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Why R13?

Posted on 02 April 2020 by Tara (updated post)

The first R13 film I ever saw at the movies was The Blair Witch Project.

I was pretty excited. Not only because it was my first R13, but because the controversy around the film – I had heard that it had made some audience members sick – meant that I was determined to pit myself against it! I was going to be tested and I was going to win. My earnestness and a childhood spent watching American Gladiator had combined to form a weird bravado. I would not be sick.

Thirteen was a major milestone when I was a young person. I’m not sure why eleventeen and twelveteen aren’t a thing but clearly such quirks of language can shape how we think about the world. Of course, nothing feels particularly different when you move into a new age category but we’re treated differently; the expectations are different. Preteens are hungry for the status being a teenager brings. Much of my excitement about seeing The Blair Witch Project was about being old enough, about having ‘arrived’. I remember being thrilled to use my school ID for something other than bus fare. R13 is a really cool rating that actually recognises this watershed moment.

R13 in NZ is a relative rarity in terms of global film classifications. America has PG13, and the UK has both 12 & 12A, but neither of these are legal restrictions, nor do our Australian neighbours have a close equivalent. So while NZ & Australia share the G, PG and M ratings, Australian classifications then jump to the age restricted classifications MA15+, and R18+.

In NZ our age restricted classifications begin at R13 (followed by R16 and R18 respectively) and it’s illegal for someone under that age to view that content, even if accompanied by a guardian.

So while our two countries share a ‘cross-rating’ system for a lot of content - which means films that enter NZ with the Australian classifications G, PG, or M are automatically given these same classifications in NZ - this isn’t so clear cut when it comes to age restricted titles.

Due to differences in how we classify content, an MA15+ from Australia could get an M, R13 or R16 when it comes to us. That’s quite a range of classifications, and the difference between M, R13 and R16 can seem confusing.

Legally, a child can watch an ‘M’ rated film. Depending on the individual, this means it may not be likely to do them actual harm, but it could be confusing or upsetting for them. Whether or not children should be given the chance to be upset is up to responsible whānau. Jurassic Park – which is a PG – terrified me when I was 8. In the context of a cinema, with surround sound, that t-rex felt like a real threat. Which goes to show the importance of content warnings and knowing the child in question before taking them to an M or even a PG. Just because a film is unrestricted, doesn’t mean it doesn’t require guidance. Just because children can see it, doesn’t mean they should.

In NZ, R13 is the Classification Office’s way of navigating the developmental differences between an M and an R16, to give young teenagers the credit that they are due, without harming children. This may not be much consolation to a precocious 12 year old on the eve of their birthday, but Aotearoa considers most teenagers capable of dealing with things that children can’t. We expect teenagers to recognise dangerous behaviour without imitating it, we expect them to be able to hear offensive language without repeating it, and we expect them to be able to watch serious violence without losing respect for human life.

I’ve still only seen the first 20 minutes of The Blair Witch Project, half of which was spent listening while I looked at my feet. Turns out the ‘sickness’ I had heard about was not because of the strength of the content, but because of the shaky camera. I’m very susceptible to motion sickness, so I sat outside the cinema on the popcorn infused carpet and waited for the film to end.

The thing to remember is that age ratings are no reflection on the quality of the film or whether someone in the required age range will like it. Young teenagers are smart, and the R13 rating respects that. You don’t get much in the way of freedom when you’re 13 but you can watch a slightly wider range of movies.

Tara works at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

A cartoon image of a young girl sitting in a cinema, staring down at her feet. Her hand covers her right eye. A bucket of popcorn is beside her, untouched.

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