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Tabula Rasa

John Dickie


by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#3

[This film] is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.
The British Board of Film Censors banning The Seashell and the Clergyman
(Jean Cocteau, 1929)

The closest attention is paid to the portrayal of violence and, in particular, sexual violence.
Information Bulletin No 7 -- May 1993

Office of Film and Literature Classification
We recently rang up the Office of Film and Literature Classification, otherwise the office of the Chief Censor, to be confronted by the secretary's greeting: 'Film and Literature'. Somehow we didn't believe her. The offices are in the Sydney CBD, and feature many pastel shades and signs indicating Film and Video Deliveries This Way. Things have changed at what used to be the Film Censorship Board, to whit, no Editing Suites This Way; but still, some of the things that come in just don't get out. The position of Chief Censor for Australia is presently held by Mr John Dickie, who agreed to talk to us about the activities of the Office as he sees them.

Tabula Rasa: For a start Mr Dickie, how did you become involved in this facet of -- well, would you call it a facet of the civil service, or a facet of the filming and publishing industries?

John Dickie: There's no doubt that there's a high government content in it. We deal with the film industry, with the video industry, and now with the computer games people, but there's no question that this is a regulatory agency. We act on behalf of the Federal government, the State governments and the two Territory governments. All of those have legislation covering these activities, that govern the way we operate. For instance, in Victoria there is censorship legislation that appoints me as the censor for Victoria. Although I am appointed under Federal legislation, the States and Territories pick up on that legislation and that's how we get a uniform scheme. It's a very difficult area in some respects, in relation to powers, because the Federal government has power under the customs legislation, and that's pretty wide, because that can cover all the imported material. The States have powers about classification and the enforcement of it. So that's generally the way it breaks up. We look after all the classification stuff here, and the States do all the enforcement. So we can classify a film 'R', and say this is suitable for people eighteen and over; it's the States which then have legislation which says, in that case people under eighteen can't come in, therefore it's the State police which then take the action to make sure that that happens.

TR: Would it be the State that would ban a film?

JD: No. They would enforce the banning of it, we would take the decision to refuse it classification. Then the State has legislation which says, a film which is refused classification cannot be shown, period. They deal with all the different things; if it's 'R' they say it can't be shown to people under eighteen, if it's 'MA' it can't be shown to people under fifteen, and if it's not classified at all it can't be shown. So we take the decision to refuse classification. That doesn't happen all that often. It happens, I suppose, with one percent of mainstream cinema film that is submitted to us, and about three percent of videos. It's a pretty rare decision to knock one back.

TR: You cover literature as well?

JD: Yes, literature. We have a supervisory role in relation to general published material, and the old 0055 and 0051 telephone calls, and now with this new legislation, computer games. Computer games are based broadly on the video classification scheme, except that the guidelines are tighter because Ministers were worried about the interactive component. The categories aren't exactly the same; we've broken up the 'G' category, for instance, into a 'G' and 'G8'. And that was based on evidence we had that around about that seven -- eight mark, there was a change in what the kids could appreciate and the distinctions they could make and so forth. The nought to seven is very, very squeaky clean, and we'd be saying to parents that anything in that nought to seven classification would be perfectly safe for quite young children. And the 'G8' material would have a bit more substance to it, and it would be suitable for the older children.

TR: What would you see that your position entails? As a responsibility?

JD: I think our role is to provide information to the community, to help them make informed decisions for themselves. 'Censorship', to some extent, is a bit misleading, because I think it gives the impression that we still cut things out of films; we don't. We classify material; if a film comes in, I have a Film Censorship board of eleven people who watch between six and seven-hundred cinema films and about three and a half to four-thousand videos a year. And we make decisions, based on guidelines, about what the appropriate category is for that film to go in; so that it'll be either a 'G' or a 'PG', an 'MA', an 'M' or an 'R'. We make the classification decision, but we also give consumer advice. If a film is classified 'MA', you may have things like, 'medium-level sex scenes and coarse language', or 'low-level violence and something else'. So that when people come to make decisions about whether they want to see the film, and particularly parents, they can have a look at what the classification is, which tells them what the approximate age-group is that we think it ought to be seen by, and then they can become more specific by finding out what are the elements that we think are the ones of concern, whether it's sex, or violence, or drugs, or adult themes-

TR: Or sheer horror.

