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25 Aug 2010

The irony of censorship

A film slated to be screened at the recently concluded Indignation Film Festival in Singapore had to be withdrawn after it was classified by censors as "Not Allowed for All Ratings". Jun Zubillaga-Pow, director of the festival, says such decisions only drives would-be viewers to seek other means to view the disallowed films.

My intention was sincere: to introduce international GLBT films to local audiences. Unfortunately, negotiating with the bureaucracy was a painstaking manoeuvre. The initiative is challenging not only for the organiser who is concerned primarily with covering the overheads, but it is also a political dilemma for the Board of Film Censors (BFC), the state organ which controls the population’s accessibility to mass media. After all, the filmgoers are the ultimate stakeholders in this arbiter of social open-mindedness.

If we remember from last year’s Pride Season, the film Devotee by Remi Lange was given a R21 rating after cuts in two scenes (one with male frontal nudity and another with rear penetration).

This year, the film Eating Out 3 by Glenn Gaylord was classified as “Not Allowed for All Ratings” at IndigNation 2010 as justified by the following statement from the BFC:

“[Eating Out 3] promotes the homosexual lifestyle and features explicit homosexual sex sequences which have exceeded the film classification guidelines.”

I want to present this episode as objective as possible and inform our readers of the classification process. After a film has been submitted, the BFC will deliberate on its classification. If the BFC is unable to come to a reasonable rating among her officers, the film is brought to the Film Consultative Panel, which is made up of people selected by the Media Development Authority. The current 2-year panel is chaired by Mr Vijay Chandran, the Director of Elasticity. The panel’s vice-chairs are Dr Christine Yap, Consultant, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, IVF Clinician, Women’s Health and Fertility Centre Pte Ltd and Dr Jasbir Singh, Research Scientist and Deputy Director of the Science and Engineering Research Council at A*STAR. All three are selected from the scientific sectors, while half of the other 60 members (including the law professor Ms Yvonne CL Lee) already belong to the public and/or education sectors. The rest of the members can be found here: http://www.mda.gov.sg/Public/MediaClassification/FilmsAndVideos/Pages/FCP.aspx.

I believe the R21 classification of A Single Man went through this chain of command before being submitted to the Film Appeal Committee, whose decision to retain the rating remains final. The representative constituents of the Film Appeal Committee are no different from that of the Film Consultative Panel, with 60% of its 15 members drawn from government agencies, bearing the tendency to toe the line and not rock the boat. The list of members can be found here: http://www.mda.gov.sg/Public/MediaClassification/FilmsAndVideos/Pages/FAC.aspx.

Every ten years or so, a Censorship Review Committee (CRC) is set up to look into governmental policies and make recommendations to the Media Development Authority (MDA). The Ministry of Information, Communications, and the Arts (MICA) will issue a report in response to the recommendations suggested by the CRC. MICA’s response to the 2003 CRC report was an ‘agreement in principle’ with respect to the following clauses concerning homosexual content:

- Take a more flexible and contextual approach when dealing with homosexual themes and scenes in content.

- Allow greater leeway for adults, through suitable channels, to access such content provided it is not exploitative.

Now, even though MICA has agreed to these recommendations in principle, MDA continues to deny Singaporeans the right to watch films with positive portrayal of homosexuality. This includes Singaporeans aged 21 and above. In 2010, as we await the new recommendations from the fourth CRC, the speculation hovers along conservative lines against social diversity. 

The irony out of these episodes is glaringly uncanny. After hearing about the ban imposed on Eating Out 3, several people went online and downloaded not just one, but all three chapters of the series and watched these films in their private comfort. Such is the contradiction between the private and the public; the intention of the organiser, that is to introduce quality GLBT films to local audiences, has nonetheless been achieved. The charge of online piracy is inevitably an adverse consequence given the denial of GLBT films to be screened in honourable public domains. 

Perhaps the government has yet to grasp the logic of “curiosity killing the cat”. From chewing gums to casinos to GLBT films, the ethics of censorship is thwarted by the very forces that enact it. One day, there will be more GLBT films in the (black) market and the outflow of man and money will make the bureaucrats re-evaluate their strategies in the management of mass media. Now, the decisions lie in your hands: show your support for GLBT films the next time they are screened. Tell our leaders that we are a significant group of people who deserve our right to information and entertainment alike. Don’t censor, let us decide. 

Jun Zubillaga-Pow is the director of Singapore Pride Season 2010 and is also the recipient of the Rascals Prize special commendation award. He is a member of the ArtsEngage community, which is currently involved in an anti-censorship campaign. For more information, please visit http://sites.google.com/site/artsengagesg.



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