Earlier this year, 35 people decided which films it is and isn’t okay for you to watch

Tuesday December 18th 2012

There’s been much said in the last couple of weeks about the BBFC’s announcement that they’re tightening their sexual violence policy in accordance with a study carried out on their behalf earlier this year. Last week, Chris Tookey dismissed the ruling as too little too late, citing the BBFC’s U-turn on The Human Centipede II as ‘the most lily-livered act in its inglorious history’ (yes, he really does write like that). In response, that film’s distributor wrote an open letter in which they thanked both Tookey and the BBFC for the ‘wonderful publicity… and subsequent positive impact on sales’.

Less has been said however, about the study itself.

Commissioned in response to a review carried out last year by Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union Reg Bailey (which focused on the sexualisation of children) the BBFC’s report was set to address a number of controversial decisions made concerning extreme horror movies over the last year.

In April, 36 participants were recruited (one of whom dropped out shortly after the study began) and each was sent copies of the following films, which were separated into three categories:

Passed uncut at 18

Antichrist Martyrs Wolf Creek The Killer Inside Me

Passed cut at 18

(Participants were sent the uncut versions of these films.)

A Serbian Film I Spit On Your Grave The Human Centipede II


Grotesque The Bunny Game

Mercifully, they were also provided with the details of a free telephone counselling service.

After each participant had watched all nine of the movies (and what a jolly weekend that must have been), they were interviewed at length by a team of ‘experienced researchers’. Next followed a discussion group during which the participants were shown 13 additional clips ‘that portrayed sadistic violence, sexualised violence and rape’ from a different set of films. These included the rape myth scene from 3D Sex and Zen, the vacuum cleaner sequence from Dream Home and the scythe bit from Hostel Part II. They were then asked to comment on what they had seen, before finally being sent home to decide whether or not life was worth living.

Many participants reported feeling ’emotionally down’ for several days afterwards, and — according to the report — ‘some of the female participants were visibly upset at what they were watching’. Their responses unsurprisingly leant towards the negative.

Every single member of the study group agreed that children and pregnant women should not be portrayed in scenes of sexual or sadistic violence, as they are in A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede II respectively. Most raised concerns about irresponsible portrayals of sexual assault (though they differed over whether rape was best portrayed from the shoulders or the waist up). One man was worried that The Human Centipede II might trigger a sandpaper masturbation craze.

On the other hand, the participants outlined what they felt were a number of mitigating factors, including but not limited to: a credible storyline, relatable characters and (echoing the draconian Hays Code that governed how movies were made for nearly forty years) ‘a moral message’.

Ultimately, the group felt that the BBFC was not being strict enough in its decisions. Of the films viewed, most participants felt that The Killer Inside Me should have been censored, and that A Serbian Film, I Spit On Your Grave and The Human Centipede II should have been banned outright.

What worries me is not so much the conclusion of the report, but its methodology. Rather than considering the potential for harm, many of the participants simply spoke of what they personally did and did not want to see. Here’s a typical reaction to The Killer Inside Me from Male, 62, Bristol:

‘Punching a woman in the face, it really upset me to see it and why would anyone want to see it? The beating up of the lady I couldn’t understand it, even in the weirdest of sexual pleasures… if it just came on television and I saw that, I would turn it straight off. I really don’t want to see that. I found that worse than chopping off arms, I really did.’

Essentially, the fact that a 62-year-old man doesn’t understand why anyone would want to see a woman being punched in the face (in Michael Winterbottom’s Golden Bear-nominated adaptation of a classic Jim Thompson novel, incidentally) might now have a bearing on UK film censorship. And that’s fucked up.

Here’s Female, 25, Bristol’s take on Antichrist:

‘As soon as it got to the woods, it got weird and I lost interest, I even fell asleep at one point. Why was the film called Antichrist? The film didn’t play out anyway near how I expected it to. I didn’t really understand the story.’

Far be it for me to suggest that Female, 25, Bristol should enjoy Antichrist, but if her opinion is going to inform legislature, I would at least appreciate her staying awake for the duration.

Here’s a take on The Human Centipede II:

‘It should be banned as there is no point for a film like that to exist.’

(Male, 38, Bristol)

Another on A Serbian Film:

‘I think this, the film would have been ten times better and would have been watchable from start to finish if there was no kids in the sexual scenes at all.’

(Male, 27, Dundee)

A response to a question on whether or not Grotesque is potentially harmful:

‘Yeah, very, very, very. I would, we want a XXX on that. And very, yeah, that is very, because it is very sadistic.’

(Female, 44, Dundee)

And a reflection on The Bunny Game:

‘You have to be really perverted and sadistic to want to watch that voluntarily. Just gross. There was no purpose. An excuse for 1.5 hours of sadistic sexual violence. People do do this sort of thing but who wants to watch a film about it?’

(Female, 45, London)

In all fairness to the report, it does acknowledge the lack of articulation and the abundance of contradictions in several of the participants’ responses. But it also goes on to recommend that:

‘…while the fundamentals of the BBFC’s present policy in relation to intervention at 18 on the grounds of sexual and sadistic violence are still key and in line with public expectations, the policy does not currently capture all issues and consequently may need to be reviewed to bring fully in line with public thinking. The research suggests that the BBFC sexual and sadistic violence policy should seek to ensure the right balancing act between key interrelating factors so as to prevent, as far as possible, the potential harm for members of the public in repeatedly watching films with sexual and sadistic violence.’

The thing is: I could have told you back in April that putting a random cross-section of the general public in a room and forcing them to watch The Bunny Game would result in outrage, disgust and calls for moral reform. The same would be true if the participants had been made to read Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, or take a look at Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or absorb countless other perfectly legal works of art that happen to feature provocative subject matters.

The question of whether or not movies have the potential to harm is one that scores of psychologists have tried and failed to answer since the very earliest days of the medium.

Male, 38, London and Female, 19, Dundee seem no more likely to succeed.