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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

The content that most concerns Kiwis is quite different to what gets under the skins of people in other countries, such as Australia, the United States, or most other places in the world.

We have our own culture and values to be proud of, and our own very real problems to deal with.

At our office we try to ensure that Kiwis get all the information they need before they watch a movie or series, so people can make viewing choices that are right for them. Increasingly we are less about ‘censorship’ and more about empowering Kiwis to make their own informed choices.

This is straightforward when it comes to traditional media such as DVDs or movies at the cinema, but content on streaming services like Lightbox or Netflix is not currently covered by our legislation, which makes things a little more complex!

A good example popped up this week after my office was told about themes of sexual violence and child abuse in a film called The Perfection. It initially landed via Netflix as 16+ with a note for ‘Language, violence, nudity’. This looks to me like a US rating. I checked with my counterparts overseas, and found that the Aussies initially rated it as MA15+, with the note ‘Strong Nudity, Strong Violence, Strong Blood and Gore, Strong Coarse Language, Strong Horror Themes, Horror Violence’ and the Brits gave it an 18, with a note for ‘Sexual violence, suicide references’.

That illustrates the issue. Different audiences are concerned with different things. In the States people often want to be warned about coarse language and nudity, but here in NZ Kiwis have told us sexual violence and suicide are topics people want to be warned about in advance. These are big issues that many in our community care deeply about, and have lived experience of.

Once we’d seen the movie, we knew it had content that our audiences would expect to know about, - including suicide references and sexual violence. The warning note that Netflix had for this one really needed to change to be effective for a NZ audience. In terms of age rating we felt it was ‘on the line’ between a 16+ and a 18+ rating, but the range of content and the format suggested the higher age rating.

Fortunately Netflix recognises the needs of our own domestic audience, and do genuinely want to engage with us, and be responsive to a NZ audience. So they were happy to change the information. It is now 18+ with the consumer advice, ‘Rape, sexual violence, suicide references, graphic violence’.

From my point of view, this is just another case illustrating the fact that we’re all just working within a legislative system that was designed for media back in the eighties and nineties, and wasn't built to deal with the international availability of streaming media online.

There is room for optimism as the Government is looking at changing this. We see getting consumer information, particularly as content management tools and support for parents in the future will likely depend on accurate ratings to work properly.

In the meantime you’ll sometimes see stories about OFLC making different calls about the information or ratings available on online movies or series.


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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