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Censoring Shakespeare

by Lindsay Shelton
Andrew Armitage is right when he says that New Zealand’s censorship laws are “an absurd hangover.”

The owner of Aro Video is looking back to the days when video stores were seen as “sleazy”. In the DomPost today he says correctly that today’s state censorship system hangs around the neck of the struggling video industry like an albatross. A costly albatross.

And censorship isn’t only absurd for video stores. It’s equally unnecessary for the annual film festivals.

Its absurdity can be readily demonstrated by the fact that New Zealand censors claim the right to censor the work of William Shakespeare – but only when it’s on film.

A US film production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing had to be vetted and approved by the New Zealand censors before it could be shown in last year’s film festival. It was rated as an M, which means they’d decided it was suitable “only for mature audiences 16 years and over.”

A 2011 British film production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was also rated M by our censors, with the addition of gratuitous comments: “violence, offensive language.”

A different version of the same play got a different censorship rating when it arrived here this year – a filmed record of a stage production at the Donmar Warehouse in London: “M violence and content that may disturb.” The censors had apparently changed their minds about the offensive nature of Shakespeare’s language.

This year’s cinema release of the [British] National Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s King Lear (directed by Sam Mendes) was given a G certificate by our censors. By the time it got to Havelock North, the rating was being advertised as an M. And New Zealand cinemas are now advertising a screening of a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry IV Part 11, which our censors have rated G. 190 minutes – take the kids!

You’d think the censors would be losing sleep about the National Theatre production of Medea, due to be screened here in October. She kills her children? They’ll ban it? But no – its advertising says it’s exempt from censorship. A different standard for Euripides, apparently.

According to the Department of Internal Affairs, the view that society may be harmed by the availability of certain types of material was enshrined by statute in New Zealand during the 1860s and remains generally accepted to this day. The Department describes the absurd censorship regime which it enforces:

The Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 mandates the censorship of ‘publications’ in a number of media. Although the Act itself is administered by the Ministry of Justice, the Department’s Censorship Compliance Unit is responsible for a range of censorship activities, the largest being enforcement… The Act mandates the censorship of ‘publications’. These include, but are not limited to: films, videos, books, electronic computer files, magazines, photographs, sound recordings, billboards, T-shirts, DVDs, CD-Roms and other computer-based media. Objects such as carvings or statues which do not carry some form of depiction or writing are not considered to be publications. Television and radio broadcasting are not included under the Act.

Victoria University refers to a much later piece of legislation when it warns students that New Zealand censorship applies in academia too:

The [university] Library collects a range of audiovisual materials including educational material; feature films; documentaries; music; DVDs; filmed opera, plays and music performances … … All audiovisual materials must comply with the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 and the Films, Videos, and Publications Amendment Act 2005, and display the same ratings information as for feature films.”

Andrew Armitage says: “Can you imagine the public outrage if books were subject to being read by an authority before being allowed to be put on shelves? It’s reached that level of absurdity.”

The same question could be asked about arts festivals. “Can you imagine the public outrage if performances at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts were subject to being viewed and approved by an authority before they were allowed to be staged?” But that’s the situation that’s faced every year by the New Zealand International Film Festival. All the titles selected by director Bill Gosden have to be viewed and approved by the censor before the festival can show them. Absurd? Indeed. And the festivals and video stores pay a large fee for the compulsory process.

After more than four decades, you’d think the censor would have realised that film festival audiences have reached a certain level of maturity and sophistication. But no. The system feels obliged to warn them about language, and sex, and scenes which the censors decide are disturbing. Here are some absurd examples from this year’s programme:

Housebound (a New Zealand horror film) “M Horror scenes, offensive language”
The Wonders (Italian film, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes) “M offensive language”
Winter Sleep (German film, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes) “M content that may disturb, offensive language”
Leviathan (Russian film in competition at Cannes)”M sexual references, violence”
The Salt of the Earth (German documentary about a distinguished photographer, winner of Special Jury Prize at Cannes) “M content may disturb”
La Belle et la bete (a French classic from 1946) “Parental guidance recommended, low level violence”
Charlie’s Country (Australian film which won the best actor award at Cannes) “M violence, offensive language, drug use”
The Babadook (an Australian horror film) “M horror, violence, offensive language, sexual references”
Under the Skin (Scottish horror film) “R13 horror, violence, nudity”

Andrew Armitage is correct to point out the double standard: New Zealand’s television broadcasters are not subject to the absurd censorship laws. And neither are the many online sources of movies. When you watch films via iTunes, Amazon or Netflix or YouTube, New Zealand’s censorship laws don’t apply. But of course you should take care: if you’ve chosen a horror film, you won’t benefit from the censor’s warning that it contains horror scenes.

Censorship was even worse for the first few years of the Wellington Film Festivals. In 1975, director Michael Thornhill was a festival guest for the premiere of his discreet new Australian feature film Between Wars. The word “fuck” was used several times on the soundtrack. Censor Doug McIntosh said he had to cut the print because such a word could not be allowed in a public place. “But it’s not our print,” I told him. “You can’t cut a print which we don’t own.” He agreed to stick black tape over the soundtrack so the words wouldn’t be heard and the print wouldn’t be butchered. When the director arrived he was incensed that his freedom of expression had been interfered with, specially as the film had been shown in Australia without cuts. He climbed the ladder to the Paramount projection box and peeled the censor’s black tape off the film. When he introduced the film, he announced what he had done. The audience cheered. The four-letter words were heard. The censor said he would do us no more favours.

It was inevitable that the new film festival became involved in the fight for censorship reform. “We continue to be hampered by a law written sixty years ago, which still allows cuts to be made before Film Festival audiences can see a work of art,” I wrote. Lawyer David Gascoigne agreed to help seek changes in the law. We went to meetings of a parliamentary select committee and David proposed that a new censorship law could require the censor to consider the nature of the film as a whole, as well as the nature of the audience. After the law was passed in 1977, cuts became a thing of the past for the film festival.

Almost forty years later, more changes to the law are necessary. Censorship has passed its use-by date. And not only for film festivals.

Lindsay Shelton, the editor of wellington.scoop, was founding director of the Wellington Film Festival.