The Great Classification Debate

It is little surprise when we as Australians find that yet another film has been considered too graphically violent or sexually confronting for our apparently conservative tastes and has been refused classification. The Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) has been concerned to protect us from such aberrations as Catherine Breillat's Romance, Larry Clark's Ken Park or the confronting Baise-moi, the work of two less well-known female directors Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi. Two of these three films posed interesting challenges to the National Classification Guidelines, and lost.Romance, on the other hand, after having been initially refused classification, was subsequently given an R18+ rating by the Classification Review Board.

More recently, Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs has been allowed into cinemas carrying an R rating after the Classification Review Board overturned its original X rating. Despite some continuing uncertainties, may it tentatively be suggested that the Classification Board's view of Australian tastes is finally becoming less conservative?

At the heart of the film classification debate is the contention between preserving and promoting freedom of expression and protecting society from the "normalisation" of extreme violence and obscenity. This article surveys the classification decisions in four high-profile films from recent years.

National Classification Code

The Classification Board's code is said to give effect to the following general principles[i]: that adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want; that minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them; that everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive and that there is a need to take account of community concerns about depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence and the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner.

When giving a classification, the Board takes into account[ii]:

  1. the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults;
  2. the literary, artistic or educational merit (if any) of the film;
  3. the general character of the film including whether it is of a medical, legal or scientific character; and
  4. the persons or class of persons to or amongst whom it is published or is intended or likely to be published.

A principal challenge to this criteria is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine what the standards of morality, decency and propriety are in a heterogenous society like Australia. Few would agree that it is appropriate to bombard people with unsolicited material they may find offensive, yet where a film is restricted to an adult viewing population, it becomes difficult to see why cinema-goers should not have the choice to view whatever films they wish. Arts Law supports the idea that adults should be able to see hear and read what they want and that artists have the right to have their work seen, heard or read.

Before examining the reasons for the four decisions it is useful to note the criteria for the various classifications[iii].

Refused Classification (RC)

Films that are to be refused classification are those which:

  1. depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime or cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified; or
  2. depict, in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult, a minor who is or who looks like, a person under 16 (whether engaged or not in sexual activity); or
  3. promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence.

X rated

Films that are to be classified X are those that "contain real depictions of actual sexual activity between consenting adults in which there is no violence, sexual violence, sexualised violence, coercion, sexually assaultive language, or fetishes or depictions which purposefully demean anyone involved in that activity for the enjoyment of viewers, in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult and are unsuitable for a minor to see".

R18+ rated

These are films which are unsuitable for a minor to see. They may simulate sexual activity realistically but must not show the "real thing". They may involve nudity in a sexual context but must not include obvious genital contact.

Those that made it

Romanceand 9 Songs were allowed into cinemas carrying R18+ ratings after having initially been refused classification and classified X respectively. The majority of the Classification Board originally refused classificationto Romance due to its gratuitous depictions of actual, rather than simulated, sexual intercourse and its portrayal of sexual fetishes. The minority, however, felt the film did not deserve banishment from Australian cinemas, expressing the view that community standards were changing and that many adult viewers would not be offended by it. They espoused a free-choice model assuming that those who would be offended would choose not to view the film. In the minority's view, the fact the film's preliminary screenings were attended by audiences whose reaction was uncontroversial evidenced the fact that the film would not send everyone into a moral panic. Yet they were the minority, and at first instance, the film was refused classification.

The Review Board agreed however, with the minority, replacing the RC rating with an R18+ rating. Rejecting the gratuitous sex and perversity label imposed by the majority in the original decision, the Review Board preferred to call the film "a serious study from a feminist viewpoint of one woman's journey from emotional subservience … to personal independence and fulfilment"[iv]. The sex scenes were found to be appropriate in the context of "radical feminist cinematography'. This about-face classification decision endorses freedom of expression and an awareness that tastes differ substantially within the Australian community. Moreover, it emphasises the importance of context in the Board's decision-making process.

9 songs, a film examining the romantic and sexual relationship of a young couple, was originally given an X classification due to its "real depictions of explicit sexual activity between consenting adults". Yet the majority of the Classification Review Board found that although the sex scenes were of real sex and were "high impact', they were nonetheless "contextually relevant"[v], much like those in Romance. The film was seen to have serious intent that was likely to "resonate with a number of the film's audience" and have "artistic value' for them[vi]. This is further recognition of variations in audience tastes, and an appropriate application of section 11 (d) of the guidelines which provides that the potential audience of a work is to be taken into account.

But for every indication that Australia's classification system is getting more accepting of divergent tastes, there are other indications that classification is as unduly conservative as ever.

Those that didn't

Baise-moi and Ken Park suffered a different fate from Romance and 9 Songs. Baise-moi, the chilling tale of two young women victims of sexual violence who take their revenge on unknown men in a killing rampage, and Ken Park, an unnerving exposition of the lives of several troubled adolescents in North America, were refused classification on the grounds of extreme sexualised violence and obscenity including incest and masochistic fetishes.

Baise-moioriginally received an R18+ rating, but the Review Board subsequently refused classification in Australia on the basis of "unrelenting violence" of a sexual nature which was seen as "gratuitous" and "exploitative"[vii].

However, this film was surrounded with much controversy.  After its original classification the then Attorney General Daryl Williams took the unprecedented step of exercising his right to direct the OFLC to re-examine the classification.  It was in this political context that the film was refused classification.

Ken Parkwas refused classification on the basis of scenes depicting "child sexual abuse and sexualised violence"; incest and masochistic sexual fetishes, which were seen to offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults[viii].

Classification of films has the impact of curtailing freedom of expression and limiting the audience for an artist to screen their work. Many films labelled as "too realistically violent' or obscene by the OFLC may be reflecting the day to day existence of individuals in certain parts of the world whose circumstances film-makers have chosen to communicate. Although the OFLC has public policies which any filmmaker should become familiar with, the Baise-moi classification suggests other pressures and factors can always influence decisions.

Arts Law has concerns over what appears to be a new interest by the OFLC in the classification of video art displayed as part of an installation in a gallery.  The further broadening of the classification net has the potential to curtail artistic expression, freedom of information and the ability for artists to make their work public. 

Filmmakers of all types need to be mindful of the limitations of the current classification scheme. We are yet to see classification guidelines and decisions which appropriately address works with high artistic merit, that are not intended to be pornographic but that do not, under the current guidelines, fit neatly into any classification category. 


[i] National Classification Code, Note 2 Schedule to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995

[ii] Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 Section 11

[iii] Note 2 Schedule to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995

[iv] Classification Review Board Decision "Romance", paragraph 6.1

[v] Classification Review Board Decision "9 Songs" p7

[vi] Ibid, p7

[vii] Classification Review Board Decision "Baise-Moi", 10 May 2002

[viii] Classification Review Board Decision "Ken Park" (no page number)

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