Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another anti-censorship rant re: A Serbian Film

As I've said elsewhere online, I find it sad and wrong and offensive that the US DVD release of A Serbian Film has been subjected to self-censorship - trimmed of its most powerful images by its very own DVD label. I'm not even sure that it wouldn't be preferable to have the film banned outright, has as been done in several countries - or for it to be censored by the government (as happened in the UK, where some four minutes were chopped - the most removed from a film since the Video Nasty days, I believe). It would be, strangely, more respectful to do that than to have the DVD distributor reach in and tamper with the integrity of a film they're supposedly distributing, out of fear of potential controversy (despite the time-honoured observation that controversy usually does a film some good...). Such lack of testiticular fortitude needs to be roundly condemned; it is fundamentally an anti-art, anti-freedom of speech stance, a shameful willingness to compromise with the values of brainless conservatives (who might not have even NOTICED the film, for fucksake!). Either distribute the film uncut, or leave it to someone who has the balls to do it - boo, hiss, to (hilariously misnamed) label Invicible for copping out, dropping the ball, failing one of the more interesting horror films I've seen in the last few years. (They also have the audacity to slap the word "unrated" on the DVD box, which normally would imply "uncensored," which is so clearly not the case here).

None of my dismay stopped me, however, from picking up a copy of the DVD (it's in stock at Videomatica). I want a legitimate DVD, for one (without the word "Screener" written across the top, as is the case with the version on torrent sites); I wanted to see if there were any extras (none whatsofuckingever), and I wanted to see firsthand exactly what has been cut, for my own eyes, so I could write a pissed-off blogpost about it. Welcome to it.

For those who don't know, A Serbian Film deals with a retired pornstar who is lured back to work in a mysterious "art porn" film where he is not told what he will be doing. The director, Vukmir, is a former child psychologist with connections to the Serbian state. When Milos finally discovers that he has unwittingly entered into a conspiracy to produce (spoilers follow!) a vicious, pedophilic, incestuous snuff film about the Serbian family unit, he is rendered helpless by a massive dose of bovine aphrodisiac, and goes, as the filmmakers wish, violently out of control; he only discovers what he has done in flashback, afterwards, with the help of videos he finds as he attempts to reconstruct his lost time.

Two scenes have been predictably damaged: the "newborn porn" scene - where Vukmir plays some of his work for the just-drugged Milos - has been trimmed so that we do not see the baby come out of the mother's vagina and don't see the man pressing it to his crotch. We hear the baby's cries, but the CGI child is not even shown on screen, with most of the scene focusing on Milos' face as he watches, or the reactions of the woman to giving birth. Later in the film, when Milos, deranged on said bull viagra, is tricked into fucking his young son, again, images are removed - not from the actual sex scene, where his son is hooded, under a blanket, and thus completely hidden from view (and we're led to believe it's another underaged character in the film, a teenaged girl), but from the aftermath, the "moment of realization" where the hood on his son's head is removed and Milos realizes what he has done.

The censorship of these scenes is utterly pointless and wrong, insofar as:

1. It is clear watching the film that, good as the special effects are in the first scene, they ARE special effects - that we are OBVIOUSLY not witnessing a real baby being born or raped or such.  It is also clear that in the second scene, the actor playing Milos son has not been put anywhere close to harm's way. No actual child abuse takes place in the film - this is the stuff of art, not porn.

2. While the idea of child abuse is significant to the film, it is clearly and consistently presented both as metaphor (for conditions in Serbia, where, according to the filmmakers, people are "fucked from birth"), as rage-filled political agitation, and as somewhat blackly-humoured horror; while one might feel outrage or disgust or sadness, no "prurient value" can be had from such images. No one who wanted to masturbate to child porn or incest porn or such would pick this film, given what's available online; by censoring the film, we're not preventing dangerous people from getting their hands on dangerous material, but from normal people getting their hands on an admittedly extreme, but deliberate and thoughtful work of film art.

3. Further, these scenes already have been presented in a fairly tasteful way by the director, insofar as it is possible to do so; even in the uncut version that circulates online, for instance, we see the baby-raper from the back, and while we understand what he's doing, it's not shown explicitly.

4. While censoring the newborn scene is thus pretty pointless, censoring the second scene does great damage to the emotional impact of the film. While the audience understands where the film is going, what we are robbed of is Milos' moment of realization, and thus the whole impact of the scene is muddled; cued for it (and not necessarily understanding that what we're watching has been censored, since it is made to look as seamless as possible), we actually WAIT for the moment, essentially the climax of the film, and it never comes. By thus lessening the horror of Milos' discovery, we sap the film of much of its force, lessen our understanding of his total emotional devestation, and sabotage his motivation for his subsequent actions, not understanding exactly what we've been seeing until AFTER many of these actions have played out. Invincible lessens the force of the film's rage, and makes the perverse suggestion that showing a child being raped is somehow BETTER if it is NOT made horrifying! If a film is going to use as a metaphor a father unknowingly raping his son, I want it to be as horrifying an image as possible; such things ARE horrifying, that's the whole damned point!

