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Thursday, February 28, 2008 

The BBFC murders Murder Set Pieces.

The British Board of Film Classification, after having remarkably reformed itself over the last few years from its bad old days under James Ferman, appears to have hit a wall constructed by the very same forces that initially sparked the moral panic over video nasties. First the video game Manhunt 2 was banned, ostensibly because of its "unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone" as well as its "casual sadism", but certainly not without a campaign in the press and allegations that the first Manhunt had prompted a murder, something denied by both the judge and the police, also being taken into consideration.

Now in the aftermath of a new furore over the BBFC giving an 18 certificate to the former video nasty SS Experiment Camp, something which the media only took 18 months to notice, as well as a private members bill being introduced by Tory MP Julian Brazier, a bill that would in effect introduce state censorship, the BBFC have banned the first major film ("documentaries" such as Bumfights and Traces of Death, DVD extras and BSDM porn have been banned more recently) since Women in Cellblock 9 was rejected back in 2004.

Murder Set Pieces, directed by Nick Palumbo and submitted to the BBFC by TLA Releasing is a fairly a-typical slasher cum serial-killer flick, made independently for around $2,000,000, and features a number of well-known horror veterans, including Tony Todd and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre). While I haven't seen it, and most of the reviews of the film have been fairly critical, it seems little different from other films that have been passed uncut by the BBFC. Its main tone appears to be that it's unrelenting and highly misogynistic, with the major point of controversy that it features the killer pondering whether to murder a small child, who then releases her, with her going over and hugging her already dead mother.

Even so, it doesn't seem to have been the involvement of children in the film that so challenged the BBFC, but rather the level of the violence and what the depiction of it "portrays or encourages", something that since its 2000 consultation which established comprehensively that adults didn't want to be told what to watch at 18 outside of the concerns about sexual violence has previously not resulted in cuts, let alone a rejection.


The BBFC's long-winded justification is convoluted, difficult to understand and downright unclear:
MURDER SET PIECES is a US made feature focussing on the activities of a psychopathic sexual serial killer, who, throughout the film, is seen raping, torturing and murdering his victims. There is a clear focus on sex or sexual behaviour accompanied by non-consensual pain, injury and humiliation. Young children are among those terrorised and killed.

In making a decision as to whether a video work is suitable for classification, the Board applies the criteria set out in its current Classification Guidelines, published in 2005. These are the result of an extensive process of public consultation and research and reflect the balance of media effects research, the requirements of UK law and the attitudes of the UK public. The Board’s Guidelines clearly set out the Board’s serious concerns about the portrayal of violence, most especially when the violence is sexual or sexualised, but also when depictions portray or encourage: callousness towards victims, aggressive attitudes, or taking pleasure in pain or humiliation.

The Guidelines for the ‘18’ category requested for this video work state that such concerns 'will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment' but make clear that exceptions to this general rule may be made in certain areas, including 'where material or treatment appears to the Board to risk harm to individuals or, through their behaviour, to society – eg any detailed portrayal of violent or dangerous acts… [and that the Board] may intervene with portrayals of sexual violence which might, eg eroticise or endorse sexual assault'. Under the heading of 'Rejects', the Guidelines identify as of particular concern 'graphic rape or torture', 'portrayals of children in a sexualised or abusive context' and 'sex accompanied by non-consensual pain, injury or humiliation'.

The Board’s position that scenes of violence with the potential to trigger sexual arousal may encourage a harmful association between violence and sexual gratification is reflected in research and consistent with public opinion. It is the Board’s carefully considered view that to issue a certificate to MURDER-SET-PIECES, even if statutorily confined to adults, would involve risk of harm within the terms of the Video Recordings Act 1984, would be inconsistent with the Board’s Guidelines, and would be unacceptable to the public.

The Board considered whether the issue could be dealt with through cuts. However, given the unacceptable content features throughout, and that what remains is essentially preparatory and set-up material for the unacceptable scenes, cuts are not a viable option in this case and the work is therefore refused a classification.

