBFC deals with horror and profanity in films. Generally speaking, there are some problems with both of these changes.
Horror: Historically, the BBFC has never had a particularly great relationship with the horror genre and, just as I thought that they were finally starting to understand this wonderful genre and treat it sensibly, they bring out these regressive new guidelines.
Thankfully, the new guidelines don’t really seem to affect proper 15 and 18 rated horror movies – but their implications for 12-rated horror films are, quite frankly, horrifying .
Although 12-rated horror films are something of a rarity in Britain (and most horror movies which get a PG-13 rating in the states get a 15 certificate here), they do exist. In fact, the current (2009-2014) guidelines about horror in 12-rated films state: “Yes, some horror films are passed at this category. Moderate physical and psychological threat is permitted at 12 or 12A as long as disturbing sequences are not too frequent or sustained.”
Yes, this means that 12-rated horror films probably aren’t going to be that scary – but at least it means that they can exist.
However, the new guidelines seem to hint at a blanket ban on 12-rated horror movies (emphasis mine): “There may be moderate physical and psychological threat and horror sequences. Although some scenes may be disturbing, the overall tone should not be. Horror sequences should not be frequent or sustained.”
And, before anyone says “this isn’t a blanket ban” – name me one ‘serious’ live-action horror movie whose overall tone wasn’t intended to be disturbing….
So, why am I concerned about this? After all, I’m more than old enough to buy decent horror movies or watch them at the cinema. But I wasn’t once.
And, well, the next generation of young horror fans (and the next generation of horror authors, film-makers, comics writers etc…) deserves something much better than this stiflingly regressive policy.
Yes, any self-respecting teenage horror fan will find a way to see horror movies anyway (and, if they have any common sense, they’ll probably ignore anything which would have got a 12 certificate under the old guidelines and go straight for the good stuff instead). But, it’s the principle that matters here.
The idea that a whole genre of drama should be off-limits to anyone under the age of fifteen is absolutely unconscionable in any society which claims to have freedom of speech. Shame on you, BBFC.
Profanity: On the whole, the BBFC gradually seems to be getting more sensible in this area and the new guidelines are possibly more lenient than the old guidelines. But, at the same time, they’re also chillingly vague too.
For example, their current (2009-2014) guidelines about profanity in a 12 or 12A-rated films are: “The BBFC’s Guidelines state that there may be strong language (eg ‘f***’) at 12 or 12A, but it must be infrequent. The context of the strong language is important. Aggressive uses of strong language may result in a film or DVD being placed at the 15 category. There is some allowance for puns on strong language at this category. There may be moderate language (eg uses of terms such as ‘bitch’ and ‘twat’ at 12 or 12A).Any discriminatory language will not be endorsed by the work as a whole. Aggressive discriminatory language (for example homophobic or racist terms) is unlikely to be passed at 12 or 12A unless it is clearly condemned.”
Yes, these guidelines are slightly on the strict side in my opinion, but at least they are specific. At least they set out clearly what the BBFC do and don’t consider to be acceptable in a 12A film. Generally speaking, these guidelines meant that (with a few exceptions like “The King’s Speech”) a film-maker could use the word ‘f**k’ about 3-5 times in their film before it would get a 15 certificate.
Now, let’s take a look at their upcoming guidelines about profanity in 12/ 12A-rated films: “There may be moderate language. Strong language may be permitted, depending on the manner in which it is used, who is using the language, its frequency within the work as a whole and any special contextual justification.”
This could mean that they’re getting stricter, but it could also mean that they’re becoming more liberal. There is, quite simply, no way of telling and, well, this scares me a bit.
Not only that, the other part of the new guidelines that is equally chilling is the part about “who is using the language”.
The idea that, somehow, one character swearing is any “better” or “worse” than any other character swearing is absolutely ridiculous. And, to be honest, do we really want the BBFC making these kinds of artistic and personal moral judgements about a film on our behalf?
On the plus side – the BBFC seem to be taking a slightly more relaxed and enlightened attitude towards “very strong language” in 15-rated films. Their new guidelines about “very strong language” in 15-rated films mirror the vague guidelines for strong language in 12-rated films.
This is a slight improvement over the old rule that very strong language was only permitted to be used up to about 3-7 times (provided it was used in a light-hearted or matter-of-fact way) in a 15-rated film.
And, hopefully it will also mean that films which are set in Scotland, Northern Ireland, The Republic Of Ireland and northern England (where “very strong language” is far less shocking than it is in southern England) can include realistic dialogue without fear of excessive censorship.
But, the idea of there being any restrictions at all on swearing in 15-rated films seems absolutely ridiculous to me – given that most 15-17 year olds already know what all of these words are and probably use them on at least a semi-regular basis, just like anyone else. Still, at least these new rules for 15-rated films are a small step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no mention of any changes to the BBFC’s absolutely ludicrous policy of treating bleeped and unbleeped profanity as being pretty much the same thing in these new guidelines.
All in all, the new guidelines have a few slight improvements over the old ones – but the fact that they are chillingly vague and the fact that they might pretty much ban 12-rated horror movies outweigh any of these small improvements.