Sj7g09's Blog

Introduction to Visual Culture…

Posted on: February 25, 2011

An exploration of UK legislation on the publication of film, looking into the work of the BBFC and its impact on freedom of expression and imparting ideas, comparing ‘Antichrist’, ‘A Serbian Film’ and ‘NF713’.

“…an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect … is, if taken as a whole, such  as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely…to read, see or hear the  matter contained or embodied in it.” (OPA, 1959)

The Obscene Publications Act (1959) is the main legislation used in determining the legality of ‘any description of article containing or embodying matter to be read or looked at or both, any sound record, and any film or other record of a picture or pictures’(OPA, 1959) based on whether material is likely to ‘deprave and corrupt’. If the artefact meets this criteria of ‘depraving’ or ‘corrupting’, it is deemed an obscene publication, making it illegal to distribute in the UK. The description of the OPA is ‘An Act to amend the law relating to the publication of obscene matter; to provide for the protection of literature; and to strengthen the law concerning pornography‘, as it provides a defence of ‘public good on the ground that it is in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern’.(OPA, 1959) This creates a distinct divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms, where material may contain obscenity if it conforms to the expectations of ‘high art’. A radical shift in attitudes has taken place in Britain, as now the censorship of literature or high art is mostly seen as unacceptable, whereas the OPA was originally brought about in 1857 to deal with ‘obscene’ literature, exemplified in Lord Campbell’s statement;

“I have learnt with horror and alarm that a sale of poison more deadly than     prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic- the sale of obscene publications and indecent     books – is openly going on.” (Thomas, p.39, 2007)

It would be possible to suggest that the OPA is, in contemporary society, mostly used against images, showing a legacy of thought dating back to the 16th century when it was ‘believed that evil influences could come into the body through the eyes, and corrupt the viewer’.(Burn, 1997) Films are not safeguarded by the law, meaning that it can be illegal to distribute moving images – under the Video Recordings Act (1964) the film need not even be ‘obscene’, as all ‘films’ (whatever this word constitutes in a society where most have access to a camera and are capable of producing moving images), that are not classified as exempt, must be rated by the British Board of Film Classification.
The BBFC removes scenes from films in line with the OPA, but also with their own guidelines, including scenes that show sexual violence in a way that may endorse the behaviour, or that encourage the viewer to identify with the perpetrator. The BBFC‘s annual reports show ‘From September 1985 to December 1990 inclusive the BBFC cut 1,661 out of 18,085 video features and rejected another 27, almost all for sexual violence.‘(Robertson, p.173, 1993) What constitutes ’sexual violence’ has changed over time, from the BBFC policy in 1925, where “girls’ clothes pulled off, leaving them in scanty undergarments”, (SBBFC)  was considered to be sexually violent. This is mirrored by the BBFC’s interpretations of sexuality; for example, in 1927, films were cut to remove ‘passionate embraces’, as these were considered sexual at the time.(SBBFC) Currently, the BBFC definition of ‘sexual violence’ is cited as “the conflation of sexual images together with violent images in such a way as to create a connection between the two”.(SBBFCa) This change begins to show the time-based nature of offence, as the former material would certainly be far less shocking now, not only because of the aesthetics of the films, but also because of the normalisation of the acts portrayed. As Freedberg suggests “…the expansion of methods of reproduction… has frequently had the result of turning the shock of first sight into the near-indifference of familiarity.’(Freedberg, p.19, 1989) This sort of desensitisation is a societal fear, along with the idea that the normalisation of attitudes or behaviour, through familiarity with images portraying them, precedes the inevitable erosion of decent social values.

The radical shifts in acceptability of imagery demonstrates that obscenity, and offence, are social constructs, completely dependent on the norms and values of specific cultures. This is demonstrated in the most depraved materials appearing throughout history: the books ‘more deadly than poison’ of 1857 (Thomas, p.39, 2007); ’the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses’, the Venus of Urbino by Titian, according to Mark Twain in 1880 (Twain, p.244-245, 1907); up to Councillor David Kelsey on A Serbian Film in 2010, ‘It’s the most disgusting, vile thing I’ve ever sat down and watched. It was absolutely unbelievable.’(Vass, 2010)

(Still image from A Serbian Film, directed by Srđan Spasojević)

David Kelsey also states ‘I just find it amazing what people can actually get away with in the cause of art nowadays – to me that’s just not art’,(Vass, 2010) raising the question of whether A Serbian Film has been afforded ‘art’ status, by virtue of not being completely rejected by the BBFC, or whether it is still relegated to ‘low art’, since it was subjected to 4 minutes 11 seconds of cuts to secure an 18 certificate. Perhaps A Serbian Film is somewhere between the aesthetics of high and low art, as it was not passed uncut at ‘18’ like Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, which was labelled an ‘art film’, but was not completely banned like China Hamilton’s NF713, derivatively labelled a ‘sex work’.

