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News | Wednesday, 30 December 2009

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Censors cite ‘visual impact’ of plays they haven’t seen

The Board of Film and Stage Classification this month submitted in court a list of policy guidelines used by local censors to decide on ratings for films and theatre productions, at the request of Mr Justice Joseph Zammit McKeon in the ongoing Constitutional case regarding this year’s ban on Stitching.
This is the first time that the board’s internal policy guidelines have ever been made public, and what immediately leaps to the eye is an apparent contradiction between the directions given to classifiers with regard to theatrical performances, and the way these same performances are classified in practice.
In the section subtitled ‘Stage Performances’, the final sentence reads: “As with films, the classifier must take a decision after considering each work globally, as much for its visual impact (original: ‘sew f’dak li ghandu x’jaqsam mal-viziv’), as for the message the work tries to put across.”
But members of the same board never watch a performance before deciding what rating to give a stage play. The reason for this is that the classifiers’ rating has to be issued before any play can be performed in a Maltese theatre: a fact which makes it physically impossible to rate any play on the basis of its visual impact.
Instead, the censors limit themselves to reading the script: which as a rule gives little or no indication of the play’s effect on a visual level. In fact, individual members of the censorship board have testified in court that they had not watched Andrew Nielsen’s Stitching before deciding to ban it altogether.
In justifying the ban, the Film and Stage Classification Board chairperson Theresa Friggiri cited four ‘taboo’ topics that led to the decision: blasphemy; “obscene contempt for the victims of Auschwitz”; “dangerous sexual perversions leading to sexual servitude”; and “reference to the abduction, sexual assault and murder of children”... the latter including a “eulogy to the child murderers, Fred and Rosemary West.”
However, it remains difficult to grasp how the censors could have reached this decision after ‘considering the work globally, as much for its visual impact as for the message it tried to get across’.

Absolute discretion
Nor is this the only anomaly to emerge from the four-page document submitted in court last week. The censors’ policy guidelines seem to make an unusual distinction between cinema and theatre – applying a rigorous, though somewhat generic code of classification to the former, while retaining absolute discretion to judge the latter according to the censors’ own, entirely subjective viewpoints.
The cinema section therefore features a number of specific criteria by which to rate a film (for unlike theatre, members of the board do get to watch pre-release screenings of feature films, usually a week before their official release at the premises of local film distributors KRS Ltd in Valletta.)
The criteria for film are: theme; language; violence; nudity; sex; horror; drugs; faith and religion. For each of the five possible film ratings – U, PG, 12, 16, 18 – the application each criterion is re-evaluated for the age-group concerned. Language, for instance, is taken into consideration before giving as U certificate, but not for 18, and so on.
No such detail is provided in the theatre section, which by way of contrast occupies only the final few paragraphs of the entire document. This section, which loosely refers to film and theatre being different media which require different approaches, appears to allow the Board maximum discretion in the absence of any clear guidelines whatsoever.
A typical example concerns the guidelines for nudity on stage, which consist in a single sentence: “While nudity may be permissible on film, this is not normally accepted on stage.” But the guidelines offer no indication of what circumstances may make nudity acceptable on stage – which in fact it has been on several occasions, the most recent being November 2007, when Unifaun Theatre’s production of Peter Schaffer’s Equus saw local actors Sean Buhagiar and Jo Caruana naked on stage for several minutes.



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