Wednesday, August 19, 2009 

Japanese torture-porn and working out how the BBFC works.

I think I've finally managed to work out how the modern British Board of Film Classification works. After abandoning the ridiculous prejudices of previous, and most famous former director of the board, James Ferman, they realised that every so often, in return for passing "art" films that nonetheless the right-wing press get up in arms about, such as Crash, Irreversible and most recently Antichrist, they have to ban a decidedly non-art piece of trash which makes up somewhat for them not banning something else.

Hence Manhunt 2 had to be banned because the previous game had been (wrongly) accused of influencing a murder. Murder Set Pieces, the last non-sex work to be banned by the BBFC, was refused a certificate shortly after a ridiculous furore involving the BBFC passing SS Experiment Camp, a former video nasty, far more memorable for its original VHS cover art of a partially-clothed woman being crucified upside down while an SS trooper loomed behind her. And now, the Japanese horror film Grotesque has been banned only a number of weeks after Antichrist was causing Daily Mail hacks to wail despite not having seen it.

Perhaps they're all coincidences. It's probably not a coincidence that all three share the attribute that they're not very good. Grotesque, despite not many people having seen it, appears to be the latest tiresome, low-budget entry in the sub-horror genre of "torture porn", which existed before the likes of Saw, but which definitely kick-started its re-emergence. Doubtless some will link the film further back to its Japanese predecessors, such as the "Guinea Pig" series, notorious for their effects on ultra-low budgets and how often they've been mistaken for "real" snuff films, but this seems far more linkable to its American sisters. Plot, of which there isn't apparently much of one, revolves around a couple who are kidnapped and then degraded, tortured and assaulted until one is offered the chance of saving the life of the other, a distinctly Saw-like device, before, and I'm only guessing, both are in fact killed.

As for the BBFC's reasoning, it's difficult to ascertain as the statement which was previously up on their website purporting their decision has mysteriously vanished, leaving us with the Sun's mangling of the press release, or the BBC's rather slimmed down account. Apparently it presented "little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism", "[T]he chief pleasure on offer seems to be in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake," and "Its "minimal narrative or character development," he continued, set it apart from such other "torture-themed" works as the Saw and Hostel movie series. Really? Have they honestly sat down and watched the most recent entries in the Saw series, which have nonsensically convoluted plots and where the deaths and torture devices are clearly came up with first and then the story woven around them? The key might well be the sexual sadism, with the BBFC still being cautious when it comes to sexual violence, but that might just be them covering themselves lest the company that submitted the film decides to appeal to the Video Appeals Committee, who overturned the BBFC's rejection of Manhunt 2.

It's also not as if highly similar films featuring high similar plots and doubtless highly similar graphic violence haven't been passed 18 uncut. One was Frontiers, a French film where two young women fall into the grasp of sadistic Nazi cannibals, as one (or two) does. The BBFC justified passing it 18 uncut with the following description:

FRONTIER(S) is a subtitled French film that has been classified '18' uncut for very strong bloody violence.

The film contains scenes dwelling on the terrorisation of victims and the infliction of pain and injury. The inclusion of several 'strongest gory images' (mutilation) preclude the possibility of a '15' classification. However, all elements in this work are containable, uncut, by current guidelines for the '18' classification.

Current guidelines state: The BBFC respects the right of adults to choose their own entertainment, within the law.

Another was Captivity, starring ex-24 starlet Elisa Cuthbert, which I remember mainly because of Peter Bradshaw's review in the Graun:

But there's a twist. The wacko has imprisoned a pretty boy too, Gary (Daniel Gillies) and, against the odds ... well, boy meets girl in the torture dungeon and the old chemistry starts a-fizzin'.

It could have been the basis for a bizarre black comedy, were it not for the chillingly misjudged porn-seriousness of everything on offer. It asks us to believe that Jennifer would want to have sex under these conditions, and furthermore asks us to believe that she would still look like a total hottie. Even after being tortured. Unconsciously, the storyline participates in the madman's gruesomely naive fantasies.

If that was Bradshaw's verdict, you can imagine what the likes of Christopher Tookey thought. Captivity was also naturally passed 18 uncut by the BBFC, who quite rightly don't get involved in matters of taste. Otherwise they might have also banned H6: Diary of a Serial Killer, a Spanish horror in which a killer takes home prostitutes and locks them in a room, strapped to a table, depriving them of both food and water. One begs, pathetically, for a drink: the killer obliges by urinating into her mouth. That was also passed 18 uncut.

Undoubtedly, the BBFC will have justified its rejection in terms of the possibility of "harm", a subjective definition if there ever was one. That it's unlikely that anyone other than a horror/gore hound, undoubtedly already somewhat jaded with the current material on offer was likely to rent or buy Grotesque doesn't enter into it. It also doesn't matter that in the broadband internet age that it's even more impossible to ban films than it was in the video nasty era, when copies of copies of copies of copies circulated, and when those who watched the grainy, almost undecipherable to watch sleaziness thought they were all the better for it. And of course, now that it's been banned by the helpful BBFC, the DVD cases in countries where the censorship laws are not so archaic, ridiculous and opaque will have the legend emblazoned across them that it's illegal in the good old United Kingdom. Achieved? Absolutely nothing, except for proving to the likes of Mediawatch that the BBFC does still ban some films, albeit ones that no one cares about.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008 

Byron report: Mostly as expected, but China syndrome does creep in.

Glory of glories, the Byron report has finally arrived (PDF). For the last couple of months, any mention of the internet or video games in the negative in parliament has been met with a "wait for the Byron report" with the implication being that any changes will be based on its recommendations. Indeed, the government has been so pleased with Dr Tanya Byron's report that it's pledged to implement its proposals in full. Perhaps that's what all the worthy reports written for government that never get read even by the ministers they're meant for need - a TV personality to have been in some way associated with them. Jamie Oliver, Tanya Byron, they call and Labour heels. Those academics that are unfortunate enough to be untelegenic need to get someone who's appeared on the box to helm their report and make sure it's heard. Coming soon, the sunbed review (not made up) by Dale Winton, alongside the report into Travellers' communities, with an introduction by Basil Brush. Boom boom!

