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Omri Silverthorne – The Board Chair who Tried to End Censorship

Omri Silverthorne became the chair of Ontario Film Review Board in 1934. Silverthorne was a friend of the new premier, and is rumored to have supplied banned films for the premier’s private parties. The premier resigned amid charges of scandal and corruption in 1942, but Silverthorne continued as Board chair under successive premiers until his retirement in 1974. One of his first decisions was to drop the 1920 standards, in favour of judging each film on its own merits. As before when rigid standards were dropped, rejections also dropped dramatically. In 1940, for the first time, no films were rejected.

In 1946 Silverthorne introduced classification. Until then, although there was a Universal certificate or an Adult certificate, films were generally required to be suitable for all ages. Exceptions included “V.D. films,” which were limited to adults only. The Ontario Board became the first jurisdiction in North America to acknowledge that some films were suitable for adults only and regularly classify films accordingly. The Adult certificate was roughly equivalent to the modern restricted rating – these were not what is now euphemistically called an Adult film.

In the thirties and forties the American Production Code made Silverthorne’s job easier – he noted that British films required more cuts than American films, due to their language. By the 1950s, the weakened Production Code, and the 1952 decision that films were protected speech, meant more and more films required cuts. This was challenging for Silverthorne, as he believed censorship should not be obvious. His response was to question his role.

In 1960 Silverthorne spoke out against censorship at a national conference of censors. He stated “the rigid inflexibility, the inability to adapt to the changing outlook of the Canadian people, the conflicting decisions and inconsistencies have succeeded in making censorship look ridiculous in the eyes of the people we seek to serve.” In 1963 he noted “banning any film today only arouses controversy and brings it a publicity value it does not deserve.”

The Japanese erotic fable Woman in the Dunes passed uncut, with nudity, in 1965, though other films that pushed the boundaries of obscenity, including the Canadian made High and the Swedish made I am Curious (Yellow) were subject to cuts.

Public criticism of the Board’s secret deliberations and apparently arbitrary decisions mounted even as the Board strived to make as few cuts as possible in challenging films. Of Last Tango in Paris, Silverthorne said “we just closed our eyes and ears and let it go.” Censorship was being questioned in other provinces too. Manitoba moved to a classification only system in 1972, and Quebec phased out censorship during the period from 1967 to 1975.

In 1971, at another national conference of censors, Silverthorne called for the abolition of censorship within 2 years. However, an Ontario government investigation the following year criticized the Board’s “concern for cultivating a reputation for liberality” and called for more censorship, especially of foreign films and of the new medium of videotape. Home video cassettes were still several years away, but industrial video formats were being used to produce and distribute sex films.

In 1973 film producer John Bassett wrote a report for the Ministry of Industry and Tourism, suggesting a new Ontario Film Office to support film production. Among other things, this office would replace the Board of Censors, and classify, not censor, films. The Ministry went ahead with the office, but only to promote film production. The government ignored Bassett’s advice and Silverthorne’s suggestion that a young censor be appointed to replace him.

When Silverthorne retired in 1974, Donald Sims, a sixty year old broadcaster who later described himself as a “seat belt on your psyche,” was appointed chair. Ontario soon became widely known for its high levels of film censorship.

Ontario Film Review Board to Begin Streaming Adult Movies Online

(Please note the date of this posting….)

After several months of negotiations with distributors, the Ontario Film Review Board (OFRB) announced today that it will begin online streaming of adult movies direct from its website.

According to Board chair Russ Meyer, the Board had two complementary goals in making to move to become an online provider of adult movies. The first was to ensure “the good people of Ontario have access to erotic materials that are duly reviewed and appropriate for adult viewing.” This requirement grew out of complaints from internet users frustrated with web sites that promised more than they delivered, such as this site that claims it has everything needed to make your kitten purr, as well as surfers disturbed by the shocking content of some sites (view at your own risk).

The second requirement was to improve cost recovery on film review. The Board reviews over 2500 adult films per year, and most reviewers require at least one week of recovery at the Board’s beach front retreat in Bouctouche for every 100 hours of film viewed. Offering online adult films will be an important new revenue source. The Board first considered offering mainstream films, but was unable to reach agreements with the more aggressive distributors of these films. Future plans include widening buy Ontario promotions to promote Ontario made films, since Good Things Grow in Ontario.

Quebec to Consider Suicide Warning

The Globe and Mail and other sources recently reported that the Culture Minister in Quebec has asked the Régie du cinéma to consider adding an appropriate warning notice for films that depict suicide. Quebec has the highest suicide rates in Canada, and the idea of a suicide warning for films is supported by suicide prevention groups in the province. However, like many censorship initiatives, the call for a suicide warning started with a parent concerned about what his children saw in a movie.

A father took two of his children to see a movie, three weeks after their mother committed suicide. The movie was Open Water, and in the course of the film, a major character commits suicide. The father did not know the film included a suicide. In his words, “I wanted to protect my children and didn’t want a film to aggravate an already difficult situation.” He formed an association, collected signatures on a petition, and the petition was submitted to the Quebec government last Thursday.

One of the advantages of government controlled film ratings and censorship in a democracy is that the censors must respond to the demands of the people.  So it is entirely reasonable for the Quebec government to investigate the notion of adding a suicide warning notice to films. However, hopefully the outcome will not be a suicide warning notice, but a better assessment of the age appropriateness of films.

