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.

The “Not a Love Story” Myth

One of the persistent myths about the Ontario Film Review Board (OFRB) is that they banned the NFB anti-pornography  documentary “Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography.” Wikipedia is one of the sources that perpetuates this myth. As with all myths, there is an element of truth, but here’s the whole story.

In the early 1980s, the OFRB did review documentaries. However, the presence of explicit sex did not necessarily lead to a ban, or even cutting. “The Art of Worldly Wisdom” includes 46 seconds of close up explicit sex. It was submitted for review by a group of artists called The Ontario Film and Video Appreciation Society (OFVAS), and passed, uncut, with a Restricted rating (no one under age 18 may view). However, the Board placed limits on when and where the film could be shown.

OFVAS submitted three other films. A second one, “Rameau’s Nephew” also passed with time and place restrictions. The third film, “Amerika,” was banned, and the fourth film was “Not a Love Story.” The Board refused to review “Not a Love Story.”

OFVAS took the OFRB to court, claiming that the Board had violated the new Canadian Constitution.  The Ontario Divisional Court ruled in 1983 that film classification and censorship per se were justifiable under the Constitution. The court also determined that three of the Board’s rulings were valid.

The refusal to rate “Not A Love Story”  was acceptable to the court. The court ruled that the Board did not need to perform hypothetical reviews. The judge stated “the applicants were seeking permission to show a film they did not own and which they had no right to exhibit.” The two approvals with time and place restrictions were ruled a “valid exercise of the Board’s power.”

The ban of “Amerika” was another matter entirely. The court ruled that the Board had no legally defined rights to determine what the public could view.  The Ontario government appealed to the Ontario Supreme Court, but the appeal was dismissed in 1984.   Over the next few years, the Ontario government developed legally defined standards for the operation of the Board.

So, “Not a Love Story” was not banned – it was never reviewed. But it did form part of a court case that led to significant changes at the Board. And while all this was going on in Ontario, “Not a Love Story” was a popular draw at a downtown theatre in Montreal – the hottest show on the strip for folks who missed the point the film was trying to make.

As good a review as any is at Canuxploitation. Of course, the OFRB ban myth is there too…

The Americans are Coming! The Americans are Coming!

The Ontario Government created a Board of Censors in 1911. That same year saw boards established to the west in Manitoba, to the east in Quebec, and to the south in Pennsylvania. Major cities had censors for stage plays, and with purpose built theatres showing ever longer and more depraved movies, something needed to be done about the movie menace.

The original guidelines were short and clear: “no picture of an immoral or obscene nature, or depicting crime or pictures reproducing a prizefight shall be passed”. Only 1 in 4 films passed this high standard. Films that passed could still be cut, or have an offending image such as the American flag, blacked out. The Board Chair, George Armstrong, wrote an open letter to film distributors in a trade magazine, explaining that gratuitous displays of the American flag would not be permitted. When the Great War began in 1914, Canadians were even less tolerant of literal and thematic American flag waving in movies. The United States eventually joined the Allies in 1917, and promptly began producing films which supported the war effort but completely ignored the sacrifices of Canada and other nations.

In 1925, Maclean’s magazine published “What the Censor Saves us From.” The pro-censorship anti-american rant featured a brave reporter venturing across the border to see American films in all their shocking uncensored glory, as well as attacking the American film industry in general for its obsessions with loose morality, depictions of crime, and portrayals of frontier justice. Memories of the American late entry into the war were not forgotten: The reporter criticized American films for freely using Canadian locations yet ignoring Canada’s war efforts.

While censors did their best to protect Canadians from American films, the government regularly considered quotas to ensure proper British films were shown, and the British film industry supported. Of course, theatre owners were opposed. M. J. O’ Brien, of the Ottawa Valley Amusement Company, operating the O’Brien Theatres in Pembroke, Renfrew, Arnprior and Almonte, wrote to the provincial Treasurer in 1931, protesting one of the last airings of a possible quota. He included the text of a telegram he had just sent:

Understand legislation being considered to force theatres of province play twenty per cent British films stop … have tried British pictures our circuit with disastrous results stop pictures are poorly made stop box-office receipts affect tax receipts stop … you may censor what people want to see but you cannot force them to pay to see pictures they don’t like.

Quotas were never introduced, and the tables soon turned. By the late 1930s, the Production Code was in full effect in the United States, and the cleaned up pictures were a relief to Canadian censors. In 1937, Board Chair Omri Silverthorne stated in Variety that American films required fewer cuts due to language than British films. The next two decades were peaceful times for censors.