Once again, the British censors have made it clear that they believe not just children but adults too should be told what they can and cannot watch. Srdjan Spasojevic’s now notorious A Serbian Film was pulled from Film4 FrightFest at the weekend after the BBFC and Westminster Council demanded 3 minutes and 48 seconds of cuts. Our self-appointed guardians have kindly protected us from images that we may find disturbing. This infantilisation of the British public is shocking.
A Serbian Film is an angry, desperate denunciation of state-imposed violence and its utter annihilation of human values and spirit. It shows the most extreme acts of cruelty imaginable precisely so that its purpose cannot be mistaken: it aims to disgust, not to arouse or thrill. For that reason, it is actually an incredibly moral film, unlike the ‘torture porn’ movies it has been misguidedly compared to (sometimes by journalists who haven’t even seen the film – see the Guardian Guide on September 28).
The reason given by the FrightFest organisers for pulling it from the festival was that ‘a film of this nature should be shown in its entirety’. I believe they are absolutely right: to cut anything from this film is to risk misrepresenting it. If the violence was not so extreme, it could much more easily be seen as entertainment. To blunt the horror and mitigate the revulsion it means to provoke would make it more ambiguous and therefore morally more dubious. Just as Pasolini’s SalÃ², or the 120 Days of Sodom, banned in the UK on its release in 1976, the film is a fierce reaction against the unthinkable sadistic brutality that those in power are capable of inflicting on others, and the censors’ response is equally confused and injudicious.
The nauseating scenes in A Serbian Film point to the vicious war crimes that have scarred the nation, to the abject corruption of abusive authorities who force individuals to commit horrendous acts, to the dehumanising nightmare of having no other choice but to be either victim or torturer, to the utter hopelessness such a trauma leaves, and to the impossibility of surviving it. It is also a film that feels directed at Western Europe, a Europe that watched the hellish disintegration of the former Yugoslavia on prime-time TV. It is a film that indicts real horrors packaged as entertainment, not one that offers visions of torture for fun. But the BBFC do not seem to think that the British public can be trusted to understand this.