(Still image from Antichrist, directed by Lars Von Trier)

Antichrist features more explicit sexual portrayal than A Serbian Film, splicing pornographic scenes into the narrative, but shot in black and white or slow-motion, breaking its aesthetic ties to the pornographic and placing itself within the realms of the artistic. Conversely, NF713 was intended as an ’art film’ but labelled a ‘sex work’ by the BBFC, despite being written and performed by artist China Hamilton, aiming to comment on state control rather than being intended solely or primarily to arouse. Thematically, NF713 and A Serbian Film are similar, with both using sexual violence as an allegory for being subject to societal authority, with Srđan Spasojević justifying his work under claims that the film “…is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government. It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotise you to do things you don’t want to do.”(Turner, 2010) Despite its aspirations to show “…almost indescribable and exploitative chaos”(Turner, 2010) through use of violence, the scenes displaying the most extreme violence or sexual violence, and therefore arguably the strongest indicators to the audience that the film has a clear position on the morality of violence, are cut by the BBFC. The film intends to make a political point about being controlled by authority, with the violence being framed as aversive and against the main character’s will, but this is seemingly not enough, with these scenes having to be cut, despite this diluting the content and message of the piece. Freedberg’s statement ‘…it is not uncommon to find that the suggestive turns out to be more provocative than the blatantly descriptive’(Freedberg, p.21, 1989) can be applied to the BBFC’s guidelines on ‘dwelling’, in that films showing more explicit and prolonged portrayals of violence or sexual violence, rather than allowing the actions to be implied, will receive more restrictive certifications,(BBFC, 2009) yet it is possible that this could mean scenes of violence or sexual violence are eroticised or romanticised through not showing their consequences. The quote also hints to the possibility that imagination is more adept at filling the blank spaces of ‘implied‘ violence, potentially creating something more depraving and corrupting than anything engineered by CGI and prosthetics to be shown on-screen.

BBFC guidelines demand films available to the British public conform to portraying a uniform attitude to sexual violence, allowing sexually violent imagery so long as it is unambiguously aversive, in no way endorsing or giving an unclear position,(BBFC, 2009a) even if this requires alteration of the film’s message to show this. For example, despite A Serbian Film showing intense violence in a sexual context, using this as allegorical for something unequivocally negative, the scenes must be altered to tone-down the imagery in case anyone interprets it in the ‘wrong’ way, even if this detracts from the wider points the imagery intended to make.

(Still image from NF713, directed by Michael Stamp)

In contrast to academics avoiding sexual connotations of ‘high’ art, as Freedberg explores in “The Power of Images”,(Freedberg, p.17, 1989) discussions of sexuality in film seem to ignore every aspect of its context or symbolism other than the degree of sexuality it shows, and whether it gives the ‘right’ message. NF713 is classified as an unacceptable sex work because of its fictional non-consensual abuse sequences, with the film denouncing the motivations and context of the state representative‘s actions, while simultaneously conforming to BDSM-like imagery, eroticising the physicality of the actions. This leaves an ambiguous message with the physical actions not being condemned; a view the BBFC is disinclined to tolerate, priding itself on having “a consistent and firm policy towards violence against women, particularly where the violence is in a sexual context or is sexually motivated… We know of no country other than Britain in which such a considered and unambiguous stand has been taken on this kind of material”.(BBFC, 1987)  This creates a hypocritical position where the BBFC is condemning consensual, fictional material, thereby censoring an aspect of female sexuality, while maintaining that it is beneficial to women and protecting them. In censoring NF713, the BBFC creates a situation wherein the film intends to expose the heavy-handed nature of authority in removing bodily, particularly sexual, autonomy from the female character, but the BBFC is arguably enacting this same controlling behaviour on a societal level. Within the narrative, the female character of NF713 is restrained and interrogated on charges of using her body to support an anti-State organisation, whereas actress Niki Flynn is prevented from voicing her expression against State control as the BBFC has deemed it harmful, focusing on its naked ‘female victim’ over its politics, a view Flynn brands ‘patronising and insulting’.(Ozimek, 2009)