For some reason it inordinately bugs me that someone that the Dear Leader might have seen a couple of times on television giving advice on child behaviour is deemed the right person to write what is such an important report, not because of the effects it will have on the children's access to the internet and video games, but rather because of the effects it will have on all of our access to the internet and video games. There's never been a debate or to put it more accurately, a panic about what our children are up to which hasn't in some way then inhibited what adults themselves are able to choose to do with their time. Byron is, unlike some of her television counterparts who have over-egged or even lied about their actual qualifications, certainly both a doctor and something approaching an expert on child behaviour and mental health, but what she most certainly is not is anything like an expert on the internet and video games themselves, which is why the report ought to have been shared between her and some individuals who are, regardless of the assistance she's had in writing the report and in the research conducted which accompanies it.

It's therefore something of a relief that for the most part, with a few notable exceptions, the report is generally level-headed and thoughtful about children interacting online and also about the games that they play. It will most certainly not please or in any way help the lobby including Julian Brazier or Keith Vaz that want to further restrict access to video games, films and "potentially harmful" content on the internet. Byron's main proposal on video games and the certification of them is that the BBFC and PEGI, the currently opposing classification systems, should be working together towards an online rating system for internet games, while the BBFC should have to classify all games that contain content that is only suitable for those over 12, which can currently be contained under the PEGI system, although increasingly, as the industry has responded to parental concern, more and more games are being submitted for classification, whether they contain any content unsuitable for those under 12 or not. Even some of this shows however that Byron doesn't seem to have properly done her homework - she says that the BBFC logos should always be on the front of game boxes, but this has always been the case, and they're also usually far larger than their equivalent logos on DVD cases, to emphasise the point and make clear to parents the age restriction on the games. Then there are statements like this:

For example, 52% of respondents to a recent survey said they knowingly or deliberately purchased a game for their child, which according to the rating given, was not suitable for their age (ELSPA/YouGov 2007). This urgently needs to be addressed.

Why? Are those respondents not responsible for the children they buy the game for? If they knowingly or deliberately buy an 18-rated game for their children, then they obviously know it isn't necessarily going to be suitable for them, but they're either willing to take the risk or in fact think their children are mature enough to play such a game. This is hardly something the government should be interfering with.

Quite why Byron thinks the current classification system needs to be changed at all isn't clear. Her criteria for children and parents to be able to make sensible and informed decisions about the games they play means that any ratings systems must include the following elements:

clear age ratings;
clear accompanying descriptors which explain game content;
enforceable where there are risks of potential harm

The current system is all of these things. Why then does it need to be meddled with, other than to do something for doing's sake? The BBFC, incidentally, has responded to the report here.

Going back to her proposals on the internet itself, this is apparently one of her three strategic objectives for child safety on the internet:

However, the majority of material accessed by internet users is hosted on a relatively small number of highly popular sites, the rest of it occupying a ‘long tail’ of less popular material. This means that we should focus our efforts on reducing the availability of harmful and inappropriate material in the most popular part of the internet.

No, it's not your or the government's job to be reducing the availability of "harmful and inappropriate material" from any part of the internet, let alone the most popular part. If material isn't illegal, then it's none of your or anyone else's businesses where that material is or isn't hosted. It's down to the parents to ensure that their children either don't have access to such material or that their children are able to deal with such content properly. These are, to be fair, Byron's second and third objectives, but that doesn't even begin to make up for the wrongness of the first.

Byron's proposals for delivering these three strategic objectives are:

A UK Council on Child Internet Safety, established by and reporting to the Prime Minister.

That this Council should lead the development of a strategy with two core elements: better regulation – in the form, wherever possible, of voluntary codes of practice that industry can sign up to – and better information and education, where the role of government, law enforcement, schools and children’s services will be key.

That the Home Office and DCSF should chair the Council, with the roles of other Government departments, especially DCMS, properly reflected in working arrangements.

That the Council should have a properly resourced cross-government secretariat to secure a joined-up Government approach to children and young peoples’ safety online.

That the Council should appoint an advisory group, with expertise in technology and child development, should listen to the voices of children, young people and parents and should have a sustained and rolling research programme to inform delivery.

All of which are decent, sound suggestions. Of concern however is just what the council itself might subsequently propose, especially on one issue of concern that Byron herself highlights:

The Council investigates where the law around harmful and inappropriate material could be usefully clarified (including suicide websites) and explores appropriate enforcement responses.

Suicide is not illegal. Providing advice on how you might kill yourself is not illegal. Aiding and abetting suicide is. Some might disagree on whether either of the first two should be, but while that is still the situation websites that provide advice for those who wish to end their lives should not be made in any way illegal.

One of the "sites" that is often mentioned when discussing websites that discuss suicide is, a Usenet newsgroup that has been linked to a number of individuals who have subsequently killed themselves, including at least a couple in this country. Far from the impression some may have, if the group hasn't changed much since I previously lurked in it a few years' back, most of group were individuals who had been suicidally depressed for a long period of time, who had sought help and in some cases gone from medication to medication and treatment to treatment without getting better, some even undergoing ECT, and most of whom sought the comfort of being in a community where they were properly understood. Some had subsequently killed themselves, or made attempts on their lives; others didn't, and are probably still there. These individuals were not children, or angsty teenagers who had just suffered their first major setback in their love life, although there may well have been some of those lurking, and those that asked directly for help with methods were mostly spurned, especially if they had not tried to get help with their problems. I have never seen any evidence that such individuals have ever used these websites prior to their committing suicide, or children themselves using the information in attempts, and despite the recent comments of the coroner dealing with the Bridgend cluster of suicides, who condemned videos showing how to hang yourself on YouTube, there is nothing to suggest they used or viewed "suicide websites" or those kind of videos prior to their deaths. Making such websites illegal will do nothing to prevent suicide, or protect children or the vulnerable.

