The UK Government's attempts to nanny up the images that we are allowed to make and view just took a new and twisted turn. Under amendments to the outdated Obscene Publications Act, which have already passed the Lords and become law on December 1st, there's about to be a major clampdown on the legality of extreme imagery—one that should worry every British film-maker.
I've made my disapproval of state control on the moving image clear in the past. If people want to bring a camera into the bedroom, that's their business. But, in using worries over child porn to pass ever more restrictive legislation, lawmakers have gone too far.
The existing rules are already open to abuse, and cases with laughably thin evidence have already gone to court—thankfully, usually to be thrown out. A recent case featuring an unfortunate young man found to have a beastiality video on his phone hit the headlines when the animal in question turned out to be a bloke in a tiger suit, who finished off with a cheery thumbs up and a Tony The Tiger-style “that's grrrreat!” Hilarious, right? Not for the poor sod in question, who lost his job and suffered two years of approbrium. Turns out the film was sent to him by a mate. I wonder how strong that friendship turned out to be…
The new amendments seek to legalise (gee thanks) the depiction of normal sexual activity on screen. And therein lies the problem, of course, because we now have a government intent in codifying what constitutes normal sexual activity and criminalise anything that isn't—at least, on screen. God help you if you like a bit of bondage and the rules and safe words that you and your partner worked out in advance aren't on there at the beginning as a kind of censor's warning.
So let's look at those amendments, just in case you think I'm over-egging the pudding. The new restrictions make it illegal to show torture with instruments, bondage with no clear sign of consent, realistic depictions of rape, and dismemberment. Which are terms so vaguely drawn that they could describe almost anything. Certainly, most horror movies made in the last 50 years fall into those definitions in one way or another. As does art-house fare like Gaspar Noe's Irreversible and Lars Von Trier's Anti-Christ. As does the work of prominent directors like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. As does last week's episode of Marvel's Agents Of SHIELD. As do recent episodes of Eastenders. At a rough count, thirteen nominees for the Best Picture Oscar over the last 20 years would be illegal under these new laws, including five winners and the current holder of the award, Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave. In short, any film that shows any gore other than a gunshot squib or a blood-pack stabbing, or any captive tied up against their will will be subject to prosecution under these new laws.
Except, of course, there's a handy little out-clause. Anything with a BBFC certification is exempt from the rules. Hollywood breathes a sigh of relief. But where does that leave the film-makers who choose not to go through the hoops and expense of the Soho Square tango for a short film they made for zero budget in their shed? Where does that leave the horror enthusiasts who show at festivals like Horror-On-Sea or Grimm Up North? Where does that leave talented film-makers like my mate Mike Tack, whose work is based on just the kind of extreme imagery that Westminster wants to ban?
The law as it stands has sent innocent people to jail and ruined their lives for entirely consensual activities. Now that law is tightening its grip on independent film-makers who choose to use rubber and corn syrup, or CGI, to create films that will shock and disturb, but also get us to think about our lives and the frequently fragile grip we have on them. I could talk at length about the importance and history of horror, and how we love to be shaken and stirred by the dark arts. There should be no need.
There should also be no need for legislation to reach this far, or be worded so vaguely that it can be used on nearly anything on which the police care to prosecute. It appears that in fact, police are increasingly using the Act when they can find no other way in which to charge people, as Jane Fae points out in a recent politics.co.uk article (which at least opens up a little hope that this law may be quashed in the court). In the meantime, indie and underground film-makers are on the verge of discovering that their work has made them lawbreakers.
Let's end with a fun game. Take a look at the Charging Practices section of the new Obscene Publications Act, and see how many films you can prosecute!