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Good Friday - a good day to go to the movies? Religion and film classification in New Zealand

Posted on 17 April 2014 by Michelle

Recently there have been a lot of news stories from various parts of the world about the 2014 Darren Aronofsky film Noah being banned in several countries including Pakistan, Bahrain and Indonesia. Governments in those and other countries have halted the release of the film due to its religious content. In New Zealand, the film carries an M rating, with the descriptive note 'Contains violence'.

When classifying films, different governments and censorship authorities around the world operate using criteria that is generally associated with the prevailing values of the society they are serving. While in some countries religion forms part of that criteria, it is not part of New Zealand's criteria for classifying films and other publications. There have, however, been some interesting examples of film classification in New Zealand which have raised the issue of religion in some way.

Noah movie poster

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979, R16)

The classification of the 1979 film Life of Brian was hotly debated both in New Zealand and overseas. Christian groups in New Zealand called for the film to be banned before the it had arrived in New Zealand. Chief Censor of Films Bernard Tunnicliffe received more letters about Life of Brian than any other film submitted for classification at that time.

Life of Brian was classified according to criteria set out in the Cinematograph Films Act 1976 and on 18 February 1980 was classified as restricted to those aged 16 years and over (R16). Many correspondents who had requested a ban on the film were upset with the R16 classification.

A petition was launched in July 1980 requesting that the Minister of Internal Affairs withdraw the film from public release. While the petition gathered 12,352 signatures it was unsuccessful in convincing the Minister to stop the exhibition of the film.

There were also members of the public who supported the R16 classification of Life of Brian. One parent wrote to the Chief Censor telling him that they initially thought that the film should be classified lower than R16 because they thought that their 12 year old daughter would have enjoyed most of it, however they "commend(ed) (his) refusal to ban it and the rating (he) awarded it". Another letter to a newspaper editor from Monty Python fans in Lower Hutt pointed out that they were "...distressed by the number of Christians that object to the film and believe that... if the film upsets them, they shouldn't go and see it... Life of Brian is purely meant for enjoyment and only one restriction should be made - only those with a sense of humour need go".

Monty Python's The Life of Brian movie poster

The Passion of the Christ (2004, R15)

In early 2004 the Classification Office was inundated with letters and emails of complaint and support over its decision to classify Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ as R16 with the note 'Brutal violence, torture and cruelty'.

Even before the film arrived in New Zealand the Classification Office had received inquiries about how it would be classified. Some church groups expressed an interest in helping to classify the film, others expressed the opinion that a secular government-funded office would be anti-Christian and thus shouldn't be allowed to classify it.

Because of the religious nature of the film, the Classification Office could not answer many the resulting inquiries and complaints in a way that was meaningful to the correspondents - that is, most of the correspondence was about religious aspects of the film, rather than the film's violent content upon which the R16 classification was based.

People wanted the film banned for a number of reasons which have no relation to the classification criteria. For example, because it was inaccurate, unorthodox, or because they thought certain scenes had been invented to conform to a Roman Catholic point of view. Jewish correspondents were worried that it might incite hatred towards Jews. While most Christian complainants felt that the R16 classification was too high, others complained that the film was too violent, and should have a higher classification. A large number of people also wrote in supporting the decision.

The distributor of the film appealed the decision to the Film and Literature Board of Review. Upon undertaking their own examination of the film, the Board lowered the restriction to R15, with the descriptive note 'prolonged sequences of brutal violence, torture and cruelty'.

Read more about New Zealand's criteria for classifying films, games and other publications.

Michelle works in the Information Unit at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Her views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. The Information Unit provides information to other staff, to the public, and to industry members - they are not involved in assigning classifications. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Passion of the Christ movie poster

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