A September Friday night in Melbourne was spent in your average fashion; out with a friend, watching a film, however, in this case the film was A Serbian Film for the opening of MUFF. As a horror genre enthusiast and MUFF supporter, I had been looking forward to the screening, with eager anticipation, intrigued to find what content had made it through the Australian classification sieve onto Melbourne’s streets. The film’s screening was merely days after a raid on an ‘adult’ store in Thomastown, where allegedly $300,000 worth of adult films and magazines were seized.
A Serbian Film sparked controversy worldwide, since its first screening at South By Southwest festival last year in Texas. Parallels have been drawn between the similarly explicit sexual depictions in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and A Serbian Film, by not only my companion at MUFF in post screening discussions, but also by Refused-Classification.com. With respect to Irreversible, my friend and I take particular issue with one male to female anal rape scene. This scene features regularly during my many rants about the illegality of X 18+ films within the state of Victoria, and the content featured in R 18+ films. How does the Victorian government, in co-operation with the Classification Board, justify the presentations of non-consensual sex when depictions of consensual sex are prohibited?
Where do Victorian communities and government draw the line between that which is objectionable, and that which is acceptable? The role of the Victorian Government is to balance a reflection of community standards, whilst also providing a presence of governmental control, and yet it appears as though there is no obvious relationship here.
The classification code highlights the necessity to account for community concerns regarding both ‘depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence’ and ‘the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner’. However, exactly what material should be viewed as ‘sexual violence’, and also what constitutes ‘a demeaning manner’ is open to debate; a debate that would reveal varying attitudes depending on what sector of the community is asked, and arguably, how well they are represented in parliament.
Films are classified as per the guidelines presented within the Classification Act 1995, which considers what a ‘reasonable adult’ would determine as acceptable in ‘matters of sex’, drugs, crime and ‘abhorrent phenomena’. It is at the intersection of sex and illegal activity that the government draws the line.
What is an adult?
How do we determine what adults should legitimately be “allowed” to view, and who should be categorised as an ‘adult’? The Commonwealth Classification Act 1995’s definition of an adult is ‘a person who is 18 years or older’, whilst X rated films are commonly referred to as “adult films”, suggesting that this material is created by adults for adult consumption.
This section contrasts films considered adult by the classification board (R 18+ and X 18+), and what specific traits separate the two forms of adult material, rendering one illicit. Public discussion surrounding adult material suggests parliamentarians consider X-rated films as not only encompassing ‘adult concepts’, and content for the consumption of individuals over the age of eighteen, but this material should also be considered too adult for adults. The Classification Act 1995 draws the legal line up to the category of R 18+, leaving X 18+ as illicit. Key aspects of R 18+ include, violence and drug use are ‘permitted’, implied sexual violence, no language restrictions, ‘virtually no restrictions on the treatment of themes’, and in regards to sex; ‘[s]exual activity may be realistically simulated. The general rule is “simulation, yes – the real thing, no”’. Juxtapose R 18+ with the illicit X 18+ category, which does not permit ‘violence, sexual violence, sexualised violence or coercion’, ‘sexually assaultive language’ or ‘consensual depictions which purposefully demean anyone involved in that activity for the enjoyment of viewers’. This begs the question as to how the classification board determined observing violent depictions to be less harmful than watching penetrative sex. It is unclear as to how two categories for ‘adults’ (18+) exist; one encompassing all six themes determined as those ‘high impact’, including violence against women, simulated rape scenes, and verbally assaultive language, and yet is determined to be legal material in Victoria.
In regards to parliamentary use of the term ‘adult’, both in classification as well as terming X 18+ ‘adult material’, this appears contradictory. The use of the term ‘adult’ suggests that although children may not be suitable to understand, or to view such content, adults are suited to view ‘adult’ material, or that, legally, adults should be “allowed” by law to determine for themselves if said content is “too adult” for their viewing. However, the Victorian Classification (Enforcement) Act 1995 removes this capacity from adults.
The Commonwealth guidelines suggest that viewing violence is ‘adult’, as is viewing drug use, however the making, sale or distribution of films exhibiting sex are determined to be illegal. What does this say about the X 18+ category? Sex is not only necessary to reproduce, and therefore uphold the existence of society, but is also legal behaviour to re-enact. Such feminists as Nadine Strossen suggest that pornography has at times been utilised to explain social inequalities, raising questions as to why violence is deemed acceptable, in particular violence against women (in film) legal via the R 18+ category, and yet sexual relations are deemed illegitimate. This illegality of X 18+ raises questions as to what patriarchal ideals the Australian government are force feeding viewers, in accepting the representation of (illegal) drug use in film, violent behaviour is also legitimised, including representations of forced sex so long as it is simulated (“simulation, yes – the real thing, no”) and both physical and verbal abuse against or towards women. Does artistic contextualisation justify gratuitous sexual violence, whilst consensual penetrative sex is prohibited? And yet material created by adults (18+) for adults (18+), depicting the mutual enjoyment of adults, is considered too harmful for consumption.
X 18+ films are simply that; films. Therefore, X- rated films should be treated as any other film or re-enactments. The manner in which X 18+ films spark such controversy and anger from particular portions of society suggest such people should take an introspective look, and decipher what exactly alarms them about X 18+ content. Sex is something that must occur to enable propagation of the human species, therefore, recreating these acts on film should not be condemned to the lengths of prohibition in comparison to such content readily available in R 18+ films, which highlight graphic killings and rapes (which are not required for the continuation of the species).
What does A Serbian Film tell us about particular concepts and issues that we as a society consider as acceptable, with particular regards to women and representations? The film exhibits many rapes, women being beaten, implied necrophilia upon a woman, whilst calling her a ‘whore’. When juxtaposed with the Thomastown raid on material, which depicts consensual sex (in all its forms), and yet this material is considered illegal, resulting in an arrest and seizure of goods. At the end of the day, both women in both genres of films are actresses, yet one is presented as consensual and the other not. The interesting part; the woman presented consensually is the one that is illegal.
A Serbian Film has been artistically contextualised, therefore qualifying for the R 18 category. Sure, it presents the decaying of society, and sparks such questioning as to what we as viewers want to see and why, thereby highlighting its artistic qualities. However, some may ask, what type of sick people want to view infant rape, bestiality, necrophilia, incest, paedophilia, and all related to payment for such services… umm well, presumably the people sitting next to me at Memo. I wonder if more people want to watch this, or shop at the Thomastown store?
 According to the guidelines, ‘Impact may be higher where a scene: contains greater detail, including the use of close-ups and slow motion; uses accentuation techniques, such as lighting, perspective and resolution; uses special effects, such as lighting and sound, resolution, colour, size of image characterisation and tone; is prolonged; is repeated frequently; is realistic, rather than stylised; encourages interactivity’ (Commonwealth of Australia, 2008: 5-6) (original italics)