Again, of far more danger is one Byron's points buried in the report itself, as others have already noted:

4.60 For these reasons I do not recommend that the UK pursue a policy of blocking non-illegal material at a network level at present. However, this may need to be reviewed if the other measures recommended in this report fail to have an impact on the number and frequency of children coming across harmful or inappropriate content online.

This is little short of chilling. Does Byron actually understand the consequences of what she's written or proposing here, of government blocking information which is neither illegal nor necessarily actually "harming or inappropriate" for children, but content which by someone else's definition, such as hers, is harmful or inappropriate? By her lack of caution, with no apparent change of tone or counter-argument presented it certainly doesn't seem so. Maggie Brown on CiF lets the cat out of the bag when she fatuously thanks China for proving that you can control access to material on the web; quite apart from how they haven't, as more literate users can still get around it using proxy servers and web anonymizers, if they themselves aren't blocked, it's an incredibly slippery slope from blocking material which isn't illegal because children might be traumatised by it to blocking material which isn't conducive to the government itself, especially when it's not openly stated which sites are currently being blocked, as the Cleanfeed system which blocks child pornography isn't. If the same system was used for blocking content which the kiddie winks shouldn't be allowed to see, as seems more than probable, then we would have finally completed the not so long and winding road to becoming a police state. Don't think also that this isn't necessarily going to happen: as Frank Fisher pointed out, Jacqui Smith has already spoke of using Cleanfeed to block extremist (i.e. jihadist) websites. Others have suggested that there already is more than just child pornography being blocked by Cleanfeed, and there have been allegations previously that 4chan was temporarily blocked by Cleanfeed as it is occasionally spammed by trolls with child pornography.

Byron's report is probably then mostly what the government expected when it commissioned it. She hasn't gone too far, there isn't any further unpleasant legislation to pass that will eat up Commons time or be widely opposed, but there certainly are grim portents of what might be to come should Byron's targets not be met, something that with the media continuing in its moral panic state over "broken Britain" and the role of social-networking sites with suicide, might well yet occur. The freedom of adults to watch and do what they want in private continues to be one that the government can still restrict on the whim and excuse of protecting children.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008 

More unanswered questions for the BBFC over Last House on the Left.

Just to keep everyone on their toes and make it as difficult as humanly possible to predict what the British Board of Film Classification's next move on its guidelines, if any, is going to be, especially in light of its decision to ban Murder Set Pieces and to finally give Manhunt 2 an 18 after the Video Appeals Committee forced it into seeing sense, Last House on the Left, Wes Craven's first and most notorious film, has finally been passed completely uncut for the first time ever in the UK.

Notable not only because it was Craven's first film in a career which continues to this day and has included the Hills Have Eyes, the Nightmare on Elm Street series and the Scream series, but also because of its long and chequered censorship history, Last House on the Left was one of the few films on the eventual "video nasties" list drawn up by the director of public prosecutions that had never been given any sort of certificate in this country, alongside such other luminaries as Cannibal Holocaust (now available, but heavily cut), House on the Edge of the Park (same) and Gestapo's Last Orgy (still "banned", although considering SS Experiment Camp's uncut passing, could well get through if submitted).

Initially rejected when it was submitted back in 1974, and then rejected again for a cinema run in 2000, it was again rejected, this time on Video/DVD in 2001. Surprisingly, less than six months later it was finally passed by the BBFC on the same format, albeit with 31 seconds of cuts. The BBFC's justification was:

Cuts required to humiliation of woman forced to urinate, violent stabbing assault on woman and removal of her entrails, and woman's chest carved with a knife. Cuts required under the Video Recordings Act 1984 and BBFC Classification Guidelines

Blue Underground, the submitter at the time, challenged the cuts with an appeal to the VAC, noting that far from the BBFC's justification being that it was making cuts to the sexual violence, as outlined in the BBFC's guidelines, it was in fact cuts to the violence within the film. Indeed, the rape scene, which is far from explicit, is contained intact. Unlike in the case of Manhunt 2, the VAC didn't agree, and upheld the BBFC's cuts. Blue Underground therefore decided not to release it, and Anchor Bay instead acquired the rights and submitted a pre-cut version that was subsequently passed uncut.

The question therefore has to be what has changed between July 2002 and March 2008. The answer is very little. The BBFC's guidelines were updated in 2005 in line with a larger survey, but there were no real changes over violence or sexual violence. The only conclusion that can be reached is that the BBFC realised that it had overstepped the mark back in 2002, perhaps mindful of how only two years' earlier the film had still been completely rejected. The swift move from banned to completely uncut isn't entirely unprecedented: a late film by Lucio Fulci, probably best known for the "video nasty" Zombie Flesh-Eaters, the Cat in the Brain was banned in 1999 and then given an uncut 18 just four years later, albeit under a different title. The history of films that had either been banned, or because they appeared on the "video nasty" list, subsequently felt unsuitable to be passed only shortly after the panic had calmed down, is often of having piecemeal cuts made, then when time has further passed, for the film to be subsequently released uncut. Zombie Flesh-Eaters itself was one of those that suffered this slow death of a thousand cuts, re-released in 1992 and 1996 with heavy cuts, subsequently submitted again in 1999 and cut by only 23s, and then finally passed completely uncut in 2005.

Even this isn't really an entirely satisfactory answer. One half of the BBFC's justification for cutting Last House on the Left was the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which certainly hasn't changed since 2002. Nor though has the BBFC's classification guidelines on sexual violence, or at least not openly. It's hard not to think that one of Craven's own arguments, that his film had been unjustly persecuted, is close to being the actual truth. The other obvious question is where this leaves the BBFC to go. The sexual violence in a film such as Murder Set Pieces is apparently enough to warrant its rejection, but the Last House on the Left, which just 6 years ago according to the BBFC's own student website "eroticised sexual violence" and the cutting of which provided a "robust endorsement of the BBFC's strict policy on sexual violence" is now tame enough to be released onto the public without fear of anyone getting a hard-on. The answer then is where it's always been: in a place where if it needs to it can justify almost anything it does, reasonably safe in the knowledge that it can usually get away it, and if not, a few years down the line the mores and attitudes will have moved on. It might make a mockery of their own guidelines and attempts at openness, but as it long as it keeps the wolf from the door which is the entire removal of its authority to cut and ban at will, most people, and certainly the BBFC itself, will stay happy.

