Film Festival Fumbles

Film festivals have always presented a difficult challenge for film censors and reviewers. On the one hand, if a Board is required to approve or rate all films, then it seems inconsistent for festival films to be exempt. On the other hand, film festivals tend to attract an audience that is more mature and less easily shocked than the multiplex masses. Festival goers may be seeking out challenging material, so there is less justification for government review of  content. There are also the logistical and financial challenges of reviewing large numbers of films in a short period of time.

In the early 1970s, there was a backlash against the sudden increase of sexual content in mainstream films and the public exhibition of sex films.President Nixon captured this mood accurately when he rejected the liberal recommendations of the 1970 Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. Canadian law at the time did not permit explicit sex scenes, but festival films, videotape (yes, it existed back then), and 8mm films were all outside the scope of Board reviews.

In Quebec, where censorship had been relaxed since 1967, the church took up the fight against sex in films. This resulted in significant publicity for the fledgling sex film industry in that province, but no new restrictions. In 1972, an Ontario government investigation criticized the Ontario Board’s “concern for cultivating a reputation for liberality” and called for more censorship, especially of foreign films and new media.

New Ontario regulations in 1975 meant festival films now had to be submitted for approval. Canadian film legend Gerald Pratley, associated with the Stratford (Ontario) Film Festival since 1957, observed that not even in Russia did festival films require censorship. (By the way, that was the last year for the Stratford Film Festival, which concentrated on foreign films. The provincial government decided to fund the new and more mainstream Toronto Festival of Festivals, instead. Initially showing only winners from other festivals, this eventually became the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) (see for more about the battles between the Ontario Board and this festival).

The 1980s are generally considered a time of increasing conservatism, but the Ontario Board became more liberal. Among other changes, festival films no longer needed to be submitted for viewing. They could be approved by documentation. This greatly simplified the approval process. New procedures for considering “art” films allowed 46 seconds of explicit close up sex for the Canadian documentary The Art of Worldly Wisdom. However, this liberalization did not extend to allowing organizations to bypass the Board.

Without Board approval, the Canadian Images Film Festival at Trent University screened the nine minute short A Message From Our Sponsor, which includes brief images of explicit sex in its critique of advertising. The festival organizers were charged and found guilty under the Theatres Act, “at considerable expense to the University,” and the festival soon shut down.

In 1988, Ontario dropped all review of festival films, art gallery showings, and other limited distribution films, with the condition that these films could only be viewed by adults. Organizations could still submit films for review if they wished to allow persons under 18 to attend. The end of festival film reviews was not the end of challenges with festival films.

Baise-moi played at TIFF in September of 2000. Like all festival films, it had not been reviewed by the Ontario Film Review Board. Following the festival, the distributor decided to release the film in general distribution. This required review. The Board banned the film, declaring that the amount of explicit sex was excessive. The distributor resubmitted the film as an adult sex film, since unlimited explicit sex had been allowed in adult sex films since 1992. The Board banned the film again, this time on the grounds that the regulations for adult sex films strictly limited sexual violence. Eventually the film was approved, with a 12 second cut to reduce sexual explicitness and restrictions such as no multiplex or drive-in showings.

A year later, a similar situation happened with Fat Girl. It also played uncut at TIFF, and was banned on general release. The distributor took the Board to court, but new leadership at the Board decided to approve the film uncut. Much of the public criticism of the bans noted the hypocrisy and elitism of allowing these films uncut at festivals, but not for general release.

New legislation in 2005 removed the Board’s power to ban general films but the Board still has the authority to ban any adult sex film. Therefore it is possible that some film which plays at a film festival may be banned. Possible targets are films presented at events such as the Toronto Erotic Film Festival or the Feminist Porn Awards. However, in the last decade the Board seems to have had no appetite for banning films or even prosecuting distributors of unapproved films. Instead, they are concentrating on publicizing the value of rating mainstream films. With the widespread availability of almost anything online, such an approach may be reasonable.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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