Malta's outdated cinema laws
From time to time, the topic of "film classification" steps out of the low-key classification board's meetings to become one of fervent public concern. This leads to the reiteration of popular arguments concerning classification. At the forefront of these arguments is the inevitable question: "Who is allowed to watch that film and why?" A recent example was the much talked about Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. The local film classifiers concluded, even after an appeal was lodged by local film distributors KRS, that the film was not suitable for persons under 12 years of age. Some members of the public disagreed.
As a consequence of these disagreements, a certain familiar afterthought cropped up once again: Are parents the best judges of what their children may or may not see? The impulsive answer is yes. However, on further reflection, one will find that the answer is not so clear cut. First and foremost, it is imperative that for parents to be conscientious in their advice, they must be thoroughly informed. How can they take decisions regarding what their children can see before they themselves have seen the film?
Gone are the days of film censorship. Scenes are very rarely cut from films. The easy accessibility of films in such wide-ranging forms has made the concept of censorship very archaic, unless these fall under pornography. Instead we have film classifiers whose job it is to give films a rating, thereby clarifying which films are suitable for different age groups.
Are the local film classifiers doing their job in a way relevant to a knowledge society? This is the crux of the whole argument.
The Film Classification Board is appointed annually by the Home Affairs Minister according to a piece of legislation entitled Cinema and Stage Regulations, first published on September 28, 1937. It is 70 years old. The last update was made by Legal Notice 194 in the year 2000.
Most of these regulations are obsolete. These may be downloaded from the Ministry of Justice website (http://docs.justice.gov.mt/lom/legislation/english/subleg/10/17.pdf). One of these regulations is that a trained fireman licensed by the Commissioner of Police, or in his absence a member of the Police Force detailed to act as such by the Commissioner of Police, shall be in attendance at all the performances. (Clause 9)
Another regulation is that the exit and emergency exit lanterns shall be illuminated by means of candles or paraffin lamps, the lanterns to be made entirely of non-combustible material. (Clause 25)
And another is that cinematographs shall not close later than midnight. (Clause 61). This means that several late night and preview shows on weekends which carry on into the early hours are in breach of the law.
Incidentally, there is one clause, however, that is not obsolete but should be enforced by the police authorities. Clause 38 (1) states that it is prohibited to hold any interval of more than eight minutes' duration during a cinematographic exhibition, and an interval shall in no case be held during the showing of the main feature film (my italics) without the written permission of the Commissioner of Police.
As a rule, feature films are not supposed to be interrupted by intermissions. Several contemporary film directors go to lengths to impose this, sometimes even using contracts with the production studios. In Malta, the revenue of drinks and popcorn takes precedence.
However, I firmly believe that the regulations that need the most immediate reform are those that deal with the actual board that classifies film and stage productions.
There are three major, bold decisions that should be considered.
At present, the Film Classification Board and the Stage Classification Board are one and the same. These ought to be separate. The Film Classification Board is responsible for films showing publicly in theatres. However, we need some form of legislation which regulates the renting or selling of videos/DVDs. At the moment, no local classification of such material is done. A DVD shop may sell or rent to a minor any film which was rated 18 in Britain.
The Film Classification Board should also be open to discussion on drawing up a voluntary certification scheme on the material exhibited on the internet. This is the current debate in Britain and parents are urging their board to issue this type of certification that would warn users about graphic sex, violence and foul language.
The second change in the local film regulations is crucial. Earlier in this article, I mentioned that film classification is needed for parents to take informed decisions about how to advise their children on what to watch.
Can Maltese parents take this informed decision? To a large extent, they cannot. When films are classified U, PG, 12, 16 or 18, one is still in the dark about a plethora of issues because no elaboration is given as to why a film was assigned a specific rating. On this matter, the Diocesan Film Guide is giving a better service to the public. Every week, they rate each film and then write a short comment about what they find commendable or objectionable.
Members of the local Film Classification Board are paid to classify the films. Ratings are arbitrary and no one knows the criteria used by the classifier to give such a film rating. In the US, the MPAA will state that for example Harry Potter 5 was rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images. Their British counterparts, the BBFC rated The Bourne Ultimatum 12A because it contains moderate violence. When a parent has these forms of guidelines, the parent can truly take an informed decision.
BBFC have a set of clear guidelines for each classification. These guidelines can be viewed on their website (http://www.bbfc.co.uk/). The local film classification board does not seem to have such guidelines. A new film law ought to incorporate such criteria.
About a year ago, I raised this matter with the office of the Commissioner of Children because of my strong belief that our children are at serious risk as a result of this disservice. The then Commissioner took a personal interest and followed the issue with zeal. Then a change of guard took place and there was a halt on this matter.
The third and final change is fundamental. It is time for the Minister (whoever that may be in the future) to stop nominating blue-eyed persons to form part of the Film Classification Board. We need a new comprehensive law where classification of films is determined by an industry self-regulatory body. The stakeholders would be the local film distributor, film exhibitors, official video/DVD importers and the business community representing the video/DVD outlets. The aim is to bring a degree of uniformity to film classification. There were days when Basic Instinct was released uncut in local cinemas but withheld by the postal authorities if someone tried to import it as a video or DVD.
Nowadays, film classification has become a very intrinsic matter. Gone are the days when film classifiers acted as ruthless hangmen, eager to axe any scene out of a flick. It is customary that film producers nowadays submit their films unofficially to their country's film classification board so that they are sure to earn the classification they are targeting for their production.
A case in point is the last James Bond film, Casino Royale. This film was originally seen by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in an unfinished version, for advice as to the film's suitability for a 12A classification. The BBFC advised the company that the torture scene placed too much emphasis on both the infliction of pain and the sadism of the villain for the requested 12A category. When the completed version of the film was submitted for classification, reductions to the torture sequence had been made, including the removal of lingering shots of the rope, close shots of Bond's facial reaction and the substitution of a more distant shot of the beating compared to the original version. This re-edited version of the scene was considered acceptable for a 12A.
Unfortunately, the local Film Classification Board prefers to remain distant and does not fully embrace communication with the local film distributor concerning their formal decisions on film classification.
The Cinema and Stage Regulations have been in force for 70 years. However, times have changed drastically. It is high time for these regulations to be bequeathed to our legal history books and for us to consider a new pragmatic law synergetic with a knowledge society. My three recommendations are up for consideration by legislators.