BBFC interview: The censor speaks out
LF: What's the function of the BBFC?
BBFC: We classify films in various categories, primarily to protect children from potential harm or what people in general, deem unsuitable for them at various ages. We do extensive public consultation exercises which involve huge opinion surveys and focus groups.
There are about 10 people to a focus group, but we have lots of groups covering various issues to do with classification; from what people thought of a 12A certificate, or whether we're too hard on sex or too soft on violence. It's really about trying to get a sense of what people think about classification, and to see whether there is a majority opinion regarding certain issues.
LF: How many examiners does it take to pass a film?
BBFC: We tend to view things in pairs, unless it's the Teletubbies - which we can do by ourselves - but if it's controversial then another pair will get involved and the director [of the BBFC] will see it. The president [of the BBFC] will see it if it's extremely controversial.
LF: So, how does one become a film examiner?
BBFC: We have people from a very wide background, generally people who have a connection with the media industry or connection with children and knowledge of child development; we have people here who are teachers, doctors, lawyers. There are exactly 20 examiners, plus three senior examiners (who also view films and videos) and some part-time and freelance examiners too. All examiners are on a 5 year contract - so there's quite a high turn of examiners.
LF: You explained that one of your main aims was to protect children - is there evidence to suggest that watching particular types of images are damaging to children?
BBFC: There is lots of conflicting evidence in this field. It's very hard to get a clear result, as it is obviously quite unethical to construct research where you show a group of five-year olds ten hours of hardcore sex films to see whether they're OK afterwards. It doesn't really work out like that. So, in terms of hard research it's not very conclusive.But there are two issues here. There's the potential harm from children copying things - like violent techniques that kids might not have thought of that look particularly cool on screen, or weapons that they can easily get hold of. Then, there's what people consider suitable for each age. For example, 'kids shouldn't be exposed to bad language at a young age' is an opinion held very strongly by the British public - and we'd be remiss in our duty if we didn't reflect that in our classifications.
LF: In terms of your focus group members, are you looking for film professionals who are thinking about what the films might represent or are they a reflection of the general public?
BBFC: We are looking at both types of people. We don't want to ask abstract questions. For example, if you say to someone: which do you think is worse, sex or violence? People will generally say sex is OK but violence is very, very bad. But in actual fact, when they watch the films they quite enjoy the action, but get quite offended by the sex. It's quite hard to work out the truth as to what people think is acceptable.
LF: So do you have to make that judgment?
BBFC: I don't want to give the impression that the guidelines are purely based on focus groups - it's based on the history of people's reaction to classifications, as well as expert opinion on certain issues like drugs or suicide techniques for example - where we need focused responses to what the public will know and what they are likely to copy.
LF: Do you have any particular examples? You mentioned suicide techniques…
BFFC: Suicide techniques is an interesting one. There was a film that was released in the cinema and we received letters from various physicians about the suicide technique shown in the film. It wasn't a commonly-known technique and it was an easy method to copy. We were strongly advised to cut it for the video release, which we did.
LF: What kind of films are exempt from classification?
BBFC: Educational videos, sports programmes, music videos and digital media – which include video games and computer games – but all of these lose their exemption if they feature in any significant way gross violence against humans, sexual activity or other problematic content.
We have a classification for hardcore sex which is R18, so when educational videos come in and they feature content that we would class as worthy of an R18, we have to make the judgment as to whether it’s gratuitous use of that detail or whether its being used to inform and educate.
LF: Can I ask you about 9 Songs? This wouldn't have been passed by the BBFC 10 years ago - would you agree?
BBFC: I'm not so sure - you're probably right, but if you look at The Realm of the Senses (Ai No Corrida), this was classified on video in 1991. It's not so dissimilar to 9 Songs, it has explicit sex scenes in it and uses the couple's sexual relationship to explore their own relationship. I don't think they're so dissimilar. I think what's more relevant is that 9 Songs probably wouldn't have been made back then by a British director.
LF: Do you see a difference between films from Britain and films from Europe in this regard?
