Just when you think you’ve got a handle on a Federal Government led by a Prime Minister who alerts the media as to the whereabouts of his church attendance each Sunday you get another small and unwanted shock. This is an additional shock to that associated with the Government’s pandering to the religious right involved in the almost certainly futile attempts to censor the internet. These efforts on the internet are being led by of all people, the almost cartoonish political pygmy Stephen Conroy. Watching or listening to Conroy trying to explain or justify any policy decision is wince-inducing. How simple does the brief have to be before he remembers the details in reasonable order one is forced to wonder. Never mind for the moment, for out of the blue, we have a new entrant in the beat Tony Abbott at his own game stakes, the Minister for Home Affairs, who has fired in yet another appeal against yet another decision to allow Pasolini’s Salo to be screened, this time on DVD. The Minister, the suspiciously named Brendan O’Connor (who he you may well ask), has asked the Classifications Review Board to take yet another look at Pasolini’s little nature study of the end of fascism, thus drawing attention yet again to a movie which for reasons that escape normal human intelligence politicians simply cant leave alone.
For the record I myself was once a member of this Review body. I am pleased to advise that while I was frequently accused of worrying too much about what children might get frightened of, like that great space-age spider in something called An Ewok Adventure or some such, we never actually banned anything in my time. In one special case that was tested when we faced considerable pressure to take action over a dire flick (in my view anyway) called I Spit on your Grave. The film had been referred to the Board, despite being in video circulation for years. Some cheapjack lawyer down in Tasmania had discovered his clients were getting a lot of sympathy from judges in that backwater when the lawyer mentioned that his clients’ criminal behaviour had resulted from a viewing of the aforementioned movie. Banning it would apparently cause violence towards women to cease instantly down there among the apple pickers. A narrow majority thought the film didn’t deserve to be verballed in this way and wouldn’t play along. Nothing more was heard about any further outbreaks of serial criminal behaviour resulting from seeing the film. Or, if it was, nothing more was reported to we members.
But back to Pasolini and bear with me. After my tenure was not renewed my services were availed of on a number of occasions to write submissions on behalf of distributors who thought a crummy classification decision had been made about their investments. One such was a distributor and exhibitor of Hong Kong movies who had paid a fair bit upfront to acquire the rights to a film called The Man Behind the Sun, an earnest, vulgar and extremely graphic account of the activities of the infamous Japanese medical experiments carried out on Chinese slaves during the 1939-45 War. One of the encyclopaedists has since described the film as a ‘revoltingly explicit dramatization of the war crimes Japanese soldiers and scientists perpetrated on their Chinese captives.’ Too true.
Notwithstanding the unedifying content, the distributor had paid his money upfront and didn’t have a chance of getting it back if the film were banned. The Appeals Board, which included my old friend the late Keith Connolly let the film through and the distributor did quite nicely out of it, screening it to a mostly Chinese clientele in a Chinatown cinema. The film didn’t travel well however. Electric Shadows Cinema in Canberra, noting this success, put it on to dismal business and yanked it after a week. About the only attention it attracted was from the RSPCA who rang to say that they heard there was a scene in it when live rats were set on fire. This is so said the cinema management, explaining that rats were used by the Japanese to develop anthrax spores. The RSPCA advised that they would be contacting the Canberra Times and organising a protest outside the cinema if the film were not taken off. The cinema management asked what time they proposed to be there so that he could ensure that the rest of the media were also alerted. The RSPCA then thought better of it and allowed the film to disappear quietly.
But back to Pasolini and Salo. The film was banned in the early 70s. There was a memorable screening of stills from the film at the Sydney Film Festival presented by that critical old stager Gideon Bachman. But the film stayed banned until the early 90s when it was passed with an R (Restricted) classification limiting the audience to those over the age of 18. Just before the rights were due to expire, some five years later, somebody, probably with a nod from the Howard Government, fired in a request for a review and the Appeals Board, which Howard and his henchmen hadn’t had to stack with dogmatic and religious types because that had already been done by the previous Labor Attorney-General Michael Lavarch, duly banned it. The distributor actually consulted me about what might be said in the film’s defence but was otherwise utterly undisturbed I suspect. Attempts have since been sporadically made to import the film legitimately again. (Copies of the film have been clandestinely circulating in video stores for decades.) But to no avail. One attempt was even made, I believe, by the redoubtable Melbourne Underground Film Festival. But no.
Recently however it appears that the film has been passed for DVD distribution and yet again the Federal Minister, this time from the Rudd Government (see above), has promptly moved to prevent this. The aforementioned O’Connor has asked the Review Board to again ‘review’ the matter. We will shortly know whether the Board remains the bastion of conservatism that Lavarch established and Howard maintained it or has been allowed to assume a degree of liberalism.
But….will the farce surrounding this film ever end. Please…. it just isn’t worth that much effort and worry….leave it alone….get on with doing something useful…Like the internet, Salo is out there and if the ‘review’ overturns the decision you can still find it in DVD rental stores if you ask or you could still just order it on Amazon and import it through the mail. I doubt the slightest attention will be paid...