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Friday, March 14, 2008 

Manhunt 2 finally unbanned.

The other welcome good news story of the day could hardly be more different. The BBFC, after months of haughtiness, has finally been forced into giving Manhunt 2 the 18 certificate the makers originally requested:

The Video Appeals Committee today announced that the result of their reconsideration of the Manhunt 2 appeal remains that the appeal against the rejection of the work by the BBFC is upheld.

The Board’s decision to refuse a certificate to Manhunt 2 was successfully challenged on appeal to the Video Appeals Committee. The Board challenged the VAC’s decision by way of Judicial Review before the High Court, which quashed the decision on grounds of errors of law. The VAC has now reconsidered the appeal in the light of the High Court’s directions on the law but has decided, again by a majority of four to three, to allow the appeal on the basis that Manhunt 2 should be given an ‘18’ certificate.

In the light of legal advice the Board does not believe the VAC’s judgement provides a realistic basis for a further challenge to its decision and has accordingly issued an ‘18’ certificate.

David Cooke, Director of the BBFC said:
“As I have said previously, we never take rejection decisions lightly, and they always involve a complex balance of considerations. We twice rejected Manhunt 2, and then pursued a judicial review challenge, because we considered, after exceptionally thorough examination, that it posed a real potential harm risk. However, the Video Appeals Committee has again exercised its independent scrutiny. It is now clear, in the light of this decision, and our legal advice, that we have no alternative but to issue an ‘18’ certificate to the game.”

This entire petty situation could have been avoided if the BBFC had treated the game fairly from the beginning. Rockstar's case has always been that Manhunt 2, which it freely admits is a violent game and has never suggested should be sold to anyone other than adults, was treated far more harshly than any film purely because of the fact that it is a game. This might have been acceptable if the BBFC has separate guidelines for films and video games, but it does not. It should therefore have been judged on the exact same criteria as any of the current gory batch of horror films, such as Saw, Hostel and indeed the just released Frontier(s) are, all of which have passed uncut with no trouble or controversy whatsoever. Indeed, the BBFC's comments on Frontier(s) are an exact replica of what it should have done when first faced with Manhunt 2:

FRONTIER(S) is a subtitled French film that has been classified '18' uncut for very strong bloody violence.
The film contains scenes dwelling on the terrorisation of victims and the infliction of pain and injury. The inclusion of several 'strongest gory images' (mutilation) preclude the possibility of a '15' classification. However, all elements in this work are containable, uncut, by current guidelines for the '18' classification.
Current guidelines state: The BBFC respects the right of adults to choose their own entertainment, within the law.

Instead, the BBFC with Manhunt 2 clutched at the straw of "harm" which has so often in the past been used by both censorship bodies, politicians and campaigners alike with the aim of protecting children, when all this has actually done is prevented adults from choosing what they can and can't want watch, as well taking from them the responsibility to ensure that material that is not suitable for children does not fall into their hands. In actual fact, the BBFC were not just claiming that Manhunt 2 could be harmful to children, but to adults also, something which it knew it could not possibly provide evidence to substantiate, and which their very own research into video games and those that play them certainly did nothing to back up.

Always in the background of this case was the ghost of both a murdered teenager and that of outrage from the tabloid press. Despite both the police and judge dismissing the mother of Stefan Pakeerah's claims that her son's murderer was influenced by playing the original Manhunt, something itself undermined when the game was found in Pakeerah's bedroom rather than Warren Leblanc's, it's difficult to believe that the BBFC was not influenced by the possibility of a campaign, especially one led by the Daily Mail, about the classification body's latest insult to common sense. It was far easier instead to reject a game it could dismiss as containing "sustained and cumulative casual sadism" than have to deal with the Mail again demanding to know who actually makes the BBFC's decisions, something it howled for after it dared to give the remake of War of the Worlds a 12A certificate, a decision more or less in line with the rest of the world.

As always happens when the BBFC gives into the demands for a ban, all it's done is instead given the game/film a marketing advantage than any of the other producers would kill for. If Rockstar so wished, it could now advertise the game with "PREVIOUSLY BANNED!" splashed across it, milking the past few months' back and forth between the courts, the VAC and the BBFC itself for all its worth. This is idiotic not just because it could have avoided the embarrassment and also legal cost of its original decision, but also because the game itself has been rather harshly critically received, with one review suggesting that it's the original game with slightly better graphics and because of the toning done, less violent and therefore less satisfying. The BBFC has martyred a game when it could instead have left it to stew in its own mediocrity.

The one bright spot is that the BBFC's authority has been challenged and even potentially critically wounded, and it will also no doubt influence the decision on the part of TLA releasing on whether to appeal against the BBFC's ban on Murder Set Pieces. While it might not have much effect in the short term, it could well be another step on the road towards the BBFC losing all its powers of censorship, and instead turned into the actual classification body that it long should have been transformed into.

Related post:
Lee Griffin - Manhunt 2 is no longer banned

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Thursday, February 28, 2008 

The BBFC murders Murder Set Pieces.

The British Board of Film Classification, after having remarkably reformed itself over the last few years from its bad old days under James Ferman, appears to have hit a wall constructed by the very same forces that initially sparked the moral panic over video nasties. First the video game Manhunt 2 was banned, ostensibly because of its "unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone" as well as its "casual sadism", but certainly not without a campaign in the press and allegations that the first Manhunt had prompted a murder, something denied by both the judge and the police, also being taken into consideration.

Now in the aftermath of a new furore over the BBFC giving an 18 certificate to the former video nasty SS Experiment Camp, something which the media only took 18 months to notice, as well as a private members bill being introduced by Tory MP Julian Brazier, a bill that would in effect introduce state censorship, the BBFC have banned the first major film ("documentaries" such as Bumfights and Traces of Death, DVD extras and BSDM porn have been banned more recently) since Women in Cellblock 9 was rejected back in 2004.