JD: Horror; and then they can make an informed decision about whether or not their kids ought to watch it, if they're parents. We found that once the consumer advice started to appear on the videos, and a bit later when it started to appear for films in the entertainment pages and things like that, that our number of complaints dropped a great deal. Because people had some better idea of what exactly they were going to see and some idea of the intensity. If somebody goes into a film which says 'high-level sex scenes and coarse language', they really know they're going to finish up with something like Body of Evidence. And they can still walk out of it and be horrified, but at least they shouldn't have been taken by surprise.

Banned in Queensland

While the Board of Film and Literature Classification covers Australia-wide censorship, individual states can enforce controls to a greater or lesser extent. The most obvious example is the tougher standards of Queensland -- simply because every movie banned there proudly displays the fact everywhere else.

Before I took on this job, there was a letter that came in addressed to the Attorney General; this was years ago; from a grandmother who was looking after her grandchildren for the school holidays, and went down to the video shop and rented Cinderella. That is, S I N derella, rated 'R'. And wrote in saying this isn't anything like the fairy story that I was brought up with. Now, you would have thought anybody who got out Sinderalla rated 'R' might have been aware that there were elements in it which ah, wouldn't have been suitable for people under the age of eighteen, but these days that shouldn't happen. Some might have problems with violence, some might have problems with sex; and with the new information along the bottom of the cover they can make decisions accordingly. A lot of older people have problems with coarse language. Although the community I think is justifiably worried about violent content, we get an enormous number of letters complaining about four-letter words and things like that, and what we try to do is to alert these people as to whether there's low-level; you might have two, or three 'fucks' in the film-

TR: Or whether it's Blue Velvet.

JD: Yes, that's right. Or whether or not it's something like that Spike Leigh film Do the Right Thing. Now, that one we gave an 'R' for language, which is pretty unusual. I don't think these days that the Australian community wants a Government agency to tell them what it can and what it can't see. Written into our legislation is the basic principle that adults ought to be able to make up their own minds about what they want to watch, what they want to read; provided, that there are adequate safeguards for children. And provided that the material unsolicited isn't forced upon them. And that's the philosophy we work to, and I think that probably accurately reflects Australian society's attitude. You may not always get that impression, because there are groups in the community who don't necessarily subscribe to that. I think a lot of people in the community take it for granted that that's what happens now, and they don't think that they have to vocalise it; but I think if pushed they'd say, we don't want people telling us what we can read and what we can't read. I think you would find that there is general agreement that there is material which the majority of the community would regard as over the top. I think they would think that bestiality, child pornography, sexual torture and things like that are really beyond what community standards would tolerate. And that they would say that as a community, that sort of thing is outside the tolerance boundaries. But short of that, people really ought to be able to make up their own minds. And I think that's the role that most organisations like mine are heading towards all round the world, rather than actively intervening.

Banned, or just illegal? 

As Mr Dickie says, and theoretically speaking, only child porn is actually banned, that is, you are not allowed to own it because of its content. The much greater number of films that are refused classification by the board are not banned -- but you can still be charged and have your tape confiscated for having an illegal import.

To confuse the issue there are a small number of films, of most note Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, which you won't be charged for owning, just distributing. Two further categories of illegal imports are uncut versions of films available only in edited form, and films that simply haven't been submitted for classification.

TR: The emphasis of censorship seems to have changed. It no longer seems to be such an overtly political activity, it generally doesn't happen in Western countries these days that material of a different political view will be banned. But would you say, that in Australia, religion affects the monitoring of community standards -- those standards which it is felt need to be enforced? After all, one of our accredited political parties is openly Christian.

JD: I think that the influence of the different religions, in terms of community standards, has probably decreased over the last fifty years.

TR: Conceivably why they became a political party.