5. And despite the censorship, the ideas are still retained - we can figure out eventually what both scenes are about. So the ideas are still there, they've just had their emotional impact muted and their presentation made a little more confusing. It's like we're in the grip of some pre-civilized dread of the power of images, that it's the images, and not the ideas, that are the real problem. (Maybe the DVD distributors are superstitious about having their photos taken, too, lest their souls be stolen?). But how, exactly, are such images going to harm anyone? They MIGHT attract the wrath of moralizing morons who don't care about cinema or believe in the value of free speech, who want to protect us from ourselves, but WHO CARES WHAT SUCH PEOPLE THINK ANYHOW? Should filmmakers' neuter their own films, restrict the range of ideas and metaphors they represent in film, so as to placate a handful of tongue-clucking busybodies? Shouldn't morally responsible grown ups (like the makers of A Serbian Film or its admirers) be allowed to communicate unimpeded with each other without fearing the intrusion of such people? Apparently Invincible doesn't think so. What a shameful failure.

A final note of interest is to see what the DVD distributors don't censor. While two scenes involving children are chopped up, there are two scenes of violence against women and one particularly outlandish scene of violence against a man that are left, as far as I can tell, completely uncut. Both of the scenes involving women are far more disturbing moments, for me, since they're more plausible, less obviously metaphoric/ hyperbolic, and in fact far more pornographic than the "newborn porn" or sonfucking scene. The first is a scene where Milos (again, out-of-his-mind on bull viagra), while fucking an unsympathetic female character, is encouraged to hit her, and then, as his testosterone-induced rage builds, is handed a machete and encouraged to strike her with it - which he does, chopping off her head while continuing to thrust. It's a truly horrifying moment, since it taps into some primal, vile masculine place that actually exists - since the hormone testosterone controls both for violent and sexual behaviour, these are inextricably linked by male biology. It is far more unsettling for me as a man to watch such a moment, because it connects with something I UNDERSTAND about male sexuality - including my own; it's also possible to imagine some sick bastard out there actually getting off on this scene. Still, as far as I can tell, not a second is removed here: we get blood spurting from the woman's neck as Milos chops away, the removal of her head, the bloody, spurting stump with Milos still fucking the corpse... It's all there. A similarly disturbing moment is also left in, later in the film, where we see what is supposed to be a snuff film using another actor, who thrusts his cock in the mouth of a chained woman who has had her teeth removed and, blocking her airway with his penis, pinches her nose shut so she chokes to death. A very depressing, bleak, brutal moment - completely left intact - as is the scene where Milos, enraged, finally gets revenge on one of the "bad guys" by thrusting his erect cock into the man's eye socket and skullfucking him to death. Presumably these scenes are what account for the four minutes cut from the British release of the film, but Invincible didn't touch them, giving them that much more weight over the censored moments. Funny that brutal violence against men and women is seen as acceptable in our society, whereas violence against children carries so much more of a taboo...

What makes ANY of the censorship of the film truly a folly, however, is that the label presumably hopes to make money on this DVD - while not realizing that they're essentially, in their gormlessness, encouraging people to download the uncensored version absolutely free, from any of a dozen sites. Freedom of speech is free - but the censored version will cost you $25. Good luck with that, folks.


Anonymous said...

LOL at this. DVD carriers can do what the hell they want, especially since they're giving way to most of the profit. As for your "anti-art" statement... Really? Any allegory or metaphor contained in this movie is lost and outweighed in the orgy of horrific rape and splatter. If these filmmakers wanted to make a message accessible to a wide audience, they did an atrocious fucking job. Give me a break. You can take a shit on the floor and label it "art" but it's still going to be a pile of shit.

Allan MacInnis said...

Or you can mount a urinal and place it in a gallery...

Making a "message accessible to a wide audience" is not a necessary prerequisite for something to be a work of art. Art can be extreme and provocative and alienating - piss Christs, smashed rats*, songs about killing cops and so forth - but it's still art, and it's precisely in these extreme cases that censorship will raise its head. A Serbian Film IS extreme and provocative and will upset a lot of people. It's still a work of art.

It's not necessarily a very admirable one, mind you - the "orgy of horrific rape and splatter" is indeed over the top, and it says something that the film has attracted its largest following among horror film fanboys (I first read about it in an interview with Eli Roth). That still does not justify censoring it. And yes, "really" - since I'm fairly inured to extreme cinema, I sit and watch the film as a work of meaning-making without flinching much (and certainly not at the scenes that have been gutlessly censored - as I say, they're by far not the most upsetting images in the film). Extreme as it is, it registers as allegory for me.

DVD distributors obviously can "do what the hell they want", but that doesn't mean that they SHOULD, or that we have to passively accept it. I don't know what "they're giving way to most of the profit" means, so I can't respond further...

*...though I should add that in the case I'm speaking of, the Sniffy the Rat debacle that happened in Vancouver some years ago, I think that the work of art was in fact ultimately more successful in that it could not be completed (animal rights activists liberated the rat and formed an angry mob that pursued the artist; his pursuit - ducking behind a shop counter in fear for his safety while the mob passed - made more of an artistic statement than a smashed rat ever would have. Perhaps he intended it more as performance art all along...).

Anonymous said...

I've read interviews from the makers of it, and they said they wanted to send a clear political message, which they utterly failed at. The movie clearly hints at something extremely messed up with the two guys who wrote/directed it, perhaps just a way for them to channel their extreme psychiatric perversion. I think they label it "art" to lessen their own shame. I guess my point is if a distributor sees that some things this obscene should be left out, they can and should, especially with kids in the balance. If these guys are really pissing and moaning over people censoring their film, maybe they should mind the fact that it's not very hard to find uncensored cuts on the internet and people can still view the perverted, disgusting depictions they desire to put amongst the population.