Murder Set Pieces, directed by Nick Palumbo and submitted to the BBFC by TLA Releasing is a fairly a-typical slasher cum serial-killer flick, made independently for around $2,000,000, and features a number of well-known horror veterans, including Tony Todd and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre). While I haven't seen it, and most of the reviews of the film have been fairly critical, it seems little different from other films that have been passed uncut by the BBFC. Its main tone appears to be that it's unrelenting and highly misogynistic, with the major point of controversy that it features the killer pondering whether to murder a small child, who then releases her, with her going over and hugging her already dead mother.

Even so, it doesn't seem to have been the involvement of children in the film that so challenged the BBFC, but rather the level of the violence and what the depiction of it "portrays or encourages", something that since its 2000 consultation which established comprehensively that adults didn't want to be told what to watch at 18 outside of the concerns about sexual violence has previously not resulted in cuts, let alone a rejection.

The BBFC's long-winded justification is convoluted, difficult to understand and downright unclear:
MURDER SET PIECES is a US made feature focussing on the activities of a psychopathic sexual serial killer, who, throughout the film, is seen raping, torturing and murdering his victims. There is a clear focus on sex or sexual behaviour accompanied by non-consensual pain, injury and humiliation. Young children are among those terrorised and killed.

In making a decision as to whether a video work is suitable for classification, the Board applies the criteria set out in its current Classification Guidelines, published in 2005. These are the result of an extensive process of public consultation and research and reflect the balance of media effects research, the requirements of UK law and the attitudes of the UK public. The Board’s Guidelines clearly set out the Board’s serious concerns about the portrayal of violence, most especially when the violence is sexual or sexualised, but also when depictions portray or encourage: callousness towards victims, aggressive attitudes, or taking pleasure in pain or humiliation.

The Guidelines for the ‘18’ category requested for this video work state that such concerns 'will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment' but make clear that exceptions to this general rule may be made in certain areas, including 'where material or treatment appears to the Board to risk harm to individuals or, through their behaviour, to society – eg any detailed portrayal of violent or dangerous acts… [and that the Board] may intervene with portrayals of sexual violence which might, eg eroticise or endorse sexual assault'. Under the heading of 'Rejects', the Guidelines identify as of particular concern 'graphic rape or torture', 'portrayals of children in a sexualised or abusive context' and 'sex accompanied by non-consensual pain, injury or humiliation'.

The Board’s position that scenes of violence with the potential to trigger sexual arousal may encourage a harmful association between violence and sexual gratification is reflected in research and consistent with public opinion. It is the Board’s carefully considered view that to issue a certificate to MURDER-SET-PIECES, even if statutorily confined to adults, would involve risk of harm within the terms of the Video Recordings Act 1984, would be inconsistent with the Board’s Guidelines, and would be unacceptable to the public.

The Board considered whether the issue could be dealt with through cuts. However, given the unacceptable content features throughout, and that what remains is essentially preparatory and set-up material for the unacceptable scenes, cuts are not a viable option in this case and the work is therefore refused a classification.

They then therefore seem to be hedging their bets, mentioning everything against the guidelines and not making obvious what it is that so worried them about the film. Is it the sexual violence? Is it the overall tone? Is it worry over the callousness? Or is it violence that the BBFC thinks has the potential to trigger sexual arousal and therefore "harm"? Maybe it's all four; maybe it's none of the above and they're deeply worried about adding fuel to the fire of Brazier's bill, not to mention press reaction to the latest depraved and corrupt atrocity on DVD.
The BBFC's press release is little clearer; it emphasises the "sexual violence" and also says that due to the involvement of children states that if appealed the BBFC would have to consider whether it potentially breaches the Protection of Children Act, although seeing as the child appearing in the film's parents were in the room when it was filmed that seems doubtful.

The reason why this is so worrying is that it's the first film in a long while to be made recently to be banned, especially when you consider that it's a long while since any such "mainstream" film made recently was even cut; the last was
Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer, cut for sexual violence back in 2002. Murder Set Pieces, despite its independent origins, has been picked up for distribution in the United States by Lions Gate Films, although it was heavily cut by the MPAA to avoid a NC-17 rating. The majority of films outside of pornography now cut by the BBFC are generally 70s/80s exploitation and due to their sexual violence content.

It's also dubious because of how many other brutal and unrelenting films have been passed uncut recently: the Saw series for example after the original are little more than one long connected collection of gore sequences, with the deaths apparently worked out before the plot is; the recent remake of Halloween, a incredibly poor film, seriously ups the ante in terms of brutality and in its callous tone, while the
previous work by its director almost made heroes out of its murderers; other serial-killer flicks such as Henry and The Last Horror Movie work on similar terms to Murder Set Pieces, are far better films and have been passed uncut; and then there's even the latest addition to the Rambo series, which packs 269 kills into 90 minutes, working out at 2.59 people dying for every minute of screen time, all without the BBFC so much as batting an eyelid. Perhaps it's because they're worried Sly himself might storm into their offices.

I might of course be entirely wrong about the Brazier plan having any influence; the howls of outrage over SS Experiment Camp might have completely and rightly ignored; and the BBFC might not have taken into consideration the recent outcry about the series of horrifically violent murders by Wright, Dixie and Bellfield, as Murder Set Pieces was always likely to have trouble, and probably end up at least being cut. As with Manhunt 2 however, it increasingly appears that the BBFC is taking the cries of a few in the gutter press and in the unreconstructed wing of the Tory party (as well as the new head of the home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, who Brazier's bill would put in control of vetting the appointments of the BBFC's board) more seriously than it actually ever did. Even James Ferman, when attacked viciously in the Mail after he passed
Crash uncut, never gave in or directly pandered to newspaper opinion. He was vigorously independent to the extent that films he personally disliked remained banned for decades, but at least he could be held directly accountable for that, rather than the organisation as a whole or outside influences being responsible.

