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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Censor and sensibility

The word went out a couple of days ago that a movie had been banned in Ireland. Apparently, this is something that happens here, but this is the first time that it has actually been brought to my attention since I have been living here.

The strange thing is that the movie in question, which is deemed not fit to be shown to anyone, is an uplifting tale of female empowerment called The Day of the Woman.

Okay, that’s not the title by which most people would know the movie. But that was the original title, when it was first released in 1978, and the one preferred by its writer/director Meir Zarchi. The movie didn’t do so well, however, and the distributor re-released it three years later with a title that was appropriated from a 1959 French film by Michel Gast called J’irai cracher sur vos tombes. Filmed in France and Italy but set in the American South, that one told the story of an African-American investigating the lynching death of his brother. In English, the title was I Spit on Your Grave. Now that title firmly belongs to Zarchi’s film, and the French one is forgotten.

Other various titles that have been attached to the 1978 flick in different countries and/or different releases include Blood Angel, I Hate Your Guts, The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hills, Non violentate Jennifer (Don’t Rape Jennifer), Oeil pour oeil (Eye for an Eye) and Tomar revancha (Taking Revenge). Zarchi’s one other directing credit, by the way, is a 1985 movie called Don’t Mess with My Sister!

I have never seen Zarchi’s movie (and apparently won’t, legally, while I am living here), so I can’t offer an opinion on its quality. To be honest, it doesn’t sound like something I would enjoy that much anyway. It involves a writer who retreats to a cabin in the woods but who has her work interrupted when depraved locals break in and inflict all manner of torture and violence on her. Against all the odds, however, she eventually manages to escape and then comes back with the intention of doing even worse to her tormentors than they did to her. With that terse synopsis it becomes apparent why somebody thought the time was ripe for a re-release. The film at once fits in nicely with the hicks-as-monsters meme of many recent horror movies (Wrong Turn), home invasion horrors (The Strangers), torture porn (Hostel) and your basic revenge movie. For an added bonus, it presumably can also be seen as something of a feminist tract.

Technically, the movie is not actually “banned.” Rather the Irish Film Classification Office (IFCO) has declined to issue a certificate for the DVD re-issue. But it has the same effect. The IFCO is more or less the equivalent of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in that its job is essentially to put ratings on movies, thereby determining what minimum age you have to be to see or purchase a particular movie. Prior to 2008, the IFCO was called the Film Censors Office, a name that highlighted its power to make cuts to films as a precondition for them being released in Ireland.

The main difference between the IFCO and the MPAA is that the former is a government institution and its rulings are binding (although they can be appealed and have been successfully on a number of occasions), while the latter is merely advisory. If the MPAA can compel a studio to make cuts to a movie, it is only because the studio covets a certain rating (e.g. PG13 as opposed to R) for commercial reasons. The studio can always opt to release the movie with a higher age restriction or even unrated. But, of course, if studios want to be able to screen their movies in respectable cinemas and advertise them in mainstream newspapers (which they do), it behooves them to adhere to the MPAA’s authority. So the actual difference between the MPAA and the IFCO is probably more theoretical than real.

According to the ever reliable Wikipedia (sarcasm alert!), the list of movies that have been banned at one time or another in Ireland includes everything from Mildred Pierce and Brief Encounter to A Clockwork Orange and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

While, to most of us, the main focus of the IFCO seems to be on movies, it can also ban video games. An article in The Irish Times last year casually mentioned that the office had banned no fewer than 8,000 video games. Personally, I had no idea that so many video games even existed, let alone that there were so many that could be considered objectionable.

Presumably, having a DVD banned in Ireland isn’t an insurmountable impediment to one’s actually owning said disc. (After news of the banning came out, Irish Times film critic Donald Clarke immediately posted a photo of himself holding up a copy of the banned DVD on his blog, wondering, “Will the thought police be breaking in the door at any moment to drag me away?”) After all, what is to stop me from ordering it online from a non-Irish web site that ships to this country? Likewise, a lack of a certificate doesn’t absolutely preclude one here from seeing a film in a cinema. There are lots of independent or foreign films that don’t get a certificate for Ireland for the simple reason that it is not economical to take the time or expense to do so. But un-certificated films can be shown in private film clubs. The only restriction on these clubs seems to be that the movie can be screened only for members. In practice, members are anyone who pays a nominal fee and can prove that he or she is at least 18 years old. The preeminent film club in Ireland would be the Irish Film Institute (formerly the Irish Film Centre) in Dublin’s Temple Bar, an oasis for cinephiles who have access to the capital. The IFI is like a constant film festival or, perhaps, more like what, back in Seattle, we would call a repertory cinema—with different films showing every day or every few days. There was a period when I was dividing my time between Seattle and Ireland and I would be spending months at a time in Dublin. One of the best perks of being in that city was access to the IFI, something I have missed terribly since setting up house in the west.

If a film club like the IFI is like a film festival, then it also happens that actual film festivals here are technically film clubs. That is how film festivals—like the ones in Dublin, Cork and Galway—get away with screening movies from around the world that often have never passed through the IFCO. When you buy your film festival tickets or packