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[CENSORED] | John McDonald

[CENSORED]

June 15, 2018
One of many small sequences that flashed by in [CENSORED]

One of the most intriguing entries in this year’s Sydney Film Festival was a documentary called [CENSORED]. It consists of 63 minutes of footage stitched together from bits cut out of films by the Australian censorship office from 1958 to 1971. Director, Sari Braithwaite, rummaged through almost 2,000 clips preserved and digitised at the National Archives of Australia to produce a portrait of everything the censors found unacceptable for the general public.

This is a project that promised much, as censorship will always be a hot button issue for filmmakers and artists, but the delivery left a lot to be desired. The problems begin with Braithwaite’s decision to take on the role of the disembodied narrator, commenting on material as it is presented. The idea, presumably, was to personalise this mass of anonymous (or semi-anonymous) footage. She wants to tell us about the soul-destroying process of sitting in a darkened room at the NAA, poring over these clips for almost three years.

“Big mistake!” as Donald Trump would say. Looking at anything for three years is soul-destroying, let alone a lot of B-grade smut and violence removed from its original context. The filmmaker’s experience is completely antithetical to that of the viewer of the documentary. We want to something fast-moving, intelligent and incisive. It’s pointless to whinge about your own ordeals. It’s not relevant. It’s self-indulgent.

Nobody expects a CNN-style report but Braithwaite’s young, tuneless voice is completely unsuited for a voiceover, especially when it’s clear she is reading aloud from a script.
The story she tells is banal and frankly, naive. The strangest part of this is that she seems perfectly aware of these deficiencies but makes no attempt to correct them.

She tells how she orginally intended to make a crusading, anti-censorship film that exposed the narrow attitudes of the guardians of public morality. It ends with her feeling sickened by too much gratuitous sex and violence, realising that most films were made by men, for men. Out of 2,000 clips there is only one by a female director – a brief, inoffensive bedroom scene from Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur (1962).

Braithwaite knows this is an obvious point. We didn’t need Harvey Weinstein to alert us that the movie business has long been a male-dominated affair, with the viewer’s gaze pretty much equated with the male gaze. Neither is it a revelation to find that the work of the censor may be equated with that of the filmmaker, who makes the same decisions about what is and isn’t acceptable for an audience.

It’s clear that the way we respond to these clips is largely dictated by the decision to stitch them together in a manner reminiscent of the humorous film montages made by Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg, or more ambitiously, by Christian Marclay. For instance, when we see a dozen consecutive clips of a man slapping a woman it paints a one-sided picture of the cinema as an arena for gratuitous violence against women. When Braithwaite edits together a series of rape scenes, knife scenes, or scenes in which a man’s arms are held while he is beaten up, the effect is just as nasty.

What we miss is the context. There are plenty of movies by reputable filmmakers in which acts of sex and violence are dramatically necessary. To lump everything together into a long montage is to reproduce the tone-deaf, blinkered actions of the censors who cut scenes according to the most rigid, mechanical criteria. Moffatt and Hillberg do it for comic effect, but Braithwaite wants us to join her in disapproval.

Aside from an extraordinarily graphic childbirth sequence from an anonymous movie, the only features that get more than a few seconds exposure include D.A.Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin (1966), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), and the Varda – all classics. In the extracts sliced from these movies we see the idiocy of the censors. It was this brute insensitivity that David Stratton fought against when he campaigned to reform the censorship office in the early 1970s.

Braithwaite is well aware of this, as the current documentary grew out of a 2015 short she made about Stratton’s battle with the censors.

Throughout [CENSORED], as we listen to the director’s despairing commentary, one can’t help wondering how traumatised she would have been had she viewed material excised from films from 1971 onwards. The graphic violence, the gore, the brutal sexual encounters that are now an accepted part of mainstream cinema, are far more disturbing than anything snipped from the films of the 1960s. Even the idea that cinema is made by men to exploit women comes unstuck with a filmmaker such as Catherine Breillat, whose films treat women in a manner that would be judged grossly misogynist if a male director had been responsible.

It’s no surprise that the censors cut a lot of sex and violence from trashy, exploitative films. It’s no surprise that such films were made in the first place, to capitalise on the baser human appetites. What’s truly surprising is Braithwaite’s inability to escape the lure of the abyss and look at the ways in which the censorship office patronised the Australian public and mutilated films of significance. We’re all capable of wallowing in abstract horror, of being shocked or offended, it’s the documentary-maker’s duty to rise above the trash heap and give us something to think about.

[CENSORED]
A work (sic) by Sari Braithwaite
Australia, yet to be rated, 63 mins
Screened at the Sydney Film Festival

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 June, 2018