The Halifax Daily News
Sunday, March 2, 1997

Let's Get Over Our Nervousness

Eliminate the Film Censor Board and free up $1 million a year we could use to fight child abuse.
by Parker Barss Donham,

``It's your choice!'' reads the headline on a mission-explaining flier from the Maritime Film Classification Board. But two sentences later it becomes clear that the choice isn't really ours after all.

``A film's content may mean that only certain age groups may see it'', the flier goes on to explain. ``In some cases, it may be left to a parent . . . to decide if a film is suitable for a younger viewer. Theatres and retail video outlets are obliged by law to enforce the age limitations.''

I first encountered the board's Orwellian notion of freedom of choice in 1986, when my family attempted to see a matinee of Pretty in Pink, a wholesome coming-of-age story with overtones of class conflict. My then-11-year-old son fell three years below the minimum age at which the Nova Scotia government trusted us, his mother and father, to decide what he could handle in the way of films.

When our family finally got to see the film on video, 11-year-old and all, we discovered that Pretty in Pink had a bit of fighting and some bad words - words our son heard regularly on the school playground.

I've always wondered what social purpose was served by preventing him, and because we were with him, us, from seeing in a theatre a movie we would all watch on our TV set six months later. Despite his parents' lackadaisical attitude toward smut-exposure, the boy somehow grew up to swear far less than his dad, and to the best of my knowledge, has never lifted a hand in anger to anyone.

What is it about movies, anyway? We don't have a Book Classification Board or a Magazine Classification Board or a Bubble Gum Card Classification Board. Why do we need one for films?

Classification is the benign, central purpose of the board's mandate, but its task quickly spills over into various levels of censorship: what children can see on their own volition, what parents can allow them to see, and in more than 400 cases, what anyone in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island can see.

That's how many movies are currently on the board's five-page List of Prohibited Films, but it really understates the board's impact. Because the board charges $3 per minute to rate films, the number of movies distributed in Nova Scotia has fallen from about 4,000 to about 2,000 per year.

Most of those on the banned list are titles I'd probably not be inclined to view in the company of an 11-year-old: Beverly Hills Copulator; Lay It Again Sam; Jane Bond Meets the Man with the Golden Rod; and Ubangus on Uranus are a few of the no-nos. But last week the board banned Bastard Out of Carolina, a widely acclaimed film about sexual abuse, directed by Anjelica Houston and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Based on a Dorothy Allison novel that was a finalist for a U.S. National Book Award, the film recounts the torment of growing up in a poor white family in the old South of the 1950s. Leigh plays a single mother whose boyfriend (Ron Eldard) grows increasingly hostile toward her preternaturally observant 9-year-old daughter, Bone (Jena Malone). He eventually rapes the girl in a scene described as powerful and disturbing.

That brought Bastard up against government regulations barring films containing ``a scene where a person who is ... under the age of 16 appears in a scene of explicit and exploitive sexual activity'', or ``a graphic or prolonged scene of violence, torture, crime, cruelty, horror, or human degradation.'' The 18-member board of citizens from around Nova Scotia unanimously agreed that the film could not be shown.

Their decision is at odds with every critical review of the film I've been able to find.

Writing in Variety, Godfrey Cheshire called it ``an absorbing, sometimes wrenching tale'', and ``a handsome, thoughtful picture (that) looks behind Tobacco Road cliches to evoke the complex weave of love, hardship, and family bonds that conditioned the life of poor whites in the days before New South prosperity kicked in.''

Andy Jones of Rough Cuts, an on-line movie film zine, called it ``exceptional . . . difficult to watch but worth it.''

The illogic of the board's decision comes into sharp focus in light of New York University Medical School's praise of the Allison novel in its Medical Humanities Database because it ``presents a portrait of (a stepfather's sexual abuse) that is contextualized, culturally situated, and uncensored via Bone's own lived experience, which makes it a particularly important perspective for a fuller understanding of the experience. It also raises difficult questions about the relationship between the mother, the abuser, and the abused child that is much more fully developed and nuanced than psychological accounts.''

To put the film version of such a novel in the same category as Wrestling Amazons or Ilsa, the Wicked Warden is typical of the pitfalls that occur once government assumes the power to decide what we can watch.

Bastard out of Carolina the novel is widely used in Women's Studies courses as a powerful treatment of a social problem that we can thank tthe women's movement for bringing into the open. Its banning here is an irony that might cause feminists to reconsider the fervent support some - but not all - of them have voiced for sexual censorship.

In Allison's semi-autobiographical novel, Bone's lesbian Aunt Raylene has the following advice for her nascent lesbian niece: ``I'm counting on you to get out of there and do things girl. Make people nervous and make your old Aunt glad.''

She succeeded. Now let's get over our nervousness, eliminate the film censor board, and free up $1 million a year we could use to fight child abuse.

Copyright © 1997 by Parker Barss Donham. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.