MDA not officially classifying Eric Khoo's sex drama does not help nanny state image

6 December 2015 / 10 months 3 weeks ago

John Lui
The Straits Times
Dec 4, 2015

New movie, new censorship firestorm. Why do we keep finding ourselves in this mess, in which every side - the artist, the audience, the authorities - loses?

A few days ago, acclaimed Singapore director Eric Khoo said his film, the erotic drama In The Room, was not given a classification by the Media Development Authority (MDA). Under the rules, unrated films can't be given commercial releases here.

The MDA has since replied, telling its side of the story. Here is its statement, in full:

"In consultation with the Films Consultative Panel, MDA had deemed two scenes in the movie In The Room to have exceeded our classification guidelines for sexual content.

"MDA informally advised the distributor that the film could be classified R21 with edits for commercial release. However, the application was subsequently withdrawn. As such, MDA has not officially classified the film for commercial release.

"The film was classified R21 uncut for the SGIFF. More leeway is given to film festivals as they play to a niche audience and have limited screenings."

From this, it seems the authority wants to make it clear that there is no such thing as a formal denial of a classification, in case anyone thought there was.

Because the dance of getting a classification is carried out informally, and for an indefinite time, nothing can be said to be "denied" or "blocked", not even after the artist gets sore feet and leaves the dance floor.

It's a fine but important distinction to make. Even if, as artists have pointed out, it's not a foxtrot that they are particularly keen to do in the first place. But what's more interesting about MDA's statement is how revealing it is of the process.

The MDA looks at the material, marks out where it has crossed the out-of-bounds markers, then advises the artist or distributor on what it can do to get the desired rating (NC16, M18, or R21, or anything else).

The thing that stands out to me is how the OB markers, despite what critics say, are not applied arbitrarily. Neither are they vague, at least where films are concerned. Edits for In The Room were suggested, in the clearest terms.

But for such a system to work, the artist has to take the guidance in the spirit in which it is given, as a means of helping get the work out to the public. I think the MDA genuinely desires to facilitate, not obstruct.

The sticking point is that what is seen as guidance by one side looks an awful lot like censorship to the other. Film-makers such as Eric Khoo, who have won international acclaim and who sit on the juries of festivals around the world, probably feel insulted by the application of a one-size-fits-all decency yardstick on a work selected for festivals in Toronto and Busan.

I've met enough film-makers to know that it rubs salt into their wounds to say that classifications were held up after viewing by the Films Consultative Panel, a committee made up of a representative cross-section of society.

No artist I've spoken to, least of all Khoo, makes art for a representative sampling; they make it for anyone who comes to it with an open mind, and find that it speaks to them, and for them.

So the nub of the problem is not the decency standards themselves, subjective as they are. It is that they are wielded like a blunt instrument. In fact, the MDA recognises this because it gives film festivals more leeway "as they play to a niche audience and have limited screenings", according to the statement. "Niche audience"? "Limited screenings"? These qualities don't exist only at film festivals.

They apply to arthouse cinemas too. The Projector at Golden Mile Tower, the only such dedicated venue left on the island, usually turns on the lights only in the afternoons. It's closed on Mondays. With its two screens, it is a dwarf next to a multiplex. In other words, The Projector already operates like a festival.

So let's give it permanent festival status, so that it becomes a safe space for In The Room, or other works that might not get an R21 rating otherwise.

It helps artists like Khoo. It helps dispel the nanny-state image we're saddled with. Because it is only one physical space, it can be monitored for the abuse of its privileges. The only problem I can see is that other exhibitors might feel cut out of the financial action, but the truth is that R21 movies, because they are so restrictive, earn a fraction of the amount that films with lower ratings do.

It is time that people paid attention to what's going on in Singapore cinema for something other than a classification roadblock.

This article was first published on December 4, 2015.
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