Australia is a socially conservative place. And while most people who live here would assume our media is pretty uncensored, we ban films surprisingly often. Here are 11 movies that were banned in Australia, including some surprising choices.
Reason banned: Undermined public confidence in Government.
Film censorship in Australia was originally a state responsibility. But with nearly all films entering the country via Sydney, the New South Wales Censor effectively became the de facto Censor for the country.
From 1928 this was Walter Cresswell O’Reilly, a conservative former businessman who used his broadly defined powers to ban numerous movies. Some estimate as many as half the films that arrived in Australia were banned, during Cresswell’s first five years in office. Among these was ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, the hard hitting anti-war film based on the popular novel by Erich Remarque.
Told from a German point of view, the book and film shows war as a pointless waste of young lives. None of the soldiers are really sure why they are fighting, and would rather go home. Meanwhile the higher ups, politicians and senior commanders, who prosecute the conflict are depicted as remote and uncaring. Cresswell banned the film as he felt these ideas undermined public confidence in the armed forces, and the Government. The book was also originally banned in NSW.
‘All Quiet in the Western Front’ would go on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1932.
Reason banned: Racial stereotypes and cultural insensitivity.
In 1928, American psychologist Stanley Porteus brought a film crew to remote West Australia to film a documentary about Aboriginal tribes. Sponsored by the Australian National Research Council, Porteous spent several months filming tribal activities, the resulting 59 minute documentary released in the US in 1931.
The film was then acquired by Columbia Pictures, who added a 15 minute coda; staged scenes of a white woman, a shipwreck survivor, who was being kept as a sex slave by what was meant to be the same tribe (replaced by actors, in the fictional scenes). The extended film was re-titled ‘The Blonde Captive’, and accompanied by a salacioius advertising campaign, playing up these new elements.
The original film was offensive enough; Porteus, via voice over, comparing Aboriginals to ‘Neanderthals’, and ‘monkeys’. But the documentary had not been screened in Australia. Now, when Columbia tried to release their extended movie, there was a public outcry over the racial stereotypes and gross inaccuracy. ‘The Blonde Captive’ was released in America in 1932, and immediately banned in Australia.
Reason banned: Nudity and anti establishment ideas.
By the 1960s, the Federal Government had formed a new adminsitrative body to determine what content would be made available to the public. This was the ‘Australian Classification Board’, responsible for all media, not just films, and overseen by the Attorney General.
In 1964, Richard Prowse was appointed to the Classification Board as Chief Film Censor, and immediately set about emulating his predecessor, Cresswell O’Reilly. Called ‘demented’ by academic Phillip Adams, Prowse used his new powers to ban a swathe of films. One of these was the classic Swinging London movie ‘Blow Up’, directed by Michaelangelo Antonioni.
An ellusive, hypnotic film, ‘Blow Up’ deals with a fashion photographer, who may have inadvertantly photographed a murder. The film’s central question – how do we judge what is real? – is an unusually mild subject for a banned film; Prowse cited a few seconds of nudity as his rationale, and also objected to the film’s anti-establishment tone.
Other acclaimed films banned by Prowse include ‘La Dolce Vita’, ‘Zabriskie Point’, and ‘The Silence’ (all subsequently unbanned).
Reason banned: Offensive material; incest, sexual violence, coprophagia, you name it.
Baltimore based underground film-maker John Waters was only 26 when he wrote and directed his first feature, ‘Pink Flamingos’. Waters shot on the cheap on 16mm, and was determined to be as provocative as possible, the film featuring; nudity, sodomy, masturbation, fetishism, voyeurism, incest, rape, and a notorious scene where the principal character, played by drag queen Divine (pictured), eats a dog turd. For real.
The film is also funny, and has a method behind its extremes; a satire of mainstream, middle class America. ‘Pink Flamingos’ played colleges and midnight movie houses in the US, and quickly developed a cult following.
It did not make it to Australia until 1976, where it ran into a considerably more conservative society; the film was unsurprisingly banned by the Classification Board. This lead to a decades long struggle over the film’s status in this country; after the initial banning, it was allowed an ‘R’ rating once 4 minutes of footage was removed. It was then re-banned in 1981, and re-released again after 3 more minutes were cut.
In 1997, to mark the 25th anniversary, a special edition with all of the previously removed scenes was prepared, to take advantage of a more progressive era. This version was immediately banned as well…. and was not released until 2 minutes were cut.
Reason banned: Sexual violence
Notorious French nobleman The Marquis de Sade, from whom we get the term ‘sadism’, wrote ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’ in 1785. The book depicts the sexual abuse and torture of a group of teenagers at the hands of four bored, wealthy men, and was meant as a critique of the upper class.
Italian film maker Pier Paolo Pasolini took the book as inspiration for his similarly named 1975 film, with the basic plot retained but now updated to Facist Italy. With scenes depicting teenagers being raped, beaten, and degraded, the film created a firestorm of controversy, and was banned in a number of countries, including Italy, England, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
After several attempts to have the ban overturned, it was finally allowed an R18+ rating in Australia in 2010, on the back of a DVD re-issue. The DVD contained 176 minutes of bonus material exploring the film’s thematic ideas, which the Classification Board decided gave enough context to understand the confronting material. Several public screenings have been held since; interestingly, many contemporary critics now dismiss the movie as dated, poorly made, and even ‘boring’.
Reason banned: Offensive to Joh Bjelke-Peterson
Peter Jackson is a Wellington born film maker, best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He got his start making schlocky, low budget genre flicks; his first feature, aptly named ‘Bad Taste’, is a gross-out sci fi action-comedy, which saw aliens battling paramilitary troops in a small New Zealand town.
