Thursday 26 April 2012

Censorship cuts both ways

Former Board of Film Censors chairman Amy Chua opens up on the difficulties of editing films
By Boon Chan, The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2012

Not many chairmen see as much sex as Ms Amy Chua during her eight-year tenure at the Board of Film Censors.

From 2004 to March 31 this year, the chairman of the board grappled with much sex, violence and other controversial content in movies - most notably, the explicit antics of sexually adventurous spies (Lust, Caution, 2007), families headed by lesbians (The Kids Are All Right, 2010) and local teenage gangsters (15, 2003).

Lust, Caution (2007) was released in two versions - an edited NC16 version that was nine minutes shorter and an uncut onethat was given an R21 rating.

The Oscar-nominated The Kids Are All Right was given an R21 rating for its release here in February last year but given a one-print-release restriction for portraying two lesbians and their children as a normal family.

Local film-maker Royston Tan's 15 was released with a R(A) rating with 27 cuts and Ms Chua even found herself the subject of a spoof by Tan in the short film Cut (2004).

But all that is water under the bridge now for her. She stepped down as chairman when her former deputy, Ms Chetra Sinnathamby, was appointed on April 1 as the Media Development Authority's (MDA) director of content and standards for films, video games and arts. These are areas in which the agency continues to directly classify content.

Ms Chua retains the same title of director of content and standards, but will oversee broadcast, Internet and publications where the focus is on co-regulation in which an industry polices itself according to guidelines drawn up.

Speaking to Life! at Fusionopolis where the Media Development Authority is located, Ms Chua, 61, suggests that the portfolio has been split as part of succession planning.

'I have been heading film classification and have had the opportunity to make changes and improvements, so it's timely that another director takes on this challenging job.'

And one of the most challenging films she has had to deal with was Tan's debut feature film 15 (2003). The drama featured violence and nudity and was rated R(A) - for those aged 21 and above only - with a record 27 cuts made.

In response to his censorship experience with 15, Tan made the satirical musical Cut which lampoons Ms Chua as a censor being hounded in a supermarket by a rabid movie fan who is upset about censorship in Singapore.

When asked if she has ever felt vilified or misunderstood on the job, she refers to the incident: 'This was the one.'

She says that that the film censor board was prepared to pass 15 R(A) uncut for commercial release. But the police were concerned that fights could break out given the use of real gang names, locations and secret society chants in the movie.

The board held seven screening sessions for 133 people from a cross-section of society. Half felt that the film should be disallowed as they felt that it promoted gangsterism while the other half said it could be screened but edited as recommended by the police and rated R(A).

She says: 'We asked for the edits at the request of the police for law and order reasons.

'We went to great lengths and we've never consulted so many people for any film. We wanted to hear community views and if I had followed community views, half actually felt the film should be disallowed. But we chose not to do that. We felt the film still had a message about teen gangs and we felt the film should be shown.'

The film 15 was released commercially with the cuts and made $140,000. She now says though that the BFC had actually recommended nine cuts instead of the widely reported 27 cuts that were eventually made to the film.

Speaking of the spoof Cut, she says: 'I was very sad. I took pains to talk personally to the film-maker. It saddened me that he didn't see the reasons why the edits were necessary. And he chose to do a film which, in a way, didn't reflect what the board was about.'

But she adds: 'It's water under the bridge. I have met Royston since then, at the launch of one of his films. We chatted and it was a cordial meeting.'

Film-makers and moviegoers may not agree with her but she says that the board 'does not do censorship. What we do is classification. We look at the content and we try to give it a rating that is age-appropriate'.

She says that it is important for the film classification to reflect community standards and that given that she was a television producer, 'the last thing I would want to do is to edit a film. I was a producer myself and I know what it is like when you have to edit a film.'

Prior to joining the then Singapore Broadcasting Authority in 1997, Ms Chua worked as a television producer. One of her documentaries A Home Away From Home, about foster children, won the special prize from the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union in the 1980s.

And contrary to the widespread belief that she wields all the censorship power, she says that the chairman does not make all the decisions by herself. If a film is 'problematic', she would meet at least 10 of the classifiers and ask them how they would rate the film and why.

She says that she would then have to make a decision and that a consensus is reached most of the time. 'I would never make a unilateral decision without consulting the classifiers who classify films on a daily basis and know what the standards are.'

Should a film require further consultation, she would then turn to the Films Consultative Panel (FCP). These would be 'benchmark films or films that maybe go slightly beyond our classification ratings'. The panel was formed in 1982 and currently comprises 59 members of the public serving two-year terms.

She notes: 'The beauty of the Film Consultative Panel is that at any time, we would get about 20 to 30 members coming to watch it. We would hear the views from the community.

'Sometimes they might agree with the BFC, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they are more liberal, sometimes they are more conservative. But having heard the range of views, it would help the BFC come to a clearer decision.'

She stresses: 'Classification is not the purview of one individual, definitely not the purview of the BFC chairman although I would have to make a final decision.'

Ultimately, film classification is a complex job. She says: 'When you classify, you are making a value judgment. The guidelines are there as guidelines. You still have to assess each film on a case-by-case basis.

'You can never please everybody. If you can please the majority and they feel that we are reflecting their concerns and values, then I would say we are doing an okay job.'

High-profile bans and cuts aside, Ms Chua is keen to point out that the process of censorship has evolved over time.

The introduction of the revised film rating system in March 2004 in which R21 replaced the R(A) rating and M18 was introduced has opened up the kind of films that can be shown to the public.

Mel Gibson's controversial and violent The Passion Of The Christ (2004) was the first film to receive an M18 rating.

In 2003, before M18 was introduced, 21 per cent of film titles were rated R(A). Last year, the number of R21 titles dropped to 8.4 per cent and M18 titles hit 13 per cent. She notes that with the creation of the M18 rating, more films are available to young adults and the public compared to the past.

The film censor board has also adopted a more contextual approach in the way it classifies films. Ms Chua says Lust, Caution starring Tony Leung and Tang Wei was a benchmark film and the sex scenes were 'the most explicit that the BFC had encountered in its years of classifying films'.

The Films Consultative Panel was split with half recommending R21 with no cuts and the other half wanting the sex scenes sliced. She says: 'The three sex scenes were important and showed the changing relationship between the two protagonists. The relationship did start as lust but as the movie progressed it changed to a closer bond and in a way, that was reflected in how the sexual scenes were filmed and portrayed.'

Given the amount of potentially objectionable material that she has to watch and make judgment calls on, one might think that she would steer well clear of films in her own time.

But she still enjoys going to the movies and describes her taste in movies as eclectic. She likes the Harry Potter fantasy movies, romantic comedies but not tearjerkers, and thrillers such as The Bourne Identity (2002).

'What I go for is a film that is well-made, well-directed, with a good storyline and acting and films which tell you about the human condition. The genre doesn't really matter to me. The only genre I will not enjoy watching is horror.'

Her love of film was inculcated by Sunday outings to the cinema with her father and her five siblings where they watched everything from musicals such as My Fair Lady (1964) to epics such as Ben Hur (1907). Her father was a rubber merchant and her mother was a housewife.

She is married with no children.

Looking back on how the job of classification has changed over the years, she stresses: 'We cannot run faster than the community is prepared to accept. When you need to open up in terms of classification, you need to do it gradually, at a pace that the community can accept. And when you do that, you will find that there are increasingly more choices for the public and less need to ask for edits to films.'

No comments:

Post a Comment