Thirty years after blocking a performance on moral grounds, the Censorship Board still occasionally flexes its muscles with local theatrical productions. Charlot Zahra poses the question: do we still need censorship in theatre and film?
This weekend, acclaimed playwright Mario Philip Azzopardi’s seminal satire ‘Sulari Fuq Strada Stretta’, which was banned 30 years ago because it was deemed too controversial by the Censorship Board, will be staged at the Manoel Theatre in an act of historical justice.
However, 30 years on, the Censorship Board, officially known as the Film and Stage Classification board, still remains in place, exercising its power to cut scripts which are deemed “too controversial” for a society that in the meantime has changed beyond recognition.
Alan Montanaro, director of ‘Laughing Wild’ – a play currently being staged at St James Cavalier by MADC - confirmed that the censorship board raised problems with the script.
“Yes there was a problem with the Censorship Board. We opted for an 18 rating, the highest possible, of our own accord because the play is not for children. However when the censorship board came to see play during one of the rehearsals, they raised objections about the script.
“Eventually we came to an agreement. However it is unheard of in 2008 that plays are still censored in Malta. I believe Malta is the only country in the European Union which still censors plays and films.
Speaking about censorship in general, Montanaro said: “I am offended at the prospect that somebody else decides for me what I can or cannot watch. I am adult enough have the right to vote but not to watch a play or a movie that I like.
“As opposed to watching a film on TV, watching a movie at the cinema or a play requires a voluntary action by the theatre-goer or the cinema patrons. He or she would have informed himself about the film or movie’s contents before choosing to watch that film or play.
“My father (former Sunday Times editor Anthony Montanaro) fought against censorship all his life, therefore I cannot agree with this kind of suppression. I agree with classification, but I am definitely against censorship,” he told MaltaToday.
Another director speaks out
Adrian Buckle, who leads the Unifaun theatre group, also had similar problems with censorship board in a number of productions, including their latest play, ‘Mercury Fur’.
“My plays being what they are, I usually get given the 18 certificate. I go for plays that have something to say. These tend to be deemed controversial so they get the 18 certificate.
“I can understand the classification in most cases but there have been a couple of plays for which I believe the 18 certificate was unwarranted.
“‘Equus’, for example, is studied at A-Level by 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds. How come they can study the script but not see it? Is it the nudity? But as far as I know, nudity only amounts to a 16 certificate,” Buckle told MaltaToday.
Speaking about their latest play, ‘Mercury Fur’ by Philip Riddle, Buckle explained: “It has been given an 18 certificate but in the UK it is performed for 15-year olds. When I told the author about it, he was flabbergasted.”
Buckle said the only production to get any form of censorship so far was Howard Brenton’s ‘Paul’, where the censors objected to a passage when a furious Mary Magdalene refers to the Virgin Mary as a “cow”.
“Of course, taken out of context this is blasphemous but when read in the context the author put it in, one understands the outburst of the character,” Buckle insisted.
“I have been threatened with censorship on two other productions. First was ‘Some Explicit Polaroids’. I was told by the censor that they wanted to see a rehearsal to make sure that nothing in the script was too ‘In-Yer-Face’. However, they never turned up.
“On ‘Mercury Fur’, we have the same threat but once again they have never turned up,” Buckle told MaltaToday.
Asked whether he believed that censorship of plays still had a place in contemporary Malta, Buckle was categorical in his denunciation of the practice.
“I am perhaps the most vocal of censorship objectors in theatre circles. Censorship is undemocratic, obscene and illegal. It has no place anywhere in the world. It says a lot that the only other countries in the world to still have censorship are totalitarian countries.
“I stress that I have nothing against the people on the censorship board. Indeed, some of these are my friends and as nice a person as you can get to know. It is their job that makes them look like demons.
“Also, I cannot understand how a movie and a play can get censored whereas a transmission as obscene and pornographic as Xarabank and Tista’ Tkun Int is allowed to enter each household unobstructed.
Like Montanaro, he insisted that “when one goes to the theatre, he knows what he’s paying for. Television transmissions enter our homes any time of day.
“Of course, I don’t mean that there should be a censorship on television. That would be just as obscene. But it does feel like a question of two weights, two measures,” Buckle told MaltaToday.
“Basically, I can never agree to the principle that a group of people ‘who know best’ decide what one may see and may not.
“I have set up a protest group on Facebook for those who oppose censorship and it is spreading like wild fires. Hopefully, we will soon become a pressure group strong enough to oppose this ridiculous law,” Buckle insisted.
We are only doing our legal duty – Friggieri
On her part, Teresa Friggieri, chairperson of the Film and Stage Classification Board, was equally censorial in her replies to MaltaToday’s questions.
Asked why the Board still persisted in threatening to censor theatre scripts in this day and age, as was the case with MADC’s play ‘Laughing Wild’ and Unifaun’s play ‘Mercury Fur’, Friggieri said curtly: “The people concerned know that we never threatened them.