BBFC: Probably the Europeans have tested us more in the past 10 years or so, especially in terms of sexual content. For example, Lars von Triers' The Idiots and the French film Romance were both passed in 1999. But it's not until quite recently that more mainstream films have started to dabble in the more explicit sexual content. We had In The Cut - the Meg Ryan film - that had explicit detail. It does give the public the impression sometimes, that the BBFC makes allowances for art-house titles, but the truth is that we don't see sexual content of that kind in mainstream film.
We do mix with the international and European examiners - but as I'm sure you're aware there are huge discrepancies between different countries. So, for example The Passion of the Christ was a '12' in France and American Beauty was a 'U' - so it's a very different scale to ours. It would be very difficult to achieve a European classification system.
LF: I thought that the passing of 9 Songs uncut was a vindication of the BBFC’s purpose. The intent is clear that 9 Songs is not supposed to be pornography.
BBFC: It was a very unanimous decision. It was very clearly differentiated from pornography and anyone who had actually seen pornography - especially the amount we see here - would see the difference very clearly.
LF: Is there much difference between film and video in terms of how stringently your classification criteria are applied?
BBFC: In theory, there is a difference, but it isn't practiced very often. The Video Recording Act requires us to consider possible underage viewing - so even if we've given it a '15' we've got to consider if its going to be shown to 12-year olds, or if there is something that's instructive - on how to take drugs, for example. Then, we have to consider that you could watch it over again and again.
There are however a few that have been passed uncut on film but cut on video because of concerns of potential harm (either through direct imitation or more generally through the behaviour of viewers). An example would be 'A Ma Soeur!', the Catherine Breillat film which - after legal advice - was passed out uncut at '18' on film but on video had cuts to the sexual assault of a young girl, which was thought to potentially encourage abusive behaviour. Another example is 'The Rules of Attraction' which was passed '18' uncut on film but had cuts on video to remove detail of an effective, unusual, and potentially imitable suicide technique.
LF: In terms of how film classification changes over time as a reflection of public mores - is this a smooth process or does it tend to change abruptly?
BBFC: Personally, I think it's pretty smooth; it tends to move in line with public opinion. What happens though, is that a certain film will come along that acts as a marker for the change and that reveals that changes have occurred. So, it will look as if it's happened suddenly, but in actual fact, the changes would have been happening for a while.
LF: How often do rating certificates change over time? For example, would a film that was certified an ‘X ‘in the 70s be reclassified?
BBFC: Yes they do - but they have to be resubmitted to us. Quite a few of the so-called 'video nasties' have been resubmitted to us recently, and they have received a '15' certificate - and that's because special effects have changed and expectations have changed, especially with respect to horror films. With other films, public sensibilities have changed. When Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs was first made, it classified an 'A' for adult, and even in the 1960s, some of the scarier moments were cut so it could achieve a 'U' certificate. It was only later that it received a 'U' uncut.
LF: And with a film like Child’s Play 3, has that been recertified?
BBFC: Yes, that's been classified as an '18' on film.
LF: Because that was closely tied to the Jamie Bulger affair?
BBFC: Yes, but there was no evidence that either of [the killers] had seen the film or that it had any effect, but I think it has always been an '18' uncut. The distributors themselves chose to withdraw it. It's events like these that make film classification feel more prominent in the public spectrum.
LF: What about the issue of religion? Is that a relevant factor in your assessment?
BBFC: I think it's changed quite a lot, it's difficult to say, because obviously support for the Church of England is not a strong as it was. So, in terms of public opinion it's not a huge factor. With The Passion of the Christ, the religious angle didn't motivate our decision to a great extent; we focused on the violence, which is why we gave it an '18'. We do consider religious sensibilities in the same way that any religious offence is a factor. Unless a film is considered to be potentially illegal (w.r.t. the laws on Blasphemy, or Incitement to Racial Hatred, etc.) then we have to work within the Human Rights Act which guarantees Freedom of Expression. Potential offence is dealt with through the classification system.
With the Scorsese film 'The Last Temptation of Christ' we worked quite closely with Christian groups. But in the end, we have to assess the films on their own and judge the public's reaction to it and whether there's a legal element. There haven't been any examples of that lately, that have been strong enough to act on.