The concept of censorship is largely integrated into the British legal system, portraying it as a necessity. Even in legislation like the Human Rights Act (1998), freedom of expression is balanced with clauses to revoke it to protect health and morals. It is partly this sort of legal precedent that makes censorship an unassailable institution, while destruction of other artistic artefacts is condemned, for example vandalism of high art, as explained by Freedberg;

“We easily concur; we do not vent our anger in this way on images in public places.     The image – or what is represented on it – may rouse our shame, hostility, or fury; but     it would certainly not cause us to wreak violence upon it; and we certainly would not     break it.” (Freedberg, p.11, 1989)

The destruction of an artistic object is described as ‘violence’ or an ‘attack’, framing it as a crime. This seems not to apply to films, although there is the distinct difference that violence wreaked upon film is by organisations rather than individuals, and done in systematic, controlled ways, justified by the greater good, not admitting to personal bias, or that the act of cutting film has any of the emotive violence of vandalism. Another notable difference is individual vandalism of art is seen as rebellion, outburst, improper display of unrestrained emotion, and all these things in this context are against norms, values or laws, whereas the organised censorship of film is propagated by institutions, and integrated into legislation, doctoring art in a much more subtle fashion than destroying it completely, changing its content before it is released to the public, allowing little comparison between the artefact in its original state as opposed to its censor-approved form. Instead of framing film censorship in the same way as destruction of other art – as vandalism, as criminal – public fear is utilised to create an environment in which film censorship is elevated to a necessity, through the moderators, viewing films the public may not see uncut until many years in the future, being enforcers of morality and decency in accordance with ‘majority‘ opinion of a public too corruptible to see the films themselves. If vandalism of an artistic artefact in a public space can be seen as a crime of passion, the censorship of an artistic artefact in private, by an organisation, can be seen as a calculated, premeditated attack on the object and what it represents, if referring to its destruction in the language of violence afforded to high art.

In cases of destruction of artefacts in public places, it is at least a visceral reaction towards the image rather than a pre-emption of the power an image may possess, as with film censorship. Freedberg explains this symbolic destruction;

“People have smashed images for political reasons and for theological ones; they have     destroyed works that have roused their ire or their shame… but in every case     we     must assume that it is the image – whether to a greater or lesser degree – that     arouses the iconoclast to such ire. This much we can claim, even if we argue that it is     because the image is a symbol of something else that it is assailed, smashed, pulled     down, destroyed.” (Freedberg, p.10-11, 1989)

In UK film censorship, sexual violence is currently the most assailed theme, as it is an amalgamation of two already hated representations, making it a symbol of moral decline on both sexual and violent fronts. Not only does this often incite the conservative or religious ‘right-wing’ side of the political spectrum to denounce such representations, the portrayal of sexual violence is seen as an equality issue, encouraging symbolically stamping out fictional inequalities, ironically creating very real inequality in using the protection of off-screen women as justification for censoring material in their name, in their best interest. With the government branding potentially arousing fictional portrayals of sexual violence, usually as part of a ‘sex work‘ although potentially stretching to isolated scenes from works classified by the BBFC, as ‘disgusting’, ‘abhorrent’, and one minister saying that the government intends to “send out a clear message that they and the people who look at them have no place in a civilised society”,(Brown, 2009) it is clear that imagery of sexual violence, even when fictional and consensual, is something to be symbolically destroyed. By creating a possession offence with a custodial sentence, it seems the aim is not only to destroy the material, but also to vilify and make an example of people deviating from prescribed norms and values of sexuality.

