Back in 2010, a Canadian indie named L.A. Zombie was banned from the Melbourne International Film Festival. Director Bruce LaBruce said that censors had only seen the softcore version of the film “which features no explicit anally penetrative sex”.
We never got to see it, so we can’t guess for ourselves why it got banned. Perhaps the idea of a fabulous undead horde wreaking revenge for this exact kind of puritanical censorship terrified the Australian Classification Board a little too much.
On Friday, the board banned I Want Your Love, a film directed by James Franco collaborator Travis Mathews. The film had, over time, gained some buzz for the frank way it blended explicit sex scenes into its narrative, a way of naturalising homosexual intimacy that rarely makes it to the screen for the very reason Mathews’ film won’t. While it was slated to show as part of queer film festivals in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, yet again these delightful people, all of whom appear to be educated, accomplished individuals with a range of experience in various areas, decided that we’ll all be a bit too offended. It’s worth noting, however, that none appear to have any formal education in film studies.
So why is it that, at a film festival dedicated to queer cinema, it is decided for us that we can’t handle a bit of man-on-man action? It’s not as though anyone was angling for it to be shown in public broadcast – no awkward 14-year-old was going to stumble upon it airing on SBS at 2am on a Friday night. These would be age-restricted, ticketed, limited session screenings in cultural events designed to showcase queer cultural contributions, promote community dialogue about queer issues at large, and provide a safe space for oft-ignored queer cinema.
We’ve seen in the past that rape scenes are perfectly fine in the board’s eyes – even male-on-male ones, viewing Snowtown as a recent example. Why is less explicit but rather horrific non-consensual intercourse less of a contravention of community standards? While no one should in any way advocate for censorship of Snowtown’s, if there’s an earthly reason why rape scenes and graphically violent murders are allowed but explicit consensual gay sex isn’t it would be fascinating to hear. Perhaps the board member studying a masters in clinical psychology could tell us – and discuss it with Mathews, who holds a masters in psychology himself.
Without wanting to disappear down the perilous “What is art?” rabbit hole, the question has been asked of I Want Your Love: where does cinema end and porn begin? Anyone who has watched porn recently can probably quite comprehensively answer this. Porn revolves around boning; just about every scene will lead to some kind of blowing, bonking or beat-offing. In the case of I Want Your Love, there’s a six-minute sex scene. That’s it. Six minutes of 71 shown in an environment where no one could even conceivably enter without forewarning of queer content.
Most classification exemption information (generally just a synopsis and crew details) passes by the board quite easily, and it’s only when concerns are raised over specific material that they ask to view the film itself. Mathews’ documentary In Their Room – Berlin was banned from the Mardi Gras Film Festival last year so clearly his name raised a red flag again, and it’s hard not to view this is discrimination. It would be monumentally naive to believe that the gay content of the film had nothing to do with its censorship; one only has to watch the fascinating documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated to see how endemic homophobia is in classification decisions.
In an age where any porn imaginable is one Google search away, where you can watch the R18+-rated prologue to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (NSFW) – in which a Willem Dafoe body-double-penis enters a Charlotte Gainsbourg body-double-vagina, then their kid sees them and throws himself out the window, because it’s von Trier – on YouTube as long as you sign up and pretend to be at least an 18-year-old, it feels preposterous to be told that we can’t go to a film festival and see confronting, boundary-pushing and intelligent cinema
It’s made all the worse by the fact that I Want Your Love has been shown repeatedly at foreign festivals the world over. The only thing this kind of insipid, repressed cultural filtering does is reinforce Australia’s international – and often national – image as a cultural backwater. If we can’t find freedom of discussion in queer spaces, where can we?