Director Sari Braithwaite
Australia (63 mi) 2018 d: Sari Braithwaite
Not nearly as provocative as it might have been, as the archivist director’s overly detached, narrative commentary is dry and academic instead of emotionally compelling or thought provoking. At issue are the nearly 2000 clips viewed by the director at Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) that have been officially removed from films by the Australian Film Censorship Board from the period 1951 to 1978. Surprisingly, we never hear a single word from any of the censors justifying their position, or explaining how they decided what was considered “too offensive,” though we imagine overly repressed bureaucrats sitting alone in a darkened room cutting scenes using the most rigidly puritanical criteria, instead the director serves as the film narrator and reads aloud from their written guidelines, “likely to be offensive to the people of a friendly nation.” But as she pieces together these never-before-seen clips, she shifts the focus from the censors to the viewers, challenging the viewers to make up their own minds. Coming in at just over an hour, with viewers flooded by these supposedly offensive clips, one can imagine the meticulous process of watching each and every one of them, which must have been a laborious process, as even an edited film grows tiresome after a while. For those interested, a complete list of all the films containing censored material is listed at the end credits. Suffice to say, it’s an unusual list. While her initial inclination was to liberate what was considered forbidden territory, thinking this would be “A celebration of democracy, a celebration of cinema,” but what she discovered was hardly that, as much of it was crudely offensive to anyone’s taste, too disturbing to even show in an experimental film. In the director’s own words from The Guardian ([CENSORED] was meant to celebrate freedom. Instead it exposes ...):
But after months on end watching this collection, I found I was wearily dragging myself into work. It was a grind, a chore, a commitment to make a film I wished I’d never started.
The censor’s act of cutting a scene from a film strips it of context and its story. It does not matter if it is a good or bad film, an important or forgettable film; the act of cutting a scene, dislocating action from story, is violent. To my surprise, watching these redacted scenes didn’t feel liberating – it felt suffocating.
It was initially chaotic – almost meaningless stimulus on loop. But then I started to identify the patterns, the repetition, the tropes and I found something deeply disturbing. These stray fragments were screaming an unexpected message – and it wasn’t about government censorship. I was drowning in an archive of a dominating, violent gaze: a male gaze. And I hated it.
Out of all the clips viewed by Braithwaite, only one was made by a woman, a rather innocuous bedroom scene from Agnès Varda’s LE BONHEUR (1962), where it strains the imagination figuring out how this was included, but nonetheless, there it is. The rest, particularly when seen in repetition, have familiar characteristics which have more to say about the peculiar interests of men, which at first feels rather humorous, but when seen collectively, begins to grow more and more obnoxious, suggesting these are really dark male fantasies meant to titillate or excite, viewed as entertainment, such as brutalizing women for pleasure, or a roomful of men leering at women dance or get undressed, macho fight scenes that exploit the idea of hurting or killing others, women stripping under less than desirable circumstances yet pretending to love it, the same with exaggerated sex scenes, all accentuating female pleasure in the act itself, which is playing to the male audience, where scene after scene, when viewed on repeat, becomes more and more uncomfortable to watch. Watching women get slapped a dozen times in a row both by recognizable stars and some nameless men is hardly entertaining or fun to watch, as one recoils in disgust. The same with repeated rape sequences, or even guys getting stabbed, pulverized, and beaten into submission. It paints a one-sided picture of gratuitous violence, much of it against women, which is downright nasty, where it’s easy to simply look away from the screen after a while, as it becomes repulsive and overly repetitive. Certainly some of the less offensive stuff can be humorous, where only an absurd criteria was in place, often making no sense whatsoever, such as an educational film about childbirth where the birth itself was censored. But the real thrust of the film is that little has changed in the past fifty years, as an industry still dominated by men continues to cater almost exclusively to masculine voices. The obvious question becomes, where is the moral outrage? The endlessly repeating content of this film drives that outrage, where the issue isn’t whether or not it should be censored, by why producers and directors have found these scenes entertaining for literally decades on end.
Only three films are explored in any detail, Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA (1966), Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculine Feminine (in 15 Acts) (Masculin Féminin: 15 faits précis) (1966), and D.A. Pennebaker’s DON’T LOOK BACK (1967). In Bergman’s film, part of a long monologue spoken by Bibi Andersson is so intense that it borders on pornography, though there is no accompanying visual depiction, yet the film explores a “violence of the spirit” (according to Susan Sontag), which makes much less sense if the spoken violence is omitted. In the Godard film, it’s a portrayal of youth and sex, yet the film was prohibited to persons under age 18 in France, “the very audience it was meant for,” according to Godard. While in Pennebaker’s film, an extended sequence of Bob Dylan’s assault of profanity directed towards a specific individual was cut, even though the two reconciled in the same sequence, all of which was cut, citing “counterculture deviance.” What was most striking to the director was the “sheer unoriginality of what was being deleted.” From Hollywood B-movies to the avant garde, it appears that the censors didn’t distinguish between trashy exploitive films and films of significance, as some of the most influential directors are represented, including scenes of actress Catherine Deneuve hallucinating from fear and sexual repression in Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (1965), or the opening scene from Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (1960), where a helicopter transports a statue of Christ over the city of Rome, which the Catholic Church condemned, claiming it was a blasphemous representation of Jesus Christ, calling it shameful. Yet if truth be told, most of what was considered offensive in the 50’s and 60’s would barely raise an eyebrow today, where the graphic violence and sadistic gore that is accepted in mainstream cinema from directors like Park Chan-wook or Lars von Trier, for instance, is far more disturbing, and we never hear Braithwaite’s opinion on female directors like Catherine Breillat whose cruel treatment of women in her films would likely be considered misogynist if directed by a man. Again from Braithwaite:
My film is not about the female gaze – this archive could not be redeemed or restored in that way. Neither the violence of censorship, nor the violence of these film-makers, could be made right through its re-presentation. But I wanted us to sit in the trouble of what this archive means, and how this history speaks to us today. I am a female film-maker exploiting the male gaze – [CENSORED] makes this male gaze so visible, so difficult, that it can no longer merely wash over us.
Surprisingly, this film was awarded the Gold Hugo (1st place) in the Documentary Competition at the 2018 Chicago Film Festival, with the jurors indicating:
The Gold Hugo goes to [Censored] for a film that stitches together decades-old archival fragments of male violence into something shockingly contemporary, a film that distills the essence of a cinematic patriarchy through tightly woven montage that is unflinching, difficult to watch, yet essential.