British film board rejects 'disturbing' sexual torture film
Is Obscenity Law undermined by extreme porn?
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) have issued a rare rejection notice for a "disturbing and realistic" DVD called NF713.
A spokeswoman for the BBFC denied that the decision was in any way influenced by the new extreme porn law, adding that they did not feel it breached that legislation in any way. Opponents of that law immediately questioned whether the government had not now created an impossible legal position, according to which certain material that was not illegal to possess was nonetheless illegal to publish.
There is no doubt that NF713, directed visually by international photographer, China Hamilton, is a difficult film. According to the BBFC, it "takes the form of an extended sequence in which a man tortures a woman psychologically, physically and sexually. The woman is bound and restrained throughout. The man employs a variety of techniques ranging from invasive questioning about her body and her sexual life to genital torture with forceps and electricity, makeshift waterboarding, beatings and forced urination. The torture is unremitting and takes up the majority of the work’s 73 minute running time".
The BBFC deem it to be a "sex work", and defending their decision to reject it last Friday, they explain that their strict policy is not to issue classification to such works if they depict non-consensual sexual activity (whether real or simulated). They further point out that they are bound by law – the Video Recordings Act 1984 – not to issue a classification where there is a risk of potential harm from individuals viewing a work.
In this context, a ruling by Mr Justice Mitting in January 2008 is key. This "makes clear that harm is not to be interpreted narrowly as behavioural harm, but may also include more insidious risks, and the Board follows this approach in having regard to, for instance, moral harm and possible desensitisation."
Although this stipulation is most commonly thought of as applying to adult films, they have twice in the last year had to ask for changes to U-rated films on the grounds that they depicted behaviour that, if copied, could result in harm. One instance was in Bee Movie, featuring the voice of Jerry Seinfeld, which involved an incident where an aerosol was set alight.
We spoke to Niki Flynn, who plays the role of NF713 in the film, and also to China Hamilton, recently awarded the accolade of the "World’s leading photographer of the erotic". Flynn describes herself as a "spanking model" and a "BDSM actor". She concedes that many of the projects that she is involved in may be viewed by the general public as being about sexual arousal, but this is not the point.
She is interested in dark psychological places: in this instance, she and director Michael Stamp set out to explore the Stockholm Syndrome. This theme is touched on in mainstream films such as 1984 and explored in depth in Closet Land, in which Alan Rickman plays a a sadistic interrogator. The difference was a desire to make the experience as realistic as possible.
As she writes in her blog on the episode: "I was wrecked by the end of the shoot, still crying after the cameras stopped rolling".
There is clearly no meeting of minds. Both she and China Hamilton are adamant that this is not a film about sex or intended for sexual arousal.
Cataloguing a list of films that include unpleasant images of torture – from Hostel to V for Vendetta – China Hamilton describes the BBFC as "daft as a brush".
He says: "The BBFC has a long history of passing for release unpleasant films that boast of their extreme and violent content.
"The problem was that we did too good a job: this film was intended to be a disturbing and realistic film about a serious subject. The narrative echoes what was accepted with little difficulty in Closet Land, which also included extreme images of torture. The only difference lies in the extent to which the victim remains fully clothed and the fact that the BBFC seem to equate nudity with sexual arousal."
Both he and Niki Flynn are adamant that the BBFC position is hypocritical. Flynn, in particular, is scathing of an attitude that, she says, regularly permits depictions of male torture, but which sees women as somehow fragile and in need of extra protection. This attitude is "patronising and insulting".
The BBFC rejects this accusation, arguing that they are not imposing moral judgements, but merely applying the law. Their experience, gained from viewing hundreds of films every year, gives them a very clear insight into what constitutes material that is sexual in nature and potentially harmful. Their spokeswoman conceded that for a select audience attuned to BDSM values, this film may not be seen as sexual – but the role of the BBFC is to consider the likely effect of the film on a range of audiences, including young people with a far less developed view of sex.
She further pointed out that outright rejection was an extremely rare occurrence.
One last observation by Niki Flynn seems set to cause future mischief. The government, with its legislation on extreme porn, has now put in place a legal system whereby what is not obscene in law if viewed by an individual is obscene if published or put out on DVD. Far from restricting the availability of extreme material, the government may have just undermined existing laws on Obscenity.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice was unconvinced.
The producers of NF713 now have 42 days in which to appeal. As far as we are aware, they have not yet decided whether or not to do so. ®