If you are considering a film for you and your children, and don’t spend a lot of time researching the film, you don’t have much to go on. The trailer for Open Water suggests this is going to end badly, as do the reviews, but if you’ve just arrived at the theatre and are picking a film from the posters, you might rely on the ratings.

In addition to the thematic elements that might affect the rating, Open Water has a little nudity and some swearing. Not much, but enough to earn a Restricted rating from the conservative American MPAA. Australia decided this was a film for Mature audiences, and the British Board of Film Classification rated it 15. Across Canada, the provincial boards rated it similarly, generally noting it as requiring adult accompaniment for children under 14. The one exception was Quebec. Unfazed by language and nudity, the Régie awarded a G rating. However, they did add a warning: “Not Recommended for Young Children” (i.e children under age eight).

Rating based on thematic elements, including suicide, is harder than counting swears and body parts, but parents often assume a G rating means the film is suitable for all ages. The boards should be aware of that, and classify films appropriately. Suicide is only one of many thematic elements that could be disturbing for children. Rather than try and warn about all of the elements that might be upsetting, the Régie should ensure that the age rating they assign is not misleading.

Won’t Someone Think of the Children

The New Censors: Movies and the Culture Wars was published in 1997. Author Charles Lyon looks at how the decline of government censorship in the the United States was followed by a rise in censorship attempts by social groups on the left and right of the political spectrum. Although the book is about movies, and Canada, like most countries, still has government censorship of movies, the issues Lyon raises apply to other media, and other countries. Which brings us to present day Vancouver.

Mark Hasiuk has recently written about the Vancouver School Board diversity team. The group of six well paid individuals is responsible for ensuring school libraries contain “a range of children’s literature that accurately portrays all kinds of families, various cultural communities and traditions.” They accomplish this noble mission following a checklist that Mark claims originated in California.

So far so good. Unfortunately, this means not just selecting the right books, but ensuring the wrong books are removed. What kind of book is wrong? Among other red flags, almost anything published before 1973. Mark wonders, “how did they decide on that date?” Thanks to the internet, I have learned that 1973 was a major year for UFO sightings. I think the conclusion is obvious.

Like blogs on censorship? Rob has blogged on this subject and other literary censorship at http://censorshipdown.blogspot.com/.

Don’t Fear the XXX Domain

Illuminated Sign: XXX Peep Shows
Image: PinkMoose/Flickr

After seven years of wrangling, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has approved XXX as a sponsored generic top level domain (TLD). Curiously, the adult entertainment industry and religious and family groups both opposed this move, though for different reasons. The industry fears easier censorship, resents the creation of a virtual red-light district, and does not look forward to the costs of registering new domain names. Religious and family groups resented what they saw as the legitimization of sexual content online.

It’s easy to be cynical about the decision. It is certainly a windfall for ICM Registry, the company that controls names issued with the XXX suffix. As I write this, 267,772 domain names have been “pre-reserved” (whatever that means – I do dislike unnecessary “pre”) and the prices have not yet been announced. And yes, it will make censorship easier – much easier. An employer, parent, country, or ISP can just block all .XXX addresses.

However, if we look at the model of film rating in Canada, clearly identifying pornography as pornography can actually reduce censorship. Calls to censor typically come from people concerned about unintentional exposure of adult material to minors. For example, parents will plead with government authorities to do something after little Jimmy was shocked to the see that hotchicks.com is not a site about incubating hatchlings. Porn under the XXX domain will only be seen by those that seek it out.

Legitimizing sexual content is also a good thing. Legitimization leads to regulation and control. Sounds oppressive, but regulation and control of the sex industry reduces the oppression and exploitation of vulnerable individuals. Whereas .COM remains the wild west, the ICM Registry requires that companies using XXX domains be authenticated and meet various standards, including a globally defined prohibition against child pornography:

Registrants in the sTLD may not display any photograph, film, video, picture, or computer or computer-generated image or picture, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical, or other means, depicting child pornography as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Any sites in the sTLD that appear to be in violation of this policy shall be referred to the child safety hotlines in accordance with IFFOR policy.

The XXX domain could become the equivalent of fair trade chocolate for the porn consumer. The morality of porn on the internet is a moot point – it’s there. So why not make sure it is clearly labelled, honestly presented, and a little easier to avoid if you don’t want it.

Censoring Search Engines

Whenever people worry about “bad” content on the internet, however you define bad content, a proposed solution is to require search engines to censor their results. This leads to earnest discussion over whether or not forcing search engines to censor results will solve the problem, and at what cost. For example, could movie piracy be reduced by censoring Google? http://blog.searchenginewatch.com/110315-144530.

This discussion avoids the significant amount of self-censoring most search engines already perform. Some of this is obvious, such as the lack of auto complete for some terms, and some of this is less obvious, such as the algorithms used to rank results. For example, if you search “censorship in canada” on Google, this blog does not appear in the first ten pages. Maybe it turns up later, but who goes past ten pages with search results?  Bing/Yahoo brings this blog up on the second page.  My old friend Alta Vista brings this blog up on the first page. So is Google censoring this blog? Perhaps, but as with any private rating/ranking organization, how it works is a mystery.  At any rate, the issue of whether or not search engines should censor is moot. They do.

If you really want to censor the internet (and there are valid reasons to do that), the solution is the carriers: Bell and Rogers carry most of the Internet traffic in this country, and they are in the technical position to control content. Just because they can does not mean they should determine what is allowed – as with the search engines, allowing private business to make censorship decisions is dangerous – but they are in a position to implement restrictions on what is allowed.