They then therefore seem to be hedging their bets, mentioning everything against the guidelines and not making obvious what it is that so worried them about the film. Is it the sexual violence? Is it the overall tone? Is it worry over the callousness? Or is it violence that the BBFC thinks has the potential to trigger sexual arousal and therefore "harm"? Maybe it's all four; maybe it's none of the above and they're deeply worried about adding fuel to the fire of Brazier's bill, not to mention press reaction to the latest depraved and corrupt atrocity on DVD.
The BBFC's press release is little clearer; it emphasises the "sexual violence" and also says that due to the involvement of children states that if appealed the BBFC would have to consider whether it potentially breaches the Protection of Children Act, although seeing as the child appearing in the film's parents were in the room when it was filmed that seems doubtful.

The reason why this is so worrying is that it's the first film in a long while to be made recently to be banned, especially when you consider that it's a long while since any such "mainstream" film made recently was even cut; the last was
Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer, cut for sexual violence back in 2002. Murder Set Pieces, despite its independent origins, has been picked up for distribution in the United States by Lions Gate Films, although it was heavily cut by the MPAA to avoid a NC-17 rating. The majority of films outside of pornography now cut by the BBFC are generally 70s/80s exploitation and due to their sexual violence content.

It's also dubious because of how many other brutal and unrelenting films have been passed uncut recently: the Saw series for example after the original are little more than one long connected collection of gore sequences, with the deaths apparently worked out before the plot is; the recent remake of Halloween, a incredibly poor film, seriously ups the ante in terms of brutality and in its callous tone, while the
previous work by its director almost made heroes out of its murderers; other serial-killer flicks such as Henry and The Last Horror Movie work on similar terms to Murder Set Pieces, are far better films and have been passed uncut; and then there's even the latest addition to the Rambo series, which packs 269 kills into 90 minutes, working out at 2.59 people dying for every minute of screen time, all without the BBFC so much as batting an eyelid. Perhaps it's because they're worried Sly himself might storm into their offices.

I might of course be entirely wrong about the Brazier plan having any influence; the howls of outrage over SS Experiment Camp might have completely and rightly ignored; and the BBFC might not have taken into consideration the recent outcry about the series of horrifically violent murders by Wright, Dixie and Bellfield, as Murder Set Pieces was always likely to have trouble, and probably end up at least being cut. As with Manhunt 2 however, it increasingly appears that the BBFC is taking the cries of a few in the gutter press and in the unreconstructed wing of the Tory party (as well as the new head of the home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, who Brazier's bill would put in control of vetting the appointments of the BBFC's board) more seriously than it actually ever did. Even James Ferman, when attacked viciously in the Mail after he passed
Crash uncut, never gave in or directly pandered to newspaper opinion. He was vigorously independent to the extent that films he personally disliked remained banned for decades, but at least he could be held directly accountable for that, rather than the organisation as a whole or outside influences being responsible.

In an ideal world, the BBFC would lose its few remaining powers of censorship and instead act merely as a classifying body, but due to the history of this country that's about as likely as Jon Gaunt losing weight. The Brazier bill, which even though it doesn't have a chance of becoming law, still needs to be resisted with every breath. We've made great progress from the dark old days when something like 20% of 18 rated films were being cut, and for that to be brought to an end exactly when the internet is close to making organisations like the BBFC obsolete is far more obscene than anything contained in Murder Set Pieces. Adults simply have the right to chose what they watch - end of. The BBFC needs to increasingly recognise that is the mood of the public, not yet more futile acts of cutting and banning in order to "protect" either the vulnerable or children.

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This is why im worried about the outcome of that report into video games - if it does recommend that BBFC rate every game im sure we will see a few more getting banned like Manhunt 2

The thing is, like with everything else you "ban", it doesn't actually do anything. Piracy is actually fuelled by censorship in that it thrives off of supply and demand levels that occur, and because of the interest a censorship actually gives to usually sub-par games and films.

And with the internet it's not as if anyone has to look very hard for any of these things. While modding your games console is a risk it's not a severe one, and it's as easy as punch to unlock your DVD players now. All it takes is ordering a game or film from a country less bothered about controlling what its citizens watch or downloading it from illegal sources.

It's such a futile act the BBFC are doing, though I have to echo the sentiments that this could be to stave off giving more power to the Brazier bill. Ultimately the whole thing with bill is typical of this government and needs to be resisted at all costs.

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