JD: Well, yes, I think that's true. I think there are some people who believe you can legislate for morality. I don't think that that works, but I understand the rationale behind it: that if you make something legal, you give some kind of community stamp of approval to it -- that if you keep it illegal, that that will give a message to society that disapproves of it. I think that's a pretty thorny thicket, that whole argument. To some extent, we're saved from getting into those philosophical arguments by the legislation which lays out what we need to take into account when we're considering films; we've got guidelines which are approved by Federal and State Ministers, and within those guidelines and within the legislation we go ahead and carry it out. And if people want to tighten the standards or loosen the standards, that's something they thrash out in the parliament. I think that argument ebbs and flows a lot, in the same way that community standards ebb and flow.

TR: You're in quite a difficult situation, when you're attempting to find the ground where a community can be considered as having a homogeneous opinion. You come under pressure from various lobby groups, and these lobby groups quite frequently are at cross-purposes.

JD: This is true. They don't lobby us directly over any particular film, but sometimes they disagree with a decision that might be taken, and take the view that either a film shouldn't have been released, or if we restrict them they complain that this is curtailing people's rights. And it's one of those things where every so often a difficult decision comes along and you can see the merit of both sides. My most difficult decision wasn't a film or video at all, it was a book! About two years ago, remember that book by...

TR: Not Brett Easton Ellis by any chance?

JD: Oh no, no. That excited quite a bit of controversy, and what we did, we restricted that. I thought that some of that stuff was a bit over the top but these days you can say, well, we're not really into the business of banning that sort of material, but you can understand the concerns of parents of their kids getting it, and we restricted that. So adults have got access to it; the one that really concerned me was a book by Derek Humphry, called Final Exit. Which was a book about suicide, which contained thirty-three lethal recipes for suicide. And we were asked to classify it, and that really posed difficulties. We don't attempt to censor ideas; if it had been a discussion about euthanasia that would have been fine. But for me, it was a classic situation of whether or not there is any situation where perhaps society expects that you'll make some sort of intervention. Perhaps for the protection of the vulnerable in society. People think this is paternalistic, and that sort of thing, but we had evidence saying that there were an enormous number of attempted suicides, only ten percent of which were successful. But if there were any increase in the knowledge of pharmacology within the community -- even by a couple of percentage points you're looking at hundreds of lives. We have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world. And you say to yourself, well, what do you say to the parents of a twenty-two year old girl, or twenty-two year old boy, who has an unhappy love affair and they take some of the tips in the book, and top themselves. Do you say to the parents, sorry, it really wasn't meant for twenty-two year olds? And in the end we banned that. The publishers appealed, went to the Board of Review, who knocked over our decision and made it a restricted Category One. Perhaps that was the right decision, I don't know. But they are the ones, I think, which are the really difficult ones, because it involves you getting into the philosophical questions, and most of the guidelines have been drawn up with mainly sexual material in mind.

We do occasionally ban films -- Henry -- Portrait of a Serial Killer for instance. That would be on the boarder, I suppose, between art house and mainstream, and that was for sexual violence. Because I think if there's been any shift at all in community attitudes and perceptions over the last ten years, it's been about a concern for violence, and the portrayal of violence; and in the violence category, any sort of mixture of sex and violence, I think people are apprehensive about. And we react pretty strongly towards that. In Henry, there were scenes in that where the sexual violence was beyond what we thought community standards would tolerate, and we said "sorry, refused classification". Normally what happens is that the distributor says "all right, what part of it was the problem?", and we'll tell them. Sometimes they might appeal, or they'll go away and edit and come back and resubmit it and we'll have a look at it afresh -- standard practice.


Portrait of a Serial Killer was directed by John McNaughton in 1987, though it wasn't released till 1989. It has not been banned in Australia, though our version has been edited (and the inclusion of the clip of Love is in the Air at the front of the tape was a really sick joke by somebody).

TR: There appears, in Australian laws, to be a difference between it being illegal to distribute and copy and show some films, and there are some films which it is furthermore illegal to own in Australia.

