Salo is Rebanned

"The re-banning of 'Salo' marks a regression into the infantilism and paternalism of the past. One small bunch of unrepresentative people will determine what other adults may see, read or hear. This is an intolerable affront to civil liberties. "

by Terry Lane

Published in The Sunday Age (Melbourne, Australia) - 1 March 1998.
Copyright © Terry Lane, 1998. Reprinted with permission.

Pier Paolo Pasolini's film 'Salo -- or 120 days of Sodom' was banned last week by the censors. This banning represents a triumph of stupidity and anti-intellectualism, as well as a great victory for the unholy alliance of ratbag feminists and the repressive Christian right. And it is a victory in a battle that has been hard and long. 'Salo' was first banned in Australia in 1976. The Film Censorship Board at the time was divided on the question of banning or permitting and, by a majority of one, voted to prevent its release. At the time 'Salo' was seen as the film that would determine where we would draw the famous line dividing what is permitted from what is forbidden.

In 1993 a new censorship board was asked to reconsider the banning. The board voted six to nil to release 'Salo' with an 'R' rating. Some state attorneys-general chose to over ride the board's permission and banned the film from showing in Western and South Australia.

Here is an interesting point. While citizens in the two western states were not permitted to see the film, tens of thousands of people in Sydney and Melbourne did see it. This should provide a large statistical sample to settle once and for all the question of a causal link between film and imitative violence on the streets and in the home. From the time of the unbanning of 'Salo' in 1993 the Senate committee on community standards has waged a relentless campaign for stricter censorship, using the 'Salo' case as proof that the censors were a bunch of out-of-touch 'academics' and 'film critics' -- two groups of people so insensitive to the squeamishness of ordinary mortals that they should not be entrusted with the important functions of assessing films for release. Victoria's Senator Julian McGauran is jubilant over the rebanning of 'Salo'. 'Let it be a lesson,' he says. 'This movie was the line in the sand...I'm actually over the moon that the artists have been pulled back into line...You must remember, I'm National Party -- artistic merit doesn't mean much to me.'This chilling confession could only be made by a person who is insensitive to its implications.

I have seen 'Salo'. Pasolini's intention, so it is claimed, was to use de Sade's sado-masochistic novel as a metaphor for fascism. In the film, adolescents are seduced by fascist soldiers and imprisoned at Salo and subjected to hideous indignities and cruelty. I don't actually have a very vivid recollection of the film, except for the scenes where characters are forced to eat excrement. I closed my eyes. There were probably other times where squeamishness got the better of me and I looked away.

When the censors voted unanimously to release the film with an 'R' rating, they did so because they considered that it was a 'good film', according to Evan Williams, the chairman of the board. He wrote: ''Salo' may not be a great film, but it is without doubt a serious one.' In other words it was not made as pornography, intended to achieve no other effect than erotic stimulation. (Let me hasten to add at this point that a film whose sole purpose is erotic stimulation ought not be banned for that reason. Without erotic stimulation the species would have long since disappeared. You and every other person reading this are alive and able to do so because of erotic stimulation.)

The rebanning of 'Salo' is the result of an approach from the Queensland Attorney-General -- wouldn't you know it? -- to the federal Attorney-General, urging him to resubmit the film to the current censorship board, which is known to be 'full of normal people, as opposed to film critics'. These immortal words are the work of Senator John Tierney, Liberal party man and member of the Senate committee on community standards. It is worth noting that while this committee held strongly to the opinion that 'Salo' should be banned, only one member of the committee, Senator Brian Harradine, had actually bothered to see the film.'Salo' may be seen, uncut, in many other countries. In the United States it is available on video, something that even our erstwhile liberal censors did not contemplate.

The re-banning of 'Salo' marks a regression into the infantilism and paternalism of the past. One small bunch of unrepresentative people will determine what other adults may see, read or hear. This is an intolerable affront to civil liberties. As an autonomous moral being I do not concede to others the right to determine what I will watch.

What next? Can we expect to see 'Portnoy's Complaint' revisited and reassessed by Senator McGauran and the 'normal people' of the censorship board?

Terry Lane is a radio broadcaster and writer. For further information see Terry Lane On-line.

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