Asked what purpose theatre and film censorship has in 21st century Malta, whether there was a moral and philosophical grounding justifying censorship of film and theatrical works in the contemporary era, and whether she agreed with the Council of Europe report which called for the removal of censorship in Malta on theatrical performances as this was not consistent with the CoE and the EU’s beliefs, she said telegraphically: “These questions should be addressed to the legislator. We are only doing our duty according to the law”.
CoE report against retention of censorship
A Council of Europe (CoE) report on Malta’s Cultural Policy in spoke in no uncertain terms against the retention of censorship in Malta, especially with regard to theatrical performances.
Author and literary critic Mario Azzopardi, the author of Malta’s Cultural Policy, briefed the CoE delegation way back in June 2002 about the situation at the time.
The CoE delegation which conducted the assessment of Malta’s cultural policy was led by Professor Anthony Everitt and Professor Pirrko Rainesalo. The European experts had insisted that censorship for theatrical performances should be removed.
The report said that censorship of theatrical performances in Malta was “not consistent with the beliefs of the Council of Europe and those of the European Union”, because it represented control over creative expression.
In the section about Contemporary Creativity, the report about Malta said that the experts accept the classification of films for minors, but theatrical performance should only be subject to the customary application of criminal law.
The CoE delegation said it was “surprised” to learn that theatre in Malta is controlled by a Classification Board.
The controversial playwright agreed with the conclusions of the report, insisting that censorship was in violation of the principles of the EU and the Council of Europe.
“Such controls over the freedom of expression are inconsistent with the principles of the Council of Europe and the European Union and should be abolished.
“Obviously, I do not agree with censorship, which I consider as the patronizing effect both of our insular politics as well as of a religious system which has treated worshippers like children.
Creativity is the liberating factor that can redeem the country, and controls like censorship for theatre continue frustrating this process,” Azzopardi insisted.
Censorship should be retained – Zammit Dimech
On his part, Francis Zammit Dimech, Minister for Tourism and Culture, who for the past four years has been in charge of the culture portfolio, was not of the idea that censorship should be removed outright.
“I believe that as is the practice in most European countries, it is appropriate to have censorship as long as it is strictly to protect society from obscene, vulgar or outright pornographic language or scenes that would have no justification from an artistic point of view.
“Having said that, censors are always the wiser for looking at the broader picture and for having an open and acute artistic sense of judgment that allows them to discern where a work of art (even in theatre) is in fact a work of art and where therefore censorship would not only not be correct but would probably also be counterproductive.
“My own experience of what is being staged as part of Malta’s contemporary theatre scene is to the effect that our censors are generally showing that they are so capable. Of course there is – unfortunately or otherwise – no substitute to an element of subjectivity in this entire process,” Zammit Dimech told MaltaToday.
On paper, anything imported to this country involving text, pictures and film could be examined and censored by the Customs Department or by the Post Master General. Section 27 (1) of the Post Office Act empowers the Postmaster General to reserve and open any postal article, other than a closed letter, in the absence of the recipient.
But the practice of inspecting inquisitively the printed matter that enters the Grand Harbour has long been in existence. When in 1559 Pope Paul IV issued the Index, local inquisitors were only too happy to implement Papal policy and burn the censored books. The Index included a list of prohibited books condemning the works of about 550 authors and many individual titles.
P.F. Grendler calls it “the first (index) to manifest the puritan characteristic of Counter Reformation censorship, with the result that it vastly enlarged prohibitions in the field of vernacular literature.” Newly prohibited were a number of works that were judged to be anticlerical, immoral, lascivious or obscene including works by Aretino, Machiavelli, Boccaccio and Rabelais.
On 5 May 1609, Inquisitor Evangelista Carbonese ordered the public prosecutor of the Holy Office to burn 53 books in the Main Square of Vittoriosa “in the presence of a multitude of people”.
In Witchcraft, Sorcery and the Inquisition, historian Carmel Cassar notes that in 1577 Inquisitor Raynaldo Corso was congratulated by the General Inquisitor in Rome for having burned a number of books which included writings by Erasmus and a copy of the Decameron by Boccaccio. In 1591 Bishop Tommaso Gargallo banned all books on astrology, necromancy, palmistry and other forms of divination. Inquisitors issued edicts in which they ordered anyone, who owned or perused books included in the Index, to report the matter within 20 days.
Dr Cassar also documents the case of Vittorio Cassar, son of the Maltese military engineer and architect Gerolamo Cassar. In 1601 Vittorio Cassar admitted to the Inquisition that he kept and perused several prohibited books which he said were received from a friend of his. Vittorio said that since his confessor would not absolve him, he handed the books to the Inquisition for burning.
“The procedure of keeping a close watch on printed matter that entered the Harbour of Malta seems to have been further enforced at the turn of the century,” Dr Cassar maintains. “Above all else, the Inquisition records reveal that the Tribunal perceived writing and literacy as a potential promoter both of heretical behaviour and social protest among the laity which the Church deemed as threats that had to be controlled. Even scribbling was a suspicious act and had to be reported to the Inquisitor... By the end of that century the Catholic Church – through the workings of the Inquisition – had managed to control the lives, and most inner thoughts, of Malta’s inhabitants.”
