Before you read further – what’s the first thing you think of when the concept of censorship is raised?
If you’re like most film fans, suddenly your previously non-existent hackles go up, and you get all steamy around the collar as you think of some neck tie wearing schmuck in a room in the Canberra telling you what you can and cannot see. You think of all the images that you, a taxpaying adult, should be able to see. You think, if I want to see sex and violence, I should be able to see sex and violence.
Heading into the depths of the Australian film archive that housed the almost 2,000 clips of cut footage from films that were released between 1958 and 1971, essayist and director Sari Braithwaite entered a realm she didn’t initially know how to properly engage with. After working with Australian film critic David Stratton on a short film about Swedish cinema, discovered the grand trove of footage. Initially, she assumed she could liberate the footage – release it back into the wild and allow it to be part of society again, free from the eye of that white shirt, black tie, glasses wearing hound who was working to tell the Australian society what they could and couldn’t see.
Yet, as we see through this superb documentary, there is more to the footage than simply being ‘sex and violence’. Within all of the clips, there is only one film that is directed by a woman (Agnes Varda), the rest showcasing a purely masculine perspective that aims to titillate, excite, and (most frighteningly) entertain. Devoid of context, the clips show a startling consistency with their actions – men beating up men, men beating up women, rape, sexual assault, men watching women dance or get undressed. As Braithwaite mentions through her sporadic narration, the clips alone are at times innocent, and at others startling, and when viewed in a dark archival room they lose their greater meaning – that is, the intention to entertain, and to be viewed by a crowd of strangers in a room together, participating in the art of film as the necessary role of the ‘viewer’.
What [censored] does it turn the tables on the viewer. It asks the question about how complicit we are as viewers with engaging with such content. Is the desire to see this once forbidden footage so strong that once we have access to such footage, we then lose the right to be repulsed? Braithwaite is less concerned about asking what the role of the censor is, and more interested in exploring the content of the censored footage. After all, the role of the censor has changed throughout the years, and with some of the censors notes appearing on screen, we get an understanding why the censor had removed certain images. The question of who is being respected in this scenario is raised – is the audience being respected by having such imagery being removed from their grasp? Or, is the film being respected by having the offending footage removed, and in turn sanitising the film to be a more society friendly one?
[censored] is a documentary that needed to exist now. In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, this footage needed the eye of a woman to look over it and ask, why was this removed? A birth sequence is shown in full, yet Braithwaite grapples with the notion of blurring out the mothers face to help keep her anonymity. Through her narration, she explores her role as the documentarian, and what her relationship to the subject of the footage is. Through searching for the subject, she finds out the original context of the footage. Placed amongst a series of erotic scenes, this footage of a birth was designed to titillate a theatre of men. This notion is immediately disturbing.
More disturbing is the footage we do not see. Braithwaite – usurping the role of the censor and in turn, deeming what the audience is able to watch – dictates that the footage that she scoured through and found repulsive was simply too much to be let back into society. Especially released into society under her guidance. The narration of this plays over scratched, black celluloid – the absence of a moving image suddenly allows our minds to conjure all manner of disturbing things. For me, I feared the presence of animal torture or slaughter. And yet, the moment I feared the animal torture (which, thankfully, did not come), I felt guilty for feeling comfortable during the scenes of rape and abuse.
Yet, I should not have felt comfortable at all. The whole notion of a rape scene is to disturb. Sure, our mind says ‘but it’s only a film, it’s only a film, it’s only a film’, but given the revelations of the past few years, with directors like Bernardo Bertolucci admitting that actress Maria Schneider was unaware of the brutality that would be enacted onto her during the famed sequence in Last Tango in Paris, one can only come to the conclusion that that event was not an isolated incident. The power of misogyny and masculinity is terrifying, and the dominance of men in the post war era, and in turn, the era of women’s liberation, would leave no doubt that there would have been more filmed instances of sex, or rape, or nudity, that were done under coercion. The notion that ‘if you don’t do this, you’ll never work in this town again’ was a real threat to women in that era. Yet, at no point would this have been on the mind of the censor.
I felt uncomfortable knowing that through media I have almost become complacent to the presence of sexual assault and violence against women. It still carries an impact, but its frequency in film is alarming. [censored] explores this violence in an almost protracted sequence featuring all too similar scenes of women being slapped by men. The amount of passionate kisses that are immediately followed by a massive slap to the face of the woman was truly eye opening. Part of me wondered if maybe, just maybe, instead of taking smoking out of movies, what the impact of removing violence against women from movies would be?
As Sari Braithwaite mentions in her article on The Guardian:
“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.”
[censored] does not intend to answer questions. It intends to explore what the footage was that was deemed inappropriate for Australian audiences, and in turn, intends to ask us what we as viewers – the other side of the essential equation that is the art of cinema – intend to do about what we watch. Do we sit as voyeurs, accepting that films with such violence will continue to exist? Or, do we ask for something greater from cinema?
At the end of [censored], I found myself furious, yet enlightened. Furious, because of the violence that I had witnessed, and the notion that even after the censorship had ended (with thanks to such voices as David Stratton, a staunch defender of the arts and ‘free speech’), such violence in film continued. This is a wider issue with cinema as a whole – with the grand lack of non-male voices behind the camera, the recontextualising of violence, sex and ‘adult’ content simply cannot happen on a large scale. Sure, there are filmmakers like Anna Biller, Chloé Zhao, Catherine Breillat, and Jane Campion, who are exploring themes that have so routinely only been explored by men. Yet, the shift is only gradual, and not happening quick enough. It takes a documentary like [censored] to expose how little has changed in fifty years. An industry dominated by men will continually feed and nurture masculine voices. The reparation of the male gaze, and the implementation of the female gaze cannot come soon enough.
To see the future, we need to look at the past and question what time is dragging us away from. If the answer of the future is the same as the past, then change will never happen.
Director: Sari Braithwaite