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Monday, 6 September 1993
Page: 982


Senator McGAURAN (10.30 p.m.) —This evening I wish to relate my comments to the decision of the Film and Literature Board of Review to release the movie Salo. The movie Salo is presently showing in major capital cities of Australia and represents a watershed in censorship laws in this country. My concern is as much against the clear breach of the censorship laws and the unequivocal instructions of the Commonwealth, state and territory censorship ministers for tighter application of those guidelines as it is against the movie itself.

  The movie Salo, made in 1976, banned in this country for some 17 years, has been released in mainstream theatres with no more than a lowly R rating and therefore there is no barrier to its release on home video. The story-line begins with the kidnap of 16 adolescents in an Italian village, eight of each sex. For the remainder of the film they are subjected to every form of violent sexual humiliation and torture before being mass slaughtered in a bizarre fashion.

  I make reference to the hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technologies in Sydney on Thursday, 5 August 1993 to try to encapsulate the depths and darkness of the movie Salo. The committee transcript reads that the movie:

Contains constant nudity, masturbation, forced sodomy, forced urolagnia, coprophagous, humiliation and degradation, anilingus, suicide, candlewax burns to breasts and male genitalia, a man's tongue cut off, an eye explicitly gouged out with a knife, a woman partially scalped, a boy's nipples branded with a hot iron, being forced to eat excreta, torture and killing during the "Cycle of Blood" canto. Naked male and female youths forced to behave as animals going on all fours to beg for food—eventually betraying their fellows in an attempt to survive, hanging, whipping, accompanied by raconteurs' stories based on offensive, fetishes and paedophilia, a woman's verbal accounts of sex experiences as a child and of matricide, live rat forced into a girl's vagina, whilst various adults engage in sexual acts.

The movie Salo has been condemned outright by every film critic of any note. The most notable critiques came from Neil Jillet of the Age on 8 July 1993—he described the film as `vile' and a `treat for sadists and psychopaths'—and Marion Groves from the Sun-Herald who asked why the film and literature review board was so determined to provide suitable entertainment for Mr Baldy, Mr Stinky and Mr Cruel, Melbourne's notorious child molesters and murderers.

  Moreover, the Victorian police headed by the office of the deputy commissioner, the head of the spectrum task force overseeing the investigations into Mr Cruel, the head of the rape squad, the head of the gaming and vice squad and the department's chief serial crime expert were instructed to see the movie and to report on the movie to the highest command. In my casual conversation with some of those who attended the movie, they told me that, following the movie, these men of the police force who had experienced many hardened situations had to take a walk down by the Yarra just to get their breath.

  In a statement to the community standards committee, the conclusions of the police were affirmed by Mr Reaburn from the Attorney-General's Department when he said:

One has to doubt how it will affect the community in the long run. How many of the young men trooping in to see the film at various Twin Cinemas in our capital cities are aware of the allegorical considerations?

The community has also protested against the movie by way of letters, petitions and phone calls—the volume of which has been exceptionally large. At a meeting of the Senate select committee on community standards in Canberra on Friday, 20 August, Mr Reaburn from the Attorney-General's Department confirmed that a great many members of the community had protested directly to the Attorney-General's Department.

  It is then legitimate to ask: according to whom, and on what criteria, was the movie Salo released into Australian society? The Film and Literature Board of Review, the body that is the final arbitrator of the film's classification and release, is responsible. Its chairman, Mr Evan Williams, is therefore the responsible person. Mr Williams has publicly and before the Senate community standards committee vigorously defended his decision and claims that the release of the movie can be justified on four grounds.

  Those grounds are, firstly, that the movie is of artistic merit. According to Mr Williams, `It is the task of the artist, at least occasionally, to shock the old and complacent'. The second ground is that the movie would be shown only in art-house theatres, a proviso which cannot be enforced and is not mentioned in the guidelines as a relevant criteria. The third ground is that adults in a free society ought to be allowed to see whatever they like. Mr Williams confirmed his view in a letter to the Age on 15 November saying that:

. . . to deny their right to do so, I believe, is to champion a view of censorship now largely discredited in Australia.

The fourth ground for Mr Williams releasing this movie Salo may be found in his article in the Australian on 21 May 1993 when he said, `Quite simply, we thought it was a good film'.

  It is my view that the position of Mr Williams as Chairman of the Film and Literature Board of Review is no longer tenable, and he should be dismissed. I take this view on four counts: firstly, there has been a clear breach of the guidelines for the classification of films and videotapes which he was obliged in law to apply. Under the refused classification section of the guidelines, subsection (b) has been breached. It reads:

. . . any film which includes unduly detailed and/or relished acts of extreme violence or cruelty; explicit or unjustifiable depictions of sexual violence against non-consenting persons, will be refused classification.

Mr Williams himself has stated that the adolescents suffer `sexual torment and sadistic humiliation of an extreme kind'. Secondly, Mr Williams was in breach of the principle found in the preamble of the classification guidelines which reads:

. . . community has the right to ban material considered likely to endanger public health or safety; or to offend accepted standards of public decency.

Thirdly, he was in breach of the clear direction from the June 1988 Commonwealth, state and territory censorship ministers meeting in Darwin requesting that the Chairman of the Film and Literature Board of Review apply tighter restrictions to sexually violent films in the M and R categories. Fourthly, in my own State of Victoria, section 8(2)(c) of the Classification of Films and Publications Act 1990 provides:

. . . that a censor must refuse to classify a film that depicts a child (whether engaged in sexual activity or otherwise) who is, or who is apparently, under the age of 16 years in a manner that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult person.

Not only do I believe that Mr Williams' position is no longer tenable because of the flagrant breaches of the above but also I question his competence to be a judge of community standards. This belief was confirmed by the incredible assertion by Mr Williams that he could see no evidence to link a level of sexually violent crime to sexually violent movies. His opinion clearly shows poor judgment and it could be supported only by a very small minority of people in society.

  It is clear from the committee hearings that community views were never a touchstone in the film and literature review board's decision making process; rather, the artistic value of the movie and the freedom of expression of the director overrode community standards. Mr Williams is employed to apply the law, not to make it up. These boards are made up of appointed officials; they are not elected. For this reason they cannot be allowed to roam free, interpreting the guidelines as they might, inventing new criteria and then being unaccountable to the community and protected from criticism by government departments.

  As public representatives, we are here to represent the standards of the community as well as the public sentiment towards issues that arise from time to time. As a public servant, Mr Williams is obliged in law to follow the guidelines which are laid down by the parliament. He and other members of the board are not at liberty to substitute their own philosophical judgments, as they have done. I therefore put it to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, and the other senators present in the chamber, to join me in calling for the dismissal of Mr Evan Williams, since the only appropriate signal we can make to the community is that we will not tolerate breaches of the guidelines which place the safety of our citizens in peril. This will no doubt send a clear signal to a worried community that any member or chairperson of the film and literature review board is accountable for his or her actions. I agree with Mr Williams on one point, when he said:

Salo presents us with the most stringent test to date.

I say clearly that the release of Salo was a deliberate challenge to the community standards and, therefore, a watershed in this country's censorship laws. To leave the matter undisputed would signal a collapse of Australia's censorship laws. I finish by quoting the last paragraph in today's Age editorial, Monday 6 September, which I believe clearly relates to the release of the movie Salo:

  The unacceptable alternative is simply to wish our children luck as they ride the pendulum of censorship towards the outer limits.