In an ideal world, the BBFC would lose its few remaining powers of censorship and instead act merely as a classifying body, but due to the history of this country that's about as likely as Jon Gaunt losing weight. The Brazier bill, which even though it doesn't have a chance of becoming law, still needs to be resisted with every breath. We've made great progress from the dark old days when something like 20% of 18 rated films were being cut, and for that to be brought to an end exactly when the internet is close to making organisations like the BBFC obsolete is far more obscene than anything contained in Murder Set Pieces. Adults simply have the right to chose what they watch - end of. The BBFC needs to increasingly recognise that is the mood of the public, not yet more futile acts of cutting and banning in order to "protect" either the vulnerable or children.

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Friday, December 21, 2007 

Yet more on Manhunt 2.

The BBFC have found a judge willing to let their ridiculous argument against personal responsibility justify a judicial review:

British censors have won the right to fight the UK release of video game Manhunt 2 in the High Court.

A judge accepted the British Board of Film Classification's argument that the game had been approved for release on a misinterpretation of the law.


The BBFC said that the VAC had been guilty of "a very serious misdirection of law" on the question of harm.

The judge said: "I have taken into account the high public interest in the possibility of harm to children."

Mr Justice Wyn Williams ruled the Board had an arguable case that should go to a full hearing.

Both sides agreed that the game was not suitable for children, but the BBFC argued that if given a certificate for release, it could still end up in the hands of minors

Now this is interesting. The BBFC's original decision to reject Manhunt 2 made clear that

to issue a certificate to Manhunt 2, on either platform, would involve a range of unjustifiable harm risks, to both adults and minors.

The BBFC seems now to have abandoned their specious argument that its content could harm adults, and fell back on the always persuasive but bankrupt claim that even if the game was released at 18, it could still get into the hands of children. This is the exact same argument as used at the time of the video nasty moral panic: Mary Whitehouse and co didn't want to stop adults from choosing what to watch, they only wanted to protect the children, but to do so would involve err, stopping anyone from being able to make that choice. The compromise measure was the Video Recordings Act, but by then some of the "nasties" had already been prosecuted under the fundamentally illiberal Obscene Publications Act, where the jury only had to find that whatever was brought before the court had the potential to "deprave and corrupt", and in James Ferman, there was a censor who was more than prepared to cut and ban the "trash", but who came out in defense of "art", such as Crash.

While the BBFC should always consider whether films and video games that are made for adults have the potential to "harm" children, it should never be used as a reason for banning either from adult consumption. We don't ban alcohol or cigarettes because they're especially damaging to children; we age restrict them, and it's up to the retailers and parents to ensure that they don't get into their hands, not the manufacturers or in this case, the BBFC's. The BBFC's final comment on refusing Manhunt 2 a certificate is still telling:

...and accordingly that its availability, even if statutorily confined to adults, would be unacceptable to the public.”

The BBFC has of course no evidence whatsoever to prove this would be the case. It instead took into account the reaction it
imagined that its certification would receive, especially considering the Daily Mail and certain politicians' opportunism following the Stefan Pakeerah murder. It would have never been so cowardly about almost any film: video games are however now subject to the same fallacious moral panic that horror films were in the early 80s.

There is one silver lining for Rockstar:

The BBFC said it would pay any damages that developer Rockstar might suffer as a result of the stay, if the Board loses its legal challenge.

I still can't see any other decision than one against the BBFC in an actual review; Rockstar still might yet get its revenge.

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Monday, December 17, 2007 

BBFC still gunning for Manhunt 2.

Going from one organisation clutching at straws to another, the BBFC is to seek a judicial review into the Video Appeals Committee's decision that Manhunt 2 should not have been banned:

The BBFC is applying for a judicial review of the decision by the Video Appeals Committee to overturn the Board’s rejection of the video game Manhunt 2. The Board’s challenge also seeks suspension of the Committee’s decision that the game should be classified.

The BBFC is contesting the VAC judgement because in the Board's view, it is based on an approach to harm which is an incorrect interpretation of the Video Recordings Act. The VAC judgement, if allowed to stand, would have fundamental implications with regard to all the Board’s decisions, including those turning upon questions of unacceptable levels of violence. If the VAC’s decision is suspended, then the game will not be classified before the outcome of the Judicial Review.

There is again the precedent set by the legalising of hardcore pornography. In that case the VAC decided that the BBFC should have awarded R18 certificates to 7 submitted works, with the BBFC applying for a judicial review. They lost, with the high court finding that the VAC's decision had been correct, resulting in the BBFC shaking up its guidelines for R18s and in effect legalising the sale of hardcore pornography over the counter, or at least in sex shops.

One suspects that the BBFC are now playing for time. Last week, when the VAC decision was announced, Rockstar were very optimistically hoping that the game still might be on shelves by Christmas. The BBFC's clutching at the "harm" issue is revealing in this regard: as far as I can tell, no film has been cut for its depiction of violence itself, as opposed to sexual violence at 18 since the BBFC published the landmark findings of its survey of public opinions back in 2000. The survey overwhelmingly found that at 18 more or less anything apart from sexual violence and things already legislated against, such as animal cruelty, was acceptable to the public. Pseudo-documentariesdepicting real violence have been banned, and there's also the case of the cutting of the "Hanging Song" from a Ren and Stimpy cartoon which rightly disturbed and vexed its fans, with the BBFC apparently saying that it would be cut even if it were to be classified at 18, but apart from I can't recall any such cuts which would fall under that definition. Seeing as the violence in Manhunt 2 is strictly physical rather than sexual, I can't see how they have any chance of winning the review.

This is in actual fact an old BBFC ploy. Back in the bad old days under James Ferman, the organisation often did its best to be as unwieldy as possible. If a certain distributor wanted to get a "challenging" film to be certified, i.e, one likely to fall victim to Ferman's scissors and editing technique, it would often accept any recommendations and slashes made after the first viewing rather than attempt to do things its own way, mainly due to how when it came to submit a more commercial venture, such as a family film for half-term, the BBFC would often delay issuing a certificate to ensure it missed the most profitable time. This old petulance seems to have been resurrected in the 21st century because of Rockstar's attitude towards the BBFC's ban, as evidenced by their contempt for the decision shown at the VAC appeal. Unlike films and DVDs, games tend to age quickly, especially one like Manhunt 2 which has already been criticised for its relatively poor graphics. By the time this new judicial review reaches its conclusion, most of those in this country who haven't already imported it from the continent are likely to have completely forgotten about its existence.