JD: I think the distinction is made between say, selling and hiring a film and possessing the film on the basis; I think law-makers have got an aversion to people whistling into people's homes and raiding, and reefing out their private possessions and saying "this is disgusting, the law's going to take its course". The only exception that's been made to that has been child pornography, and these laws in Australia have gone away from Customs, and gone away from classification laws into the criminal laws. It's based on the idea of the exploitation of children. I think in most States now, the possession of child pornography is a criminal offence. I think the legislation deals with the sale or hire; even though I think the law is actually concentrated on those who are actually selling and copying material rather than somebody who actually has it in their own possession, just for private screening.

Whistling into Homes

On October 22, 1991, Rod Williams' home was raided by Customs officials on suspicion of illegal imports. The name 'Michael C Diana' was recognised on an envelope addressed to Rod as a supplier of illegal fanzines and the warrant for the raid was given on this basis. Five customs officials searched methodically, if neatly, seizing twenty-five videos, comics and fanzines, including Mr Diana's Boiled Angel. The material was sent to the censorship board, and eleven months later he received the results and the return of the legal material: fifteen horror videos and three fanzines were declared illegal for violent and sexual imagery and confiscated.

Two months later he was brought before a court and fined $350 plus $150 court fees. He also paid a considerable amount for a lawyer.

He gained no criminal record, but his name is now marked by Customs. He describes the experience as 'very traumatic and stressful'.

TR: Is it possible that this area of what was criminal was wider in the past? And extended to certain fictional horror films, for instance?

JD: I don't know of any film where it has been a criminal offence to possess it, short of material that's been covered by child porn; There might be an offence of trying to bring it into the country, through Customs, a prohibited import. So that's where people have been pinned. If you were bringing in a film which was a prohibited import, and that would be say, bestiality, a detailed film about torture of men or women, the Customs might pick it up when it came through and they often send it to us for advice on whether or not it is a prohibited import. But as far as I'm aware, that's the only sort of criminal sanction in terms of possession.

TR: All the same, films that are classed as the genre 'Horror', do seem to be quite prominent in the mind of this 'community' we speak of, when censorship is mentioned. You come up with movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. People will come up with examples like that when you ask them what things should be censored -- gory horror films. Would you care to comment on the context of actions, of things that might be censored? Does this have any sort of influence? For an example, if Schindler's List had been made or marketed as a horror film, do you think it would have been treated the same?

JD: We would look at the material that is placed before us. We've had a couple of letters about Schindler's, which said, it's been given an 'M' rating for medium-level violence, what do you have to do to get high-level violence, this was the Holocaust!

TR: There we go again, should that be censored?

JD: I suppose we have to look at them all in context. The closest one that we've had, to the example you've given, was one -- I think it was called Land Behind the Sun (sic) -- which was supposedly, I don't think I should be passing comments as to whether it was or wasn't, a documentary, on the atrocities that the Japanese carried out on the Chinese during the Chino-Japanese War. And it showed women being left out overnight in freezing temperatures, and buckets of water being thrown over their hands and fingers being snapped off in the morning, because their hands had iced over. There were sequences of people being put into compression chambers, to the extent that their insides were blown out. Now, according to the material that came with the film, this was a recreation of some of the horrible things that were done in terms of experimentation, or just in terms of torture. We knocked that back on the basis that, even though this was, I suppose, an accurate portrayal of what happens if you put someone into a compression chamber and increase the pressure, it really was exploitative material. Exploitative violence for its own sake, it was not necessarily part of the progression of telling the story. That's where it becomes a bit subjective, I agree, and there aren't too many films that are like that. But if Schindler's had been a film where they tried to recreate the full horror of the actual execution in the gas chambers, and things like that, you would have to look very carefully at the scene and say, is this absolutely necessary to the thing or is it just a gratuitous scene to appeal to some violence freaks? And that's something you can only really judge in the context of the film. But they're the principles that tend to guide us.

With the mainstream stuff that comes through, it's not just us they've got to deal with; They've got to deal with the rating agency in the United States, they've got to deal with British film classification there, they've got to deal with the French classification board, the Canadians; and just about everywhere else, there's some sort of classification agency. The last thing they want is all the hassles of having it classified differently here to the way it's classified elsewhere. Of course, when it gets into Asia, I think they have even more struggles with some of them.

