“Banned in Australia for over seventeen years,” the theatrical poster to Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom cried, “now for the first time, Australian audiences have the opportunity to judge one of the most controversial films in the history of cinema”.
That was in 1993, when Italian arthouse director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film before his murder was unbanned by the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC). The film, an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s book The 120 Days of Sodom and a savage indictment of World War II-era Fascist Italy, was followed with an unbridled firestorm of controversy from politicians, religious groups and other public figures on its theatrical run. The Reverend Fred Nile took great pains to emphasise, both parliamentarily and publicly, the importance of an increasingly despotic censorship regime.
Then, in one of the most nauseating bipartisan coups against free-mindedness in Australia’s history, Queensland Labor Premier Wayne Goss agreed with Opposition leader Rob Borbidge with regards to the “outrage” that was an R18+ rated Salò, and he “urge[d] Queenslanders to stay away [from the re-released film] in droves”. A reclassification eventually came in 1998, after Judy Spence released a statement erroneously titled "Borbidge Must Act on Sex Film that Glorifies Pedophilia." The OFLC caved; the film was banned.
The ’98 ban was confirmed five years later. In July 2008, the applicant “Shock” re-submitted it for classification. For a fourth time, Australian authorities banned Salò. Soon after, the film enjoyed a highly publicised and best-selling re-release by arthouse distributors Criterion in the United States.
It was a sobering sequence of events to see unfold - a picture that was widely available to most of the free world was prohibited by Australian authorities and damned to the recesses of cinephiliac memory. Since 1998, distributing, purchasing or even possessing a copy of Salò is an offence punishable by a jail term. The Australian Classification Board cites dozens of non-pornographic works, some legal a few hundred kilometres across the Tasman in New Zealand, with similar status.
At what point did democracy go wrong?
A statutory board that is secretariat to the Attorney-General’s department, known as the Classification Board and Classification Review Board, governs the Australian classification scheme. Before the ex-ABC chief Donald McDonald began his tenure at the dusk of the Howard era in 2008, the Board was known as the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification. However their purposes as outlined by their website, remained the same despite the name change: “[to classify] films, computer games and publications, and also provide classifications to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) on Internet content, advise enforcement agencies such as the police, and advise the Australian Customs Service.”
It’s worth noting that the Board’s title is at once a misleading one. At no point does it suggest that it serves, or even has the power to, censor and prohibit. The Board does so in a charlatanic, roundabout way through employment of the “RC”. An acronym for “Refused Classification”, films classified RC are prohibited for sale, free distribution, possession and even exhibition in Australia or any of its territories.
The national classification scheme the Board abides by is outlined by the National Classification Code, found within the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth). The decade-old legislation encompasses video games, books and film: classifications G, PG, M, MA15+, R18+ and RC are administered Australia-wide.
Pornographic films containing real, but non-fetishistic or non-violent, sex are classified X18+, but are restricted for over-the-counter sale in the Territories. The “no violence” rule has led to a number of unfair decisions. This is often confused in the public eye as being synonymous with “violent sex”, considered reprehensible generally, but this is not always the case. An example: two princes engage in a sword fight over a princess, one prince dies, the princess allows her prince to have his way with her. The sword fight automatically bans the film, irrespective of the severity of the violence.
Hardcore sexual activity is not permitted in R18+ classification, with the Board writing in their guidelines, “a general rule is: simulated, yes; the real thing, no”. Certainly films have been banned for contravening this guideline. The 1979 Penthouse co-production Caligula, which starred Peter O’Toole, 2007’s Best Actress Academy Award winner Dame Helen Mirren and Malcolm “A Clockwork Orange” McDowell in the title role, contained six minutes of hardcore sex inserts in its 156 minute running time. After a weeks-long run with an X18+ classification, the film was banned. A re-classification in 2003 confirmed its status as contraband. The ban took place because of the “sword fight” example - Caligula decapitates a dissenter, before attending a decadent Roman orgy later in the film. A version excised of 50 minutes (that’s five-zero, ten under a full hour) was released in Australia, while the uncut print was made available in the United States and much of Europe.
The banning of Ken Park in 2003 for “real sex involving minors” (though only one brief sequence was real, and the “minor” involved was 23 years of age) would forever be branded into the memories of Australian cinemagoers. Critics rebelled, and Margaret Pomeranz of ABC’s At the Movies had a protest screening shut down by police. Pomeranz succinctly described the situation by melancholically observing, “we are not allowed to see a film that millions of people around the world have seen.”