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Saturday, 16 July 2016

Vale Hector Babenco...and the tale of the MFF screening of his 1981 PIXOTE


Hector Babanco
So its farewell to Hector Babenco, a distinguished film-maker who made a couple of very major movies and half dozen or so more. If you would like to read a good short note about his career this link at Cinematropical.will help you to discover a little more useful info.

If however you’d like to know more about the remarkable controversy that erupted around the proposed screenings of Babenco’s 1981 moviePixote at the 1982 Melbourne Film Festival you should read on here. 

I saw Pixote  at the 1981 San Sebastian Film Festival in September 1981 and instantly wanted it for the next MFF. In those days the way you got censorship approval was to send up an application with an accompanying synopsis to the Film Censorship Board, a body presided over at the time by Janet Strickland. As a matter of regular process the films were then given approval to screen at Sydney and Melbourne. The Censors had the right to call in any film submitted via this process and arrange for it to be viewed and classified. 

The censors of the day had a network of informants around the world, mostly in the English speaking world, by which, information about film classifications, including bannings in certain places was passed around among themselves. This was no doubt how Pixote came to the notice of the Australian censor. To my surprise the authorities called up and asked for the film to be sent up for viewing. This I did and within a day or so I was informed that the censor had banned it. 

At this point David Stratton and the Sydney Film Festival swung into action and quickly lodged an appeal and hired some heavyweight legal counsel to represent the two organisations wanting to screen the film. By the time the 1982 MFF had started the appeal had still not been heard. This process was slow because the Films Board Of Review had to be assembled. The Board was chaired by an old acquaintance of mine Sir Richard Kingsland, a long time now retired Canberra mandarin who rather enjoyed the modest task of running the Review Board’s activities. Sir Richard rang me and wanted to have a quick talk just asking what was so important about this film. Had me spluttering a bit because I really wanted just to focus on the censorship principles of ‘freedom of expression’ and the MFF being a responsible organization. He wasn’t having any of that. Towards the end of the conversation I did say to him that I thought his reputation as a civil libertarian and fighter for freedom might be seriously trashed amongst the crowd in which he moved if he upheld the ban. Hmmm. Immaturity has its virtues.

Now it should be said that I was somewhat enjoying the little contretemps with the authorities. Press releases poured out and any correspondence was passed on to and somewhat gleefully republished by Neil Jillett and other journos at The Age. I thought of it as daily free publicity at a time when the festival had no budget at all for such things. I am sure the Film Censorship Board found it exasperating. Our cause was given some help on the Opening Night of the Festival when the State Premier John Cain departed from his prepared remarks on stage to say that he wanted the whole question of festival censorship reviewed and said he thought such nonsense as banning films had long disappeared.

In a day or two, the Review Board made its decision and approved the film for screening. Relief all round except from Janet Strickland and her no doubt somewhat peeved Board. The Metro Malvern was packed to the rafters when it screened the next night and people who only used their festival subscriptions infrequently came out in droves. Every seat was taken I thought as I walked out after the film began. Then one of Melbourne’s leading retailers, a member of a family that bought hundreds of dollars worth of subscriptions every year, loomed up and had to be found a place. Somehow or other he was levered into assuredly the sole remaining spot right in the middle of a row.

After the festival, the very smart distributor Richard Waldberg grabbed the commercial rights and quickly sought to exploit the publicity. He had one hurdle to jump which was to have the film approved for commercial release by the Film Censorship Board. Then bugger me the Board banned the film, again. Who could believe it. It turned out that what gave the Board some wriggle room was that the copy of the film submitted by Waldberg was slightly different to the one screened by the festival. One or other, I cant remember which, had a prologue in which Babenco himself introduced his young lead actor and segued into the film. On this basis, that is that it was a different movie, the Board again banned the film and on this basis the Board of Review was re-assembled and again undid the ban. Waldberg made a good profit eventually.

The next year, I happened to run into a member of the Film Censorship Board and asked what had happened. “A big mistake” she told me cryptically and we left it at that. 


The next year, the new Labor Government introduced regulations which gave the festivals a right to screen without having to endure the uncertainty of this process. That only lasted for a while but I understand something similar was re-introduced last year by George Brandis the current Attorney-General. There you are.

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