Manhunt 2 then may as well have remained banned. Anyone for, err, Manhunt 3?

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Monday, December 10, 2007 

The witch hunt over Manhunt is over. For now.

Some very welcome news which seems to have slipped completely under the radar:

The Video Appeals Committee (VAC) announced today the outcome of the appeal by Rockstar against the BBFC’s decision to reject a modified version of the video game, Manhunt 2. The appeal has been successful with the VAC deciding four votes to three in favour of Rockstar.

For those late to the party, the BBFC previously rejected, i.e. banned, Manhunt 2, where you play as a character who escapes from an insane asylum and are able to choose how to "execute" your victims. If you want to read the whole typically convoluted storyline, it's on the Wikipedia page.

As unpleasant a game as Manhunt 2 seems (although hardly any of those actually killed in the games are "innocents", as opposed to how you can slaughter wantonly in Grand Theft Auto for example, even if it attracts the attention of the police), the decision to ban it outright more than smacked of an organisation fearing the wrath of both politicians and the Daily Mail more than out of any real justifiable concerns about its content and effects on those playing it. The original Manhunt was blamed, both by the Mail and by the mother of Stefan Pakeerah for her son's death at the hands of Warren Leblanc, despite a complete failure on the behalf of either to come with up even circumstantial evidence which would suggest he was influenced by the game. On the contrary, the actual evidence presented at his trial suggested that Leblanc's only motive was robbery, with both the police and judge in agreement. To make matters just that little bit more shambolic and laughable, the game itself was found in Pakeerah's bedroom, not Leblanc's, although Pakeerah's mother argued Leblanc had lent it to him, but that still rather undermined her argument for restricting games from adults when she couldn't control what her own son was playing. When some stores subsequently removed it from the shelves, the sales elsewhere predictably went up.

The decision to refuse the game a certificate has also came at a time when exceptionally gory horror films have once again been in the ascendancy, without any of them being subjected to even cuts, and quite rightly so. The argument against the games is made that in films you aren't controlling the person doing the slaying, while in games that you are, although even this has become blurred when films like the Devil's Rejects feature serial-killers as anti-heroes, but the very research recently commissioned by the BBFC found that gamers almost unanimously rejected any link between games and real-life violence, with all of them getting involved in the game role and finding film violence to be far removed from that which takes place in games, even with the huge graphical advances in recent years.

More than anything, the BBFC's own guidelines declare that at 18 "concerns will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to chose their own entertainment." The original Manhunt and the entire series of Grand Theft Auto games have all been passed at 18 without any cuts. The simple fact ought to be that when a game or film is rated as an 18 the concerns about the effects on children, although they should be considered, ought to be a more minor factor than that of the chilling effects of cutting some of its content or banning it outright. It shouldn't be the responsibility of the BBFC or indeed the makers of the game if it gets into the hands of children; the retailers and parents themselves, who are often badgered into buying age restricted games by their children in the first place, are the ones who ought to be held accountable.

It should also be remembered that the reform of the BBFC in the 80s was down to the moral panic over video nasties, a debacle which is now rightly looked back upon with dismay and bemusement. It took almost two decades before the censorship regime in this country finally came into line with our more enlightened European and American cousins, although countries such as Germany are still cautious, while the American MPAA
has rightly came in for trenchant criticism, especially over the NC-17 certificate and how most theatres won't show films that receive that classification. Films there can however be released "unrated" on DVD without any need for them to be classified. Even now hardcore pornography, despite being available in abundance on the internet, is still shut off behind the closed, dimly lit windows of sex shops, whilst it is often cut to ribbons by the BBFC over some of its more dubious content.

It was in fact the appeal to the Video Appeals Committee by two distributors of hardcore back in 1999 which finally led to its legalisation after the committee found in their favour. Their decision this time round in favour of Manhunt 2 is to be applauded, and although the BBFC is "considering its position", it seems that it will have to allow the modified, "censored" version to be sold with an 18 certificate. The backlash, which will doubtless come once the decision has been noticed, will most likely be fierce, but the VAC has undoubtedly today struck a blow against both censorship and the last rump of the "moral majority".

The biggest losers might be gamers themselves caught up in the hype. The reviews have been mostly mixed, with one being particularly withering:

The kills are censored. The graphics are five years old. The story sucks. The gameplay is full of glitches, and there is no payoff in the endings, just an excuse to make a sequel. Why did we care about this game again?

The BBFC didn't even martyr a good game, which the Grand Theft Autos unanimously are.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007 

Hunting for witches in Manhunt.

Before getting into why the BBFC have decided to ban Manhunt 2, it's worth mentioning just how an organisation that was previously the most draconian censorship body, most likely in the Western world (Germany is probably now even more strict than the BBFC is) has managed, without legislation and with the ever scandalising and moral panic purveyors in the tabloids watching their every move, to reform itself. The great turning point was the retirement of James Ferman as director - ironically enough, being the chief butcher of the organisation and more feminist than his female colleagues were in his views on films' portrayal of sexual violence - over his realisation that in order to stop the real hardcore pornographic material becoming legal, he had to give into the slightly softer variety, which nevertheless sparked the tabloids into mass outrage.

To be fair to Ferman, there is probably now a revisionist account to be written of his years at the helm of the BBFC which takes into consideration the fact that he probably did the best he could, faced with the "video nasties" moral panic and later the Bulger killing, erroneously linked by the judge in the case to films which there is no evidence to suggest the boys ever saw, in helping to stop both politicians and the media from demanding even more chilling intrusion into what adults decided to watch in their own homes. He was one of those who lobbied furiously against the opportunist attempts by David Alton to effectively ban all 18-rated films from being released on video in the aftermath of the Bulger trial, something which looking back, only 13 years on, seems almost beyond belief, considering how close it came to fruition.

