Monday, 18 October 2010

To Ban or Not to Ban

There's a really good episode of Ricky Gervais' Extras that features Ben Stiller directing a fictitious film about a Bosnian guy called Goran whose family was executed in the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The episode smartly pokes fun at the notion of a privileged Hollywood star directing a dramatic movie about a very serious occurrence when there's nothing to suggest he's suitable for such a gig. In a case of life imitating art, Angelina Jolie is in production on her directorial debut UNTITLED BOSNIAN WAR LOVE STORY that tells the story of a Serbian man and a Bosnian Muslim woman who meet on the eve of the Bosnian 1992-95 war. UNTITLED BOSNIAN WAR LOVE STORY hit the headlines last week because it was claimed the story was initially about a Serb soldier raping a Muslim woman who bizarrely falls in love with her assailant . The outgoing culture minister of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation — Gavrilo Grahovac — cancelled Jolie's permit to shoot in the country because an association of female victims from the Bosnian war had objected to details of the plot. Reuters reports this morning that Grahovac has now approved filming after reading the script and talking to production representatives.

There's no denying that the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina is an abhorrent stain on modern European history, rightfully deserving cinematic interpretations that provoke international debate. The most recent research places the number of people killed during the war at around 100,000 to 110,000, and estimates that the numbers raped range from 20,000 to 50,000. If Jolie's movie gets people interested in knowing more about this modern genocide then that can only be a positive thing. Yet, there is a fine line between making films about horrific events and exploiting them in order to fuel promotion and generate money. That's exactly how I feel about Srdjan Spasojevic's monstrously controversial picture A SERBIAN FILM.

At the risk of sounding like Mary Whitehouse, I haven't seen A SERBIAN FILM other than the lengthy 'Red-Band' trailer. I hear the film is available to view online but I have no real desire to see it as I've read the plot synopsis and realise that it may be too extreme for me to gain any modicum of satisfaction by watching it. The story concerns a semi-retired Serbian porn star called Miloš who's lured back into pornography to score one last lucrative gig. He turns up for filming and is escorted to an orphanage where he's made to have sex with an abused woman whilst a kid dressed like Alice in Wonderland watches them. Miloš freaks out and is restrained by production personnel, who force him to watch footage of a woman giving birth and then a man aiding the birth proceed to rape the newborn baby. An angered Miloš is then drugged to carry out a series of brutal rapes and executions over a three day period, culminating in him raping his own young son while his own brother, on an adjacent bed, rapes Miloš' wife. Added to this are scenes of Miloš skull-fucking the eye socket of an injured production technician and other assorted sexually violent set-pieces, thus giving us a pretty good idea why people are calling A SERBIAN FILM one of the most shocking pictures ever made.

I'm being very succinct in my distillation of A SERBIAN FILM'S plot and more detailed outlines are available online should you wish to find out more. It seems obvious that the censor boards of many nations will not go easy on A SERBIAN FILM and perhaps they're right to do so. The film has been shown at some film festivals but plans to screen it at London's FrightFest 2010 were scuppered when Westminster Council intervened and blocked the screening. The Raindance Film Festival in London got around the blockade by screening the film as a 'private event' and showed it last week to the chagrin of The Sun newspaper who were up in arms at the BBFC for granting permission, although Westminster Council requested to monitor all invitations to the screening. The film's UK distributor is Revolver Entertainment, who has been informed by the BBFC that A SERBIAN FILM will have to undergo 49 individual cuts amounting to nearly four minutes of screen time in order to gain a British DVD/ Blu-ray release.

There's no doubt that Revolver will succumb to whatever the BBFC requests as there's enough built-in hype to capitalise on; many willing to watch even a heavily edited version just so that they can say they've seen it. Reviews for A SERBIAN FILM have been at times positive with Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool calling it a "dream film" and Scott Weinberg of Fearnet claiming the film is "intelligent". But dig deeper and it's clear that misguided internet adoration for A SERBIAN FILM mires the reality of what the film is. Alison Willmore of IFC is more critical, arguing that "[A SERBIAN FILM] comes from a country that's spent decades deep in violent conflict, civil unrest, corruption and ethnic tensions [making] it tempting to read more into the film than I think it actually offers — ultimately, it has as much to say about its country of origin as Hostel does about America, which is a little, but nothing on the scale its title suggests." Tim Anderson of Bloody Disgusting dissuaded all from seeing A SERBIAN FILM, arguing "You don't want to see [A SERBIAN FILM]. You just think you do."

It's good when cultural products spark healthy debate. It's good that a movie can get people thinking about what can be shown and what is going too far. While I may not wish to see A SERBIAN FILM, I don't believe in the censorship that's omitting 4 minutes from a film that can only be viewed by adults. A SERBIAN FILM should be released uncut, exactly the way its director Srdjan Spasojevic wanted it to be seen. Where I do take issue is with Spasojevic engaging in moral platitudes defending his film as "a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government." Going on to say, "It's about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotise you to do things you don't want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it's about."

That's a lousy defence. A SERBIAN FILM is no more a metaphorical indictment on ethnic cleansing than what Cannibal Ferox was a metaphor for Western Imperialism — even though certain schools of film criticism argue it was exactly that. A SERBIAN FILM is gratuitous exploitation cinema designed to repulse many and entertain only few. The film business isn't known for its honesty but for the people behind A SERBIAN FILM to think of it as anything more than 'trash art' is about as ludicrous as Angelina Jolie making a film about the hardship of Serbian war victims: or even Ben Stiller for that matter.

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