Tuesday 11 August 2020

Melbourne International Film Festival (Online) - Tom Ryan takes exception to MIFF censoring its selection

Inexplicably re-scheduled to clash with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (August 7 – 16), this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (August 6 – 23) is also known as MIFF 681/2, because it’s very different from previous ones. Since we’re in the midst of a pandemic, instead of people huddling together in orderly queues outside cinemas across the city in order to attend screenings, it’s all happening on-line (as is MWF 2020). 


You make your booking, pay the equivalent of an entry fee, the film you’re after arrives in your inbox on the set date, and you have 30 hours in which to watch it. It was all smoothly launched into cyberspace late last week, beginning with the ever-reliable Kelly Reichardt’s excellent First Cow. See the festival’s website – https://miff.com.au– for further program information.


But there’s something else that makes this festival different from the ones that we’ve grown up with, something outrageous and unexpected. Along with the usual preview commentaries in print and on-line about MIFF681/2, Karl Quinn’s feature in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (July 30) provided an account of the festival meekly acquiescing in the face of a potential controversy. The perceived problem – arguably one that was manufactured for what’s known in the media business as a “beat-up” – was all to do with the original inclusion in the program of the Austrian film, The Trouble With Being Born, directed and co-written bySandra Wollner. 


The winner of a Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, it’s described on the IMDb website as “the story of a machine and the ghosts we all carry within us”. Critics have approvingly compared it thematically to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic, Vertigo. Quinn, however, characterises the film as “a movie in which an android child has sex with its human ‘father’”, which casts it in a very different light. 


He goes on to explain that “The Age” took its concerns about The Trouble With Being Born to two psychologists, neither of whom had seen the film in full. One said she’d been so disturbed by it that she “ceased watching”; the other hadn’t seen it at all. At least as reported in the article, this didn’t prevent strong opinions emerging. “Notwithstanding the artistic intent of the movie, without question it would be used as a source of arousal for men interested in child abuse material,” one is quoted as asserting. The other wisely appears to have hedged her bets: she’s simply quoted as saying that “it is illegal in Australia to use 'simulated' children for sexual gratification”. 


Still, when “The Age” told MIFF of the comments, it was enough for festival director Al Cossar to decide to exorcise The Trouble With Being Born from its schedule. He’s quoted as saying, by way of explanation, “The safety and wellbeing of the MIFF community and the broader Australian public is the festival's paramount concern. While the Australian Classification Board had cleared the film to screen in this year's festival, we have decided to remove (it).” 


Let’s get this straight because it’s a truly shocking scenario: a film that was selected by the director’s team, approved by the programming committee and passed by the Australian censor was then withdrawn because of what two psychologists who either hadn’t seen the film or had only seen part of it had to say about it. Not that that is really the issue.


During the 1960s and ’70s, festival directors Erwin Rado in Melbourne and David Stratton in Sydney, fought long, hard and heroically to free their beloved and widely-attended festivals from the yoke of censorship. And won the battle. MIFF might now say in its defence that it’s not being censored from outside, that it’s making a responsible decision in the interests of, as Cossar puts it, “the safety and wellbeing of the MIFF community and the broader Australian public”. 


If this is the case, though, the entire MIFF team responsible for programming should resign, for they are collectively responsible for the selection of a film that Cossar now believes is a threat to us all. In fact, because of the course of action that MIFF681/2 has followed, a dangerous precedent has been set. The honourable Rado is probably turning in his grave at this appalling turn of events, and Stratton might well have begun digging his by way of escape.


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