Shot for $150 000, with a cast made up of Jackson’s friends (and Jackson himself), the movie features extremely graphic, although cartoonish, violence. ‘Bad Taste’ screened out of competition at Cannes, and found a small cult audience of like minded film nerds.
Film censorship had largely become a Federal responsibility in Australia by this stage, but the individual States still retained a technical right to ban films. This was rarely exercised, other than in Queensland, where the ultra conservative government of Joh Bjelke-Peterson regularly censored movies, allowed elsewhere in Australia.
‘Bad Taste’ was on one of these. Bjelke-Peterson’s poor reputation outside of Queensland meant that distributors actually wore their bans by his government as a badge of honour, and reveled in the free publicity: ‘BANNED IN QUEENSLAND’ stickers proudly appeared on VHS covers during this period.
Reason banned: Homosexuality illegal in Tasmania
Another example of a state government exercising its right to censor came in 1996, when the Tasmanian government banned the full slate of movies scheduled for the the local ‘Queer Film Festival’.
At the time, Tasmania was the last remaining state in Australia where homosexuality was illegal. South Australia had been the first state to legalise, in 1975, and the other states had followed suit shortly after. As part of a wider campaign to have the law changed, in 1996 Tasmanian gay rights activists invited the Melbourne Queer Film Festival to present films in Hobart.
The police seized several prints that had been imported for the program, and a dozen films were subsequently banned by the state censor, including titles, ‘Spikes and Heals’, ‘What a Lesbian Looks Like’, and ’21st Century Nuns’. Homosexuality remained illegal in Tasmania until 1997, when High Court intervention forced the state government to overturn the law.
Reason banned: Unsimulated sex
Catherine Breillat is a French film maker, whose movies deal primarily with female sexuality. Her 1999 film ‘Romance’ depicts an unhappily married woman, who embarks on a series of increasingly self destructive, extra-marital affairs.
It gained notoriety on release as the two lead actors, Caroline Ducey and Rocco Siffredi, had non-simulated sex on camera. While a number of sexually explicit films had been classified ‘R’ in Australia before, no film featuring actual sex on screen had been given a general classification. These were normally treated as pornography, and could only be sceened in ‘adult’ theatres. ‘Romance’ was duly banned by the Classification Board.
The decision was overturned on appeal when the producers outlined the artistic intentions of the movie. This proved to be a landmark; in subsequent years several other films featuring non-simulated sex were also given an R rating, including ‘9 Songs’, ‘The Brown Bunny’, and ‘Shortbus’.
Reason banned: Sexism?
Another French film featuring non-simulated sex, ‘Baise Moi’ (‘Fuck Me’) topped this off with lashings of cold blooded violence. Playing like a wilder version of ‘Thelma and Louise’, the film depicts two female friends, a porn actor and a prostitute, who go on a cross country killing spree, taking out their personal trauma on anyone who crosses their path.
Originally classified ‘R’ in 2002, the film played in arthouse theatres for about three weeks (seen by this writer at the ‘Valhalla’, in Sydney). In a rare move the Attorney General, Michael Duffy, then intervened, and used his executive powers to force a review. This time round the film was banned.
While the graphic nature of the violence in the film was cited as the reason, some commentators suggested sexism; would the film have been so controversial if the principal characters had been men? Films featuring men on a violent revenge rampage were common, some had even been big hits (‘Death Wish’, ‘Billy Jack’ etc).
This film remains an unusual outlier, and is actually quite tame by contemporary standards. But despite several attempts to have the film re-classified, it remains banned to this day.
Reason banned: Underage nudity
Photographer and film maker Larry Clarke had made a career out of depicting mostly teenage lives. In 1995 he teamed up with young writer Harmony Korine for the film ‘Kids’, which created a firestorm of controversy; the youthful cast acting out every parents nightmare as they indulged in drugs, unprotected sex, and general hedonism.
In 2003, the pair would return with another, similarly themed film, ‘Ken Park’. With another young cast, this film featured even more provocative material including suicide, murder, masturbation, drug use and incest. But it was the explicit sex scenes, with below consent age actors, that caused it to be banned in Australia.
To protest the decision, and film censorship more generally, prominent film critic Margaret Pomeranz organised an underground screening of the movie at Balmain Town Hall. But police were tipped off and the illegal DVD copy that was to be used was seized, before the film had played more than a couple of minutes. ‘Ken Park’ is also still banned to this day.
L.A. ZOMBIE (2010)
Reason banned: Gay zombie necrophilia (or, something)
Canadian film maker Bruce LaBruce has made his career around provocative films that walk the line between general release, and pornography. He has even often produced two versions of his films, intended for these different audiences.
In 2010, his black comedy/sex romp ‘L.A. Zombie’ was slated to screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival; the version the festival acquired a 63 minute cut that had already premiered at the Locarno Film Festival. LaBruce had also prepared a 100+ minute version that featured hard core gay sex scenes, trimmed out of the festival print.
But the Australia Classification Board contacted the festival in the lead up to their screenings, to advise that the film was likely to be refused classification and so could not be shown publicly. Their reasoning was a little vague: they seemed mainly to object to scenes of the titular character, bringing dead bodies back to life by fucking them. A wider debate ensued, as to whether the film would have been banned if it had featured hetero sex, instead. The Melbourne Underground Film Festival held one, unsanctioned, screening, for which the festival head was fined $750.
L.A. Zombie continued to play festivals around the world, including the prestegious Toronto Film Festival. It was never formally submitted for classification review in Australia.