Around this time last year I became embroiled in a heated censorship debate that began after I wrote a story about an illegal Melbourne Underground Film Festival screening of director Bruce LaBruce’s LA Zombie, which was slapped with an RC (Refused Classification) rating by the Australian Classification Board. Under the headline ‘Cops didn’t show, but maybe they should have: gay zombie porn sickens‘ I wrote an on-the-scene account of an evening emblazoned in my memory for all the wrong reasons.
Twelve months later another film arrives that douses itself in representations of sexualized violence so extreme, and so disgusting, that even the most liberal cinephiles will feel compelled to take a cold shower and wash their eyes out afterwards. As one person on Twitter observed, after I wrote in a post-screening tizzy something along the lines of wanting to hurl myself in the direction of the nearest high-powered hose, “once you see it you can’t un-see it.” If you could “un-see” a film — pop a pill and hey presto, there’s ya memory wiped — the censorship debate, perhaps, would not exist.
But exist it does. A Serbian Film, which opened this year’s MUFF, was initially banned by the ACB in November 2010. Its distributor shaved two minutes off the running time, re-submitted it for classification, and it was banned again in February. A second censored version was passed in April and released on DVD nationally this week in every state except South Australia, where it was refused by the state’s Classification Council. The Federal Government has asked the ACB to review its decision.
The film begins with a scene in which a young boy watches his father starring in a porno. It goes down hill — down, down, down hill — from there, to places you don’t talk about at dinner parties. To places you don’t talk about in grubby lane ways thick with the stench of urine or grimy honky-tonks that serve bootleg absinthe. In other words, to places you don’t talk about — at least not in any kind of detail — anywhere.
This is why — surprise surprise — A Serbian Film got in trouble with the censors: because it is a revolting experience. The story follows a porn star renown for his ability to “humiliate women” and then “bring them back.” He is offered a lucrative contract by a shady employer, the best paying gig of his life. When he enters a home for abandoned and orphaned children, and two bulky men follow him with cameras, the experience begins to slide into morally irredeemable territory.
The porn producer argues that victims feel the most and sell the best. There are scenes involving sexualised violence designed to push the boundaries of public tolerance.
Congratulations guys: mission accomplished. But what a pathetic impetus.
A Serbian Film is shot and edited well, with a musty off-colour look and an atmosphere carefully and eerily handled. It’s not a cheapo production on a technical level and there’s certainly craft in the way it was put together.
But that doesn’t come close to redeeming the film as a worthwhile experience. The screenwriters pathetically try to convince the audience that the protagonist is a victim, part of a muddled message about how the worst perpetrators are also sufferers in a landscape in which there are no winners — only people who lose more than others.
Big deal. The film embraces its own gratuity as much as it might like to think it surpasses it or adds worthwhile commentary. It is aware of what it is doing and the kind of filth it embraces. Contrasted with La Zombie, another wretched experience tailor made for wingnuts to oppose and sickos to champion, A Serbian Film is self-consciously smart where LA Zombie has a kind of under grad naivety, a stoopid experiment in button pushing gone bad.
No amount of flimsy academic posturing or faux Freudian analysis can come close to legitimising A Serbian Film, and nor could it with La Zombie. Like most films that draw the ire of Australian censors, the general public, hardly seduced by the idea of tasting the cinematic equivalent of regurgitated bile, will not be campaigning for its release. Even civil libertarians will pause to consider what they’re fighting for and whether it’s worth it. Does this film deserve to be banned? I’ll leave that to the viewer to determine, though I strongly suggest they ought not bother. Does it deserve to be watched? No. No.
A Serbian Film is currently available on DVD in every state and territory except South Australia.