The Ethics of Film Classification

It's a vast subject, made even more complicated by the sheer variety of views about what film actually is. Is it most like photography, or novels, or plays, or cartoons, or something else again? Let me pick out just three of the issues I touched on.

I've given talks recently at Cumberland Lodge and Queen's University Belfast which both had this title, although they covered different ground. It's a vast subject, made even more complicated by the sheer variety of views about what film actually is. Is it most like photography, or novels, or plays, or cartoons, or something else again? Let me pick out just three of the issues I touched on.

First, the BBFC uses published guidelines based on wide public consultation. But we also make contextual judgements all the time. What does this involve?

Well, it's quite well known that we work with lists of aggravating or mitigating factors. This is particularly clear with bad language, where something like humour may mitigate the effect, whereas aggressive and directed usage may aggravate it.

But that's just the starting point. I am certainly interested in deeper views about what we are doing when we make contextual judgements.

Take the case of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. If you saw out of context the scene in which the young runaways French kiss on the beach, you might feel uncomfortable with the 12A rating. But the chances are that if you'd seen the whole film you'd be rooting for the pair, you'd see ways in which they were redemptive for the troubled adults in their lives, and you wouldn't be concerned about the 12A.

For a second topic, take the case of the first Hunger Games film. It's well known that this submission to us made a textbook use of the advice system, around 20 seconds were cut, including some of the bloodier moments, and in consequence this borderline case was able to secure the desired lower classification at 12A.

My second ethical issue is that there remained various possible lingering concerns about this process.

One was the completist concern. There will always be those who think that the fullest possible version of a film should be released, and I sympathise. But I don't think that can override the paramount duty on the BBFC to protect children from an experience which goes beyond the stretching to the over-intense, given the age group concerned.

A second line of attack might be that we had merely sanitised the film without addressing the underlying concerns. I accept that much of the work in a viewer's reaction is done by their own mind. This is sometimes called The Beholder's Share. But I don't accept that a theme can be divorced from its treatment. It is clear to me that the public wants us to set and maintain standards for, example, the visual depiction of violence.

I would therefore defend what we did in the case of the first Hunger Games film. What's more, I'm quite sure the distributor was right that 12-14 year olds were part of the core intended audience. So I contend that the project of bringing the film into line with the 12A standard had multiple justifications.

This same case also illustrates a third ethical point. Should the BBFC take account of film-makers' intentions?

This is a complicated issue. When a film is made, the producer, the director, the actors, the designers and many others all have their own intentions. For simplicity, I'll just talk of the makers' intentions.

There is a well known theoretical argument about whether it is right to look at the intentions behind a work of art in the broadest sense. In the case of film classification I believe that it is. It is right that we should be respectful of makers' intentions, and right that we should, as part of our contextual judgements, try to discern what those intentions are.

But it is also right, I believe, that we should test the realisation of those intentions against the likely impact of the viewing experience on the audience. In the case of the first Hunger Games film we had, initially, a work clearly intended to appeal, among others, to 12-14 year olds, but which contained a few depictions which were too strong. The advice process enabled us to bring the makers' intentions into line with the standards reflected in our guidelines.

When I was preparing the two talks, one talented producer told me that the BBFC was moving into a more curatorial role, and should build on this. I believe that the short and long BBFCinsight which we provide about all the issues in a film which may be of concern to a parent is a good example of this. It can be found on our website and via our app.

The point is also relevant to our work with platforms for downloads. Between 85 and 90% of parents want to see BBFC classifications and content information for downloads. More than 30 companies are now working with us in this voluntary, non-statutory area. In doing so, they are being responsible and responsive towards the public. And that is another example of the ethics of film classification in action.


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