Even so, within a year of Ferman leaving, films that had previously never been available since their original theatrical release, purely because of his own views on them, such as the Exorcist and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, were passed uncut. This was swiftly followed in 2000 by the BBFC's failure to overturn a decision by the Video Appeals Committee which gave an R18 certificate to 7 hardcore titles, which it decided not to appeal against, finally leading to the full legalisation of hardcore pornography, if only available from licensed sex shops. The same year also brought a step-change in its guidelines for films as a whole, after research commissioned by the BBFC overwhelmingly showed that adults unsurprisingly didn't want to be limited in what they could watch. No longer was extreme violence or gore liable to be cut, unless it was either of a sexual nature, which has always troubled the organisation for good reason, or involving the breaking of the law as it stands, such as animal cruelty. Since then only a few mainstream films have been cut, with Ichi the Killer and Baise-Moi falling foul of the sexual violence guidelines, for instance, while a decent number of the former "video nasties" have been passed entirely uncut, some even with a 15 certificate. The organisation now mainly finds itself cutting R18s for some of their more dubious content, even though it's completely consensual, something which understandably irks its distributors.

All of which makes it all the more surprising the Manhunt 2 has been refused a certificate. The only recent titles to have been entirely refused a certificate instead of being cut have been prurient, real-death displaying documentaries, such as Terrorists, Killers and other Wackos and Traces of Death, extreme bondage/S&M material like Severe Punishment, and "Women in Prison" exploitation flicks, Jess Franco's "Women in Cellblock 9" being the last to be banned. Objectionable as all those decisions are, none comes close to the lack of legitimate reasons, or at least lack of honest reasons for why Manhunt 2 has been rejected.

Despite all the BBFC's carefully considered and detailed arguments for rejecting the game, it's almost impossible to believe that they weren't at least slightly influenced by the case of Stefan Pakeerah. Pakeerah was murdered by Warren Leblanc, according to the police, judge, and the evidence presented at his trial out of a motive of robbery. It was only after Leblanc pleaded guilty that Pakeerah's family, especially his mother, Giselle alleged that rather than Leblanc, Manhunt was to blame. There has never been any even circumstantial evidence presented that Leblanc was influenced by the game, let alone that he was obsessed with it. The game, rather than being found in Leblanc's possession, was in fact found in Pakeerah's bedroom. His mother says that Leblanc lent it to him, which rather undermines her argument that young people shouldn't have access to such games, seeing as she wasn't able to impose her own authority over her own son, let alone those of others. Predictably, despite some retailers removing it from their shelves, those that refused to do so reported a rise in sales.

The damage however had already been done, with the tabloids, long since having moved on from attacking films, now turning their sights on video games. Keith Vaz, another opportunist, attempted to resurrect his long dead political career by campaigning against such games, without showing even the slightest knowledge of what he was talking about. The furore, along with that directed towards Grand Theft Auto and the publicity surrounding its Hot Coffee mini-game which had been discarded in the code only to be rediscovered, inspired the BBFC to commission its own research into them, which very recently released.

The research is hardly a ringing endorsement of the BBFC's subsequent decision to reject Manhunt. Among its key findings were:

younger games players are influenced to play particular games by peer pressure and word of mouth, but negative press coverage for a game will significantly increase its take up;

violence in games, in the sense of eliminating obstacles, is built into the structure of some games and is necessary to progress through the game. It contributes to the tension because gamers are not just shooting, they are vulnerable to being shot and most gamers are concentrating on their own survival rather than the damage they are inflicting on the characters in the game. While there is an appeal in being able to be violent without being vulnerable to the consequences which similar actions in real life would create, gamers are aware that they are playing a game and that it is not real life;

gamers are aware that violence in games is an issue and younger players find some of the violence upsetting, particularly in games rated for adults. There is also concern that in some games wickedness prevails over innocence. However, most gamers are not seriously concerned about violence in games because they think that the violence on television and in films is more upsetting and more real;

gamers are virtually unanimous in rejecting the suggestion that video games encourage people to be violent in real life or that they have become desensitised. They see no evidence in themselves or their friends who play games that they have become more violent in real life. As one participant said: “I no more feel that I have actually scored a goal than I do that I have actually killed someone. I know it’s not real. The emphasis is on achievement.”;

non-games playing parents are concerned about the amount of time their children, particularly boys, spend playing games and would prefer that they were outside in the fresh air. However, they are more concerned about the ‘stranger-danger’ of internet chat rooms. While the violence in games surprises them and concerns some of them, they are confident that their children are well balanced enough to not be influenced by playing violent games;

All of which they probably well knew before they bothered to commission proper research, but it identifies just how video game violence, despite the player being the one perpetrating it, is viewed differently from that in films, which is both far more realistic and troubling than anything yet to be portrayed in any game.

Manhunt is undoubtedly a violent, unpleasant game which as the BBFC describe in their justification, has few of the relenting or redeeming qualities which the likes of Grand Theft Auto have, where senseless, wanton violence quickly results in you getting arrested and failing certain missions, while the non-linear content of the game means that it's not all kill, rob and sex. The graphics have probably been improved considerably since the original was released, but a video on YouTube shows the type of violence which it contains, and there's very little that's overly gory, detailed or glorifies the content; if anything it just looks silly. The decision to reject it has to be put into the context of how the undercurrent, especially in recent horror films, is to be completely unrelenting and grueling in their depiction of violence, with the emphasis on nihilism, even giving the killers in films such as the Devil's Rejects anti-hero status, all with the films being passed uncut at 18 and with few critics other than the Daily Mail's hack Tookey getting out of their pram about them. Why should adults who can make their own decisions to watch those films not be allowed to play similar games? The original Manhunt was 18, and if parents did their jobs properly and didn't give in to their kids' demands to buy them such age-restricted games, there wouldn't have been any panic in the first place.

The saddest thing is that as the BBFC's own research pointed out, gamers are now more likely to be intrigued and delight in its banned status, importing copies from Europe where it will be easily available, as I'm reliably informed that the first one wasn't up to much. Why martyr such a unsatisfying game because of the well-intentioned but utterly wrong cries of the tabloids and a grieving mother? The BBFC should let us know.

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