Ordinance number IV of 1839, enacted by the Governor of Malta, made book and press censorship illegal, unless there was good reason for it. Historian Henry Frendo remarks that “considering that book and press censorship were not abolished in Germany before 1848 and in France not definitely abolished before 1872, Malta was not doing too badly”.
In his book Maltese Journalism, 1838-1992, Prof Frendo says that the concern of censorship at the time was not limited to obscenity. “Censorship was moral and, still worse, political, especially perhaps in countries where obscenity and moral licence were quite alright.”
The practice of censorship was extended to a political level in modern times, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. On 2 June 1986 Judge Joseph A. Filletti ruled that the then Telemalta Corporation chairman Maurice Mifsud Bonnici and the head of Xandir Malta, Toni Pellegrini, were discriminating against then opposition leader Eddie Fenech Adami by censoring his name on the national television station.
In 1978, following the appearance of articles critical of the Labour government in certain British newspapers, some British journalists were banned from Malta. Several months later the ban was lifted but in 1981 the London Times and Sunday Times newspapers were banned from entering Malta following the publication of news reports deemed hostile to the Maltese government. In 1982 foreign journalists and political activists were subject to the Foreign Interference Act.
With the introduction of pluralism, political censorship seems to have become a thing of the past, and sex and religion have once again fallen under the censors’ scissors.
In October 1989 the Board of Film Censors withheld Martin Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ from viewing in local cinemas. The film was based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ classic novel, The Last Temptation, blacklisted by the Vatican in 1954 and labelled heretical, blasphemous and a masterpiece.
A video version of the film, which was on sale at Il-Monti open air market in Valletta, was also withdrawn from sale on public orders. The literary progressive front Group 87 protested against the ban, saying it could have been a platform for an artistic-cultural debate.
In the same year a television spot by the Department of Health Education Unit advocating the use of condoms in a campaign against AIDS was censored on Xandir Malta.
The following year, Zghazagh Taht l-Art started a protest campaign for the abolition of censorship, culminating in 1994 with the publication of No Sex Please We’re Maltese, a satirical and critical manifesto against censorship and in favour of freedom of expression.
In 1992 Dr Alex Comfort’s The New Joy of Sex was withheld by the Postmaster General and the Customs for being too “explicit”. Dr Xuereb was then reported as saying that people were allowed to obtain release of impounded books if they proved they were needed for “study or research”.
Basic Instinct was also subjected to censorship in 1993 when, after weeks showing at the cinema, the censorship board found the video to be pornographic and obscene and ruled that it could not be rented from video stores. Exotique, a major video rental company, had called the decision “hypocritical” and accused the board of discrimination against its clients for prohibiting them from renting a film that had been viewed in public uncensored.
In 1993 KullHadd reported that then Education Minister Ugo Mifsud Bonnici had ordered the removal of a number of books from the Beltissebh Public Library, including Jesus the Man by Ian Wilson, A Social History of Swearing, and a book on demonology.
Melita Cable censored the nightly adult show Midnight Club that was being broadcast in 1994 on Telepiu Due because it was deemed to be pornographic. Melita subscribers who paid to see the station could not watch the show between midnight and 3am.
In February 1996, John Webster’s play, The Duchess of Malfi, was censored by the Ministry of the Arts which had ordered the director to cut a scene where the Duchess, about to be unjustly executed, kicks a small crucifix across the stage. The play was performed by British theatre group Cheek by Jowl at the Manoel Theatre, who were requested to remove the “offending” scene from their last two shows. When they refused, the request became an order and blasphemy laws were quoted. Then Arts Minister Michael Refalo had denied the reports that the play was censored but said the company was “asked whether modifications could be made” to the scene where the crucifix was kicked after the ministry had received complaints. The name of the person who issued the order on behalf of the ministry remains a mystery to this day.
The following year the Manoel Theatre saw another act of censorship involving the Bible. The Reduced Shakespeare Company was banned by the censorship board from performing their satirical masterpiece, The Bible – The Complete Word of God, on the grounds that “the play would have offended our religious sentiments”. The company had brought the house down with their presentation of The Complete Works of Shakespeare the previous year. The chairman of the censorship board, Anthony Muscat, said that the first part of the play was “delightful and immensely enjoyable,” and found no objection; but the part dealing with the New Testament was a travesty, especially where the Last Supper and the Crucifixion were portrayed. “I also took into consideration the fact that the play was going to be staged during Lent; it would have offended even more,” Mr Muscat said. Actor Ray Calleja had called the decision “mediaeval and ridiculous” while theatre director John Schranz had harsh words for the board: “I would like to think we were holy in everything. If the critics used the same criteria with everything, why don’t they go and check out the Valletta cinemas.”
In January 2001, the dirty old bunny was granted a temporary entrance permit to Malta. Playboy was spared, for the first time in its 47-year history, from the scrupulous scissors of our censors. People can now buy it freely from bookshops.