WHO would have thought that on the issue of film censorship, Malaysia and the US would have so much in common? Just look at the Home Ministry’s updated film censorship guidelines, which took effect on 15 March 2010. The four broad areas covered are: public peace and security; the religious; the socio-cultural; and manners and morality. Under “manners and morality”, the Home Ministry forbids depictions that “arouse viewers’ sympathies towards the immoral, deviant and evil”. The US had a similar provision, where movies that “lower[ed] the moral standards” of viewers were condemned by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). The difference is that the MPPDA announced this in 1930.
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca
(film still source: Wiki Commons)
But if we ignore this gap in time, it is amazing how the US’s film censorship dynamics of a near-century ago are so similar to present-day Malaysia’s. Groups in the US such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Catholic Legion of Decency condemned films as “immoral” and protested against religiously “objectionable” films. In 1915, a Supreme Court ruling allowed state and local bodies to censor films.
The Malaysian Home Ministry, though, says its new guidelines are not meant to “stifle filmmakers’ creativity” and will be applied “within the context of the storyline”. Perhaps the ministry has a point. After all, during an intense decade of censorship, Hollywood still managed to produce classics such as Gone with the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1943). But were these gems made because of or despite the strict censorship regime? If we follow the Home Ministry’s logic, there is no contradiction between censoring free speech and artistic expression, and promoting artistic creativity. Is this true? What are the larger implications of film censorship, really?
Perhaps Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam and
its sequel were not supernatural horror films
(poster source: Wiki Commons)
Censorship vs creativity
The US has moved on since its flirtation with censorship in the first half of the 20th century. Malaysia probably has more in common now with China and Iran. Our censorship guidelines forbid “extreme” supernatural horror films and depiction of environmental pollution. That’s almost identical to China’s censorship provisions. We also have an exhaustive list of movie-making don’ts — no characters believing all religions are equal; no challenging of existing official fatwa — that would make Iranian censors proud.
But it is also true that Iran and China have produced some of the best cinema in recent times despite these restrictions. In the 1990s, Iranian films won 30 international awards.
We must remember, however, that this was also the decade in which Iranians elected the reformist Mohamed Khatami as president in 1997. Censorship rules were then relaxed, and Iranian filmmakers could even depict cross-dressing, something Malaysian filmmakers cannot do under the new censorship guidelines.
(© Fabien Dany | Wiki Commons)But then censors started getting more aggressive again, and by 2004 award-winning director Mohsen Makhmalbaf said, “It seems that the new censorship strategy intends to push the Iranian artists to migrate from the country.” In 2005, the ultraconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president.
China’s filmmakers have not been spared, either. Most of the earlier internationally-acclaimed films from director Zhang Yimou were actually banned within China. Zhang remained persona non grata until he decided to make more nationalist fare, starting with Hero (2002).
The thing about China, though, was that directors often didn’t know why their films got censored or banned. A film could be banned over something as arbitrary as farming organisation representatives from remote provinces, appointed to watch the movie, being offended. This is why state censors chose to finally publicise their filmmaking no-nos in 2008, saying the rules were aimed at “purifying screen entertainment” and “creating a more harmonious and green film environment for the public, especially children”.
Censorship does force filmmakers — and citizens, really — to be more creative in trying to get their voices heard. But it can be a losing battle. Maziar Bahari, an Iranian documentary-maker said that “romanticising censorship is a great disservice to Iranian artists.”
He said, “Censorship has had a negative effect on Iranian arts for centuries. I believe without censorship we would have many other great artists and filmmakers whose talent and effort cannot bear fruit because of governmental, religious and social restrictions.”
So here’s the thing: Censorship can make artists try to circumvent it more creatively, but only for a while. Ultimately, censorship achieves two interconnected goals: it infantilises those who accept it, and crushes those who challenge it. The Home Ministry, however, phrases this goal differently in different parts of its guidelines. Films should not cause controversies or doubts in society. Films should not go against government policy. Films should not depict things that go against public opinion.
Films as art
But if we accept that cinema is an art form, then we have to accept that the very purpose of art is to ask questions of society. It is creative engagement and communication between the artist and the viewer. And so art, by definition, causes the public to question certain values and assumptions.
Poster for Bowling for Columbine
(source: Wiki Commons)Films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) were Hollywood’s way of interrogating racism in the US, while Bowling for Columbine (2002) explored the US’s normalisation of armed violence. Certainly, a post-censorship Hollywood has come out with a load of rubbish, but US cinema has also produced important and compelling films which are rightfully considered works of art.
It is telling, then, that US censorship rules were relaxed as society became more democratic — after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the successes of the women’s movement especially. And it is telling that film censorship still prevails in China and Iran — two countries that have not successfully democratised by any stretch of the imagination. And it is telling whose footsteps the Malaysian authorities have chosen to follow.
The Home Ministry could be sincere about wanting to preserve artistic creativity yet needing to censor films to protect society from undesirable elements. But this is not just undemocratic, it is also insulting. It means that in the midst of feel-good efforts such as 1Malaysia and the Government Transformation Programme, the government still believes Malaysians are too stupid to watch a movie without falling apart.
For related stories, see In the Spotlight: Freedom of Expression