Unnecessary Censorship in Malaysia by Chin Guo Heng

I remembered two things from watching The Wolverine: when no other outlets are available, it is always possible to perform impromptu chest surgery on oneself; and the amount of cuts and bleeps in the film.

Admittedly, this was my first time catching a film at a local cinema after spending the last few years abroad, where censorship is a lot more laissez faire. The censored scenes were pretty jarring to me until a friend reminded me that liberal application of cuts and bleeps are part and parcel of the Malaysian cinema experience, besides the awesome cineplexes and delicious popcorns.

Growing up a film buff, I've always wondered if film cuts compromise the artistic integrity of the film (not that The Wolverine was brimming with artistic merit) and the vision of the director. Imagine how Yasmin Ahmad's Sepet would feel like without the eight cuts imposed upon it. Complaining about cuts in films may seem petty but aesthetics and annoyance aside, film censorship, like all other forms of censorship, underlies what we are allowed to see, experience and by extension, think.

The watchman setting and implementing the guideline that defines the social, religious and moral values the rakyat are allowed to be exposed to in the cinema is the Film Censorship Board, operating under the jurisdiction of the Home Ministry. An updated guidelinefor film censorship came into force on March 2010 espousing the regulations in which films are expected to follow under four categories: public safety and harmony, religion, culture and manners, and morality, including a list of words deemed too rude for the rakyat to hear or see. According to the Board, the rules contained in the guidelines are of prime importance as films exert influence on the mind-set and actions of society, especially children and teenagers.

It seems reasonable that the Censorship Board adopts the monkey see, monkey do view towards public mores, but is there solid evidence to justify heavy-handed censorship in the name of defending the public morality? The significant body of research into the issue unsurprisingly offers conflicting conclusions. A segment of studies and meta-studies suggest that exposure to media violence - movies and video games - increases the propensity of violent behaviour due to desensitisation and increase in aggression-related thoughts. Critics argued that those papers are biased and methodologically flawed, and do not take into account issues beyond exposure to media violence such as family environment, peer delinquency and depressive symptoms as a predictor of youth aggression or violence. A 2008 study found that exposure to media violence is not even a predictor of youth aggression compared to the factors above, suggesting that the correlation between youth aggression and media violence is not necessarily the causation. Furthermore, longitudinal and cross-national studies yielded more non-supportive results over supportive results. A recent analysisof the data for youth sexuality and the initiation of sexual intercourse concluded that exposure to sexy media may not actually exert any significant impact compared with other well-established factors such as parental permissiveness and having sexually active peers.

The inconclusive evidence puts into question the necessity for the heavy-handed censorship practiced by the Film Censorship Board. Although I am against all forms of censorship, I can sympathise with the motivation for banning films, but cutting off scenes which contains minor elements of nudity or sex felt a little overboard. Perhaps the Film Censorship Board is erring on the conservative side by being overly strict rather than and let a couple of controversial scenes slip through censorship and devastate the morality and manners of the impressionable Malaysian public.

Though the Film Censorship Board explicitly stated that their guideline ensures the creativity of filmmakers would not be compromised and the cuts will be considered taking into account the context of the scene as part of the film’s plot, the exhaustive list of no-go makes one wonder how much does the regulations stifle the creative expression of local filmmakers. An argument could be made that constraints boost creativity: We have seen ingenious shooting and improvisations done to get around budgetary limitations in films like Duncan Jones' Moon, a low-budget science fiction piece which was garnered tremendous amount of praise and box office success. Financial constraints are one thing; constraints in issues which filmmakers are allowed to explore are another, and in my opinion shackles rather than stimulates creativity. Filmmakers explore the human condition, and that includes sexuality and violence. Steve McQueen's bold and powerful study of sex addiction in Shame (one of the best films of 2012 I would argue) would not have the same impact without the daring bare-all by its cast. Forcing filmmakers to shy away from sex and violence is akin to sculpting a statue of a horse without its genitalia: anatomically incorrect.

The hand of the censorship board yields more impact over locally-made films, where access to the local market is more imperative. Yasmin Ahmad struggled extensively with the censorship board through her career, and had to compromise with a whooping eight cuts in order to get her seminal Sepet released in Malaysia. Amir Muhammad's films have been featured in Sundance and Berlin film festivals but were ironically banned in his own home country. More recently, screening of Wong Kew-Lit's upcoming The New Village was suspended pending another round of review even though the film was initially given the green light by the Film Censorship Board.

Perhaps by easing the rules and regulations on what is acceptable for us to see, hear and think, we as a society will have the space to discuss these matters in a mature manner and grow. I am not a parent, but I am sure as hell glad that my parents gave me the sex talk when I was a teenager.

The Home Ministry may argue that it practices the current level of censorship to protect the public, but as mentioned above, the evidence that exposure to onscreen violence and sex encourages people to become more violent and sexual is contentious. I am sure we are all aware about the boom in young people taking up a career in urban planning due to the popularity of the Sim City series. I wonder about the effectiveness of censoring love scenes in films to protect the rakyat from absolute moral oblivion when the libertarian outback that is the Internet is even more easily and readily accessible than a film at the cinema. What the Censorship Board end up achieving is tampering unnecessarily with films. Speaking of oblivion, in Joseph Kosinski’s sci-fi epic Oblivion which came out earlier this year, the 'swimming pool scene' was cut in Malaysian screenings, which was disappointing as it is one of the most memorable scenes in the film. It may not be an integral part of the plot, but boy it was beautifully shot and reminded me why I paid extra to watch it in its full IMAX glory.

For all the qualms I have about the state of artistic censorship in Malaysia, I have to give the Film Censorship Board credit for adopting a more liberal approach in the recent years. The updated guideline allows for the depiction of gay characters onscreen, so long as the gay characters either repent towards the end of the film or suffer a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions (okay, perhaps the last bit was a bit of an exaggeration). The change allowed the locally-produced Dalam Botol to hit local screens. The new guidelines probably enabled us to catch Mark Beau de Silva’s new play, Our Sister’s Son at KL PAC, an imaginative, thought-provoking insight on growing up a little different (you know what I mean) in Malaysia. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear thatDjango Unchained made it to Malaysian screens uncut. Nevertheless, as Shanon Shah pointed out, the 2010 guidelines for censorship in Malaysia resembles that implemented in the US during the 1930s. If the Censorship Board insists on censoring P13 films, they could perhaps allow for uncut versions of the film to be shown in late night showings or screenings just for 18 and above?

The direction taken by the Film Censorship Board makes film buffs like me smile a little and I hope that the trend continues. In the meantime, we Malaysian film buffs will rue the fact that the Palme d'Or winner of this year, Blue is the Warmest Colour will probably never make it to our local GSC.

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