In a society in the grips of moral panic over sexuality and fantasy relating to violence, it is questionable as to why a work like NF713 was submitted for BBFC classification, when, in considering their guidelines on what can and cannot be shown, it was never likely to be passed for public distribution. Even when considering the Video Recordings Act, was it necessary for this small film, classified as a ‘sex work’ above all else by the BBFC, to be certificated, particularly if it could have been released online rather than in DVD format? If this is not a legal course of action, this raises questions as to what constitutes a film, distribution, and the legal status of internet material not rated by the BBFC. This reinforces a more underhanded form of censorship through film-makers knowing there are certain things that cannot be legally portrayed, or at least knowing some subjects are risky to deal with, especially when submission to the BBFC is mandatory, but also costly with fees per minute of running time.(BBFC)
With subjective legislation like the OPA attempting to control images, film, writing, and sound recordings without being able to describe what may fall foul of the law before an artefact is viewed by a jury, and the BBFC restricting potentially obscene materials before they get into the hands of the public, or the jury, it is inevitable that visual culture will be constrained by boundaries of unclear legislation. Despite advances in technology enhancing the prospects for creativity and sharing ideas, laws like the Video Recordings Act prove a barrier for smaller film-makers, and the OPA still tries to dictate boundaries of taste and decency in a society where competing and conflicting ideologies make consensus difficult.

As David Francis asks; “Does no-one appreciate that film and television will become the source materials for the study of twentieth century life, manners and artistic achievement?”  (BFI, p.21, 1986) Perhaps this very idea is the reason challenging materials that do not comply in transmitting the ‘right’ message are symbolically annihilated, destroying the place of the image, and message, in Britain’s cultural history, attempting to deny images, and views, that conflict with maintaining control over representations that can no longer unanimously be deemed ‘obscene.’



BBFC (1987), Annual Reports and Accounts For 1987, London.

FRANCIS, D. (1986) quoted in Film and Television Yearbook 1986, BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE, London.

FREEDBERG, D. (1989) The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, University of Chicago Press.

ROBERTSON, J. (1993) The Hidden Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action, 1913-1975, Routledge.

THOMAS, D. (2007) Freedom’s Frontier: Censorship in Modern Britain, John Murray Publishers, University of California.

TWAIN, M. (1880) A Tramp Abroad, American Publishing Company.


STAMP, M. (2009) NF713 (Enemy of the State), 81 minutes, Mista Solutions (Unreleased)
[still image available online,

SPASOJEVIC, S. (2010)    A Serbian Film, 110 minutes, Invincible Films.
[still image available online,

VON TRIER, L. (2009) Antichrist, 103 minutes, Artificial Eye (United Kingdom).
[still image available online,

Internet Resources

BBFC (2009), BBFC Classification Guidelines 2009, available online [accessed 12/10]
(2009a) NF713 Rejected by the BBFC, available online [accessed 12/10]

BBFC (2010), BBFC Cuts A Serbian Film and Remake of I Spit On Your Grave, 26th August 2010. Available online [accessed 12/10]

BBFC, DVD/Blu-Ray Feature and Trailer Standard Fee, available online [accessed 12/10]

BURN, G. (1997) The Hand That Rocked The Academy, The Guardian, 6th September 1997. Available online [accessed 12/10]

FLYNN, N. (2009) quoted in British Film Board Rejects ‘Disturbing’ Sexual Torture Film: Is Obscenity Law Undermined by Extreme Porn?, OZIMEK, J. The Register, 8th April 2009. Available online [accessed 12/10]

Human Rights Act (1998), available online at [accessed 12/10]

KELSEY, D. (2010) quoted in
A Serbian Film can be shown at British Horror Film Festival in Bournemouth, VASS, M., 22nd October 2010. Available online [accessed 12/10]

MACASKILL, K. (2009) quoted in Shock of the Sick Websites which Seek to Glorify Rape, BROWN, A., Daily Record, 19th January 2009. Available online [accessed 12/10]

Obscene Publications Act (1959), available online at [accessed 12/10]

SBBFC, History of Film Classification and Censorship in the UK Timelines, available online [accessed 12/10]

SBBFCa, Tough to Watch – Sexual Violence, available online [accessed 12/10]

SPASOJEVIC, S.  (2010) quoted in The View London Review: A Serbian Film, TURNER, M., 9th October 2010. Available online [accessed 12/10]

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  • fred whitacre jr: they don,t have any sex invaled why are we so againce children being nude in pictures because of alll the sick fucking rapetist out there children
  • fred whitacre jr: she only 12 but it is not porn at all it is nude only only a sick person would want to fuck her not me but i will tell you the true she is a very hot
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