Australia has censored a lot of films since the medium debuted here, including some unlikely candidates. Here are 11 films banned in Australia.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)
Film censorship in Australia was originally a state responsibility. State government’s employed a film ‘censor’, one individual who assessed movies and decided which ones were fit for public consumption.
But with nearly all films entering the country via Sydney, the New South Wales censor was, for a time, the de facto censor for the whole country.
From 1925 this was Walter Cresswell O’Reilly, a conservative 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. While told from a German point of view, Cresswell felt the film 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. Its ban in Australia was eventually lifted.
THE BLONDE CAPTIVE (1932)
In 1928, American psychologist Stanley Porteus brought a film crew to remote Western Australia to film a documentary about Indigenous tribal life. At least, that’s what he told the local authorities.
Porteus was actually under contract to Colombia Pictures, and was helping to produce a fictional film titled ‘The Blonde Captive’.
Back in Hollywood, Porteus’ real footage was mixed with staged scenes of a white woman, a shipwreck survivor, who was being kept as a slave on a remote Pacific Island. The Indigenous West Australians were portrayed as sex crazed savages.
To add to the offensiveness of the material, Porteus also contributed a voice over, where he compared Aboriginals to ‘Neanderthals’, and ‘monkeys’. When Australian authorities realised that they had been duped, there was a public outcry.
The film was released in America in 1932, and immediately banned in Australia.
By the 1960s, a Federal layer of review had been added alongside state censorship. The ‘Australian Chief Censor’ was a role within the Attorney General’s Office, who could ban film content nationwide.
In 1964, Richard Prowse was appointed Chief Censor, and immediately set about emulating Cresswell O’Reilly. Called ‘demented’ by academic and film maker Phillip Adams, Prowse used his new powers to ban a swathe of films.
Among these was ‘Blow Up’, Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic metaphysical mystery. Set in Swinging London, the film shows a decadent fashion photographer who gets caught up in a probable homicide, that detours into cerebral commentary on the nature of reality.
While the film is unusual, it is an unlikely target for censorship; Prowse cited a few seconds of nudity as his rationale. Speculation was that he objected to the film’s anti-establishment tone.
Other acclaimed films banned by Prowse in this era include ‘La Dolce Vita’, ‘Zabriskie Point’, and ‘The Silence’ (all subsequently unbanned).
PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)
In 1970 Australian film censorship changed again, with the establishment of the ‘Film Classification Board’.
This was a three person panel, within a new department called ‘The Office of Film and Literature Classification’, that would review submitted films. If they were approved, they would be given one of four classification categories:
- G: available to all audiences
- PG: Parental guidance recommended for audiences under 15 years
- M: suggested for audiences 13 and over
- R: Restricted to adult audiences (18 years and over)
Films could still be banned if they were deemed unsuitable.
Baltimore based underground film-maker John Waters was only 26 when he wrote and directed his first feature, ‘Pink Flamingos’.
Waters shot the film guerrilla style, using 16mm film stock on real locations, with his friends and family filling out the cast. He was determined to be as provocative as possible; the film features nudity, sodomy, masturbation, incest, rape, and a notorious scene where the principal character, played by drag queen Divine, eats a real dog turd.
The film 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 was unsurprisingly banned by the Classification Board.
The ban was subsequently overturned after 4 minutes of footage was removed.
In 1997, to mark the 25th anniversary of the film, a special edition with extra scenes was released; this was immediately banned. This ban was only lifted once most of the new footage was removed again.
SALO: OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)
French nobleman The Marquis de Sade, after whom the term ‘sadism’ comes, 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 1975 film, ‘Salo’, with the basic plot retained but now updated to Fascist Italy in the 1940s. It would become one of the most notorious films in cinema history.
With scenes depicting teenagers being raped, beaten, and degraded, the film created a firestorm of controversy, and it was banned in Italy, England, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Like many films on this list, a lengthy battle to have these bans overturned ensued. In Australia, several appeals were launched, each was rejected; meanwhile, illegal copies of the film circulated discreetly, on VHS.
The ban in Australia was finally overturned in 2010, and the film given an R rating. A new DVD reissue contained 176 minutes of bonus content, which the Classification Board decided gave enough additional context to understand the intentions behind the confronting material.
The film has screened irregularly since. Interestingly, many contemporary critics now dismiss the movie as dated, poorly made, amateurish (most of the actors are non-professionals) and even ‘boring’.
BAD TASTE (1987)
While the Classification Board moved Australia towards uniform regulation of film content, individual states retained their right to censor movies. This was particularly noticeable in more conservative parts of the country.
In Queensland, the long standing National Party government of Joh Bjelke-Peterson remained active in censoring films, that the Classification Board had passed. Among these was ‘Bad Taste’, the low budget, cartoonishly violent debut of New Zealand director Peter Jackson (later to find mainstream success with ‘The Lord of the Rings’), where aliens battle paramilitary forces.