Man Behind the Sun

is the documentary referred by Mr Dickie as Land Behind the Sun. To further complicate matters it was released on video as Men Behind the Sun. But we're pretty sure it has a sun in it. It was directed by T. F. Mous in Hong Kong, in 1989. It was initially refused classification, but was released on appeal.

TR: I do believe that the (American) MPAA will refuse to classify things, but that does not mean it has been banned. Then of course I've heard comments from film-makers that they might as well have.

JD: Well, that's right; they can't ban anything over there. If they refuse to classify, Even if they give an 'NC17' the industry goes right off its rails, because what it means is that it really confines you to the underground circuit. Most of the motion picture places over there will only run them if they've got an MPAA classification. Henry and June got an 'X' classification over there, and the community in Hollywood went berserk, this isn't a pornographic film, this is a great film, Statuary Ten and all that sort of stuff. There was an uproar! So the MPAA, in the end, brought in a new category, that of 'NC17', and Henry and June was the first film to get an 'NC17' in the United States. Now Henry and June didn't cause any problems out here, none at all. It got an 'M' out here and I suppose it highlights the difference between -- the idiosyncratic differences between -- communities. I think as a community we're far more tolerant about sex scenes in context than the Americans are, and a bit tougher about violence. What happens with some of the American films is that they come out here, and they just hit the wire out here; I mean RoboCop II, Total Recall, we just said "no, sorry, 'R'." And that's a tougher rating than they get in the States. If there's gratuitous sex, in the same way if there's gratuitous violence, people will react the same way, this is exploitative. I mean there are some who'd say, this is terrific, and get all their mates to go and see it. But I think family audiences, or older people who come along to the cinema; You take something like The Piano. There's some quite frank stuff in The Piano which got an 'M' classification, and some people got a bit upset about it but the majority of the people who went to see it said, this is in the context of the story, it fits into the sequence of the film without any exploitation, therefore that's fine. And I think the big mistake Regulatory Agencies can make is to underestimate the intelligence and the capacity of the film-going public. It's a very discriminating audience in a sense. They can smell a dud, they can get hold of it; Take Four Weddings and a Funeral. I don't know how it did in the States, but I bet it didn't go as well as it did here. It just took off! People said "Have you seen it? Go and see it." And it didn't get more publicised than Henry and June, I mean when that came out here, you'd have thought after all the kafuffle in the States they'd be queuing for weeks to have a look at it. It only lasted a few weeks here. I think the public make their own minds up about things. I think particularly parents, use our classifications and the consumer advice a great deal. I think people who are in their late twenties or thirties make a decision about whether they're going to see the film and they might have a look at our consumer advice, but not pay as much attention. Then once the kids start to arrive, and are around, they start to look carefully at the classifications. And once the kids are in the growing-up stage, then they go back and make their own selections, irrespective of classification. But I'd back them every time. They make the really intelligent decisions, I think. There's a chemistry out there, and people who are in the film business try and work out just what exactly the chemistry's going to come up with. I think if they were doing well, they'd pick it all the time. Though even the best of them are wrong at times about what's going to happen. And I think our role is to say, "Look, we'll do what we can to help you," to the community.


and June -- directed by Philip Kaufman (better known to horror fans for his remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978) in 1990, this concerns an affair between the writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin in Paris in the 1930s. June was his wife (whom Anais also fantasises about). He's right, it appears to have been pretty much ignored over here, though is widely available.

TR: I assume there is a regular publication of classifications, and items that are banned -- quite apart from what the newspapers may think worth their while. Where would this be?

JD: We put it onto the Discovery network, that's run by Telecom. We found that's the most up to date way we could do it. Most of the people who sweat on our decisions down at the distributors, organisations which keep a close watch on our activities, we key these into the Discovery network almost as soon as the decision's made, so what is on there is an up-to-the-minute update. What used to happen was they used to be printed in the Commonwealth Gazette every year. The problem was, that by the time -- the cut-off date's about December, and the list would come out in May the following year. And there'd be all the December to May films as well. So that's where we put them, and they're all in their different categories there.

TR: Thank you for speaking to us Mr Dickie, we appreciate your time.


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