Far from appealing these decisions, many Australian distributors revelled in the free publicity. ‘BANNED IN QUEENSLAND!’ labels were prominently displayed on advertising material, for films the Bjelke-Peterson government had censored.
21st CENTURY NUNS (1996)
Tasmania was another state to exercise their censorship rights.
By 1996, Tasmania was the last remaining state in Australia where homosexuality was illegal. As part of a wider campaign to have the law changed, Tasmanian gay rights activists organised a Queer Film Festival, to be held that year in Hobart.
This set up a deliberate confrontation with authorities.
The police seized several prints that had been imported for the event, and a dozen films were subsequently banned by the state censor, including ‘Spikes and Heals’, ‘What a Lesbian Looks Like’, and ’21st Century Nuns’, a ten minute short featuring Derek Jarman.
Homosexuality remained illegal in Tasmania until 1997, when Federal High Court intervention forced the state government to overturn the law.
Catherine Breillat is an acclaimed, polarising, 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 actual sex on camera.
While a number of sexually explicit films had been classified ‘R’ in Australia, no film featuring actual sex on screen had been given a general classification. Non-simulated sex had previously only been found in pornography.
‘Romance’ was duly banned by the Classification Board.
The producers protested the ban, and outlined the artistic intentions of the film in their appeal. This was persuasive, and the Classification Board reversed their decision, a ruling that proved to be a landmark.
In subsequent years several other films featuring non-simulated sex were also passed, including ‘9 Songs’, ‘The Brown Bunny’, and ‘Shortbus’.
Another French film featuring non-simulated sex, ‘Baise Moi’ (‘Fuck Me’) topped this off with lashings of cold blooded, nihilistic violence.
Playing like a wilder version of ‘Thelma and Louise’, the film depicts two female friends, a porn actor and a sex worker, who go on a cross country killing spree, taking out their personal trauma on any, mostly male, characters who cross 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.
Duffy claimed he had received public complaints about the movie, even one such complaint in Australia is enough to trigger a classification reassessment. Although how many complaints were actually received, was never revealed.
This time round the film was banned.
While the graphic nature of the violence in the film was cited as the reason, some cultural commentators detected an element of sexism; would the film have been so controversial if the principal characters had been men?
Despite several attempts to have the film re-classified, it currently remains banned.
KEN PARK (2003)
There was an even greater public outcry about the banning of ‘Ken Park’.
The film reunited writer Harmony Korine and director Larry Clark, who previously collaborated on the 1995 drama ‘Kids’. While not banned, this film had attracted a storm of controversy, showing underage actors in a variety of provocative situations.
‘Ken Park’ mined the same territory, presenting another collection of marginalised teenagers, grappling with suicide, murder, drug abuse and sexual assault. It was the explicit sex scenes, with pre-teen actors, that caused the film to be banned.
Fans of Clark and Korine’s work voiced their opposition.
Calls for the film to be released climaxed in an illegal public screening. Prominent film critic Margaret Pomeranz obtained a DVD copy of the movie, and organised an underground screening at Balmain Town Hall, in inner Sydney.
But local police were tipped off (video above), and the screening was shut down after only a few minutes. The DVD was seized, and later destroyed.
‘Ken Park’ is also still banned to this day.
L.A. ZOMBIE (2010)
Film festivals in Australia are able to bypass the classification system usually required for public screenings. Getting a film classified for release is a lengthy, and expensive, process, so classification exemptions can be granted.
Although conditions are still attached.
In 2010, the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) intended to show the Canadian adult horror film ‘LA Zombie’. The director, Bruce LaBruce, had forged his reputation in an unusual niche.
Mixing genre film tropes and explicit gay sex, LaBruce’s films come in two versions. One is pornographic, intended for adults only, and not submitted for classification; the other has the sex scenes edited to tone them down, and is released usually with an R rating.
MIFF intended to show the less explicit version of ‘L.A. Zombie’.
But the festival was in for a surprise: the Classification Board rejected their application for an exemption. The film depicts an alien zombie who arrives in L.A., and starts a zombie plague by sexually penetrating a dead body; a scene the Classification Board felt ‘breached standards of local taste.’
While the exemption was denied, MIFF was invited to submit the film to the full classification review process. Then festival director, Richard Moore, felt this was impractical, and the film was withdrawn instead.
The Melbourne Underground Film Festival held an illegal screening of the movie on August 29.
While this time the session was not interrupted by police, they attended festival director Richard Wolstenscroft’s house the following day to seize the film. Wolstenscroft claimed he had already destroyed his copy. He was later fined $750, which the court ruled be paid to the Royal Children’s Hospital.
L.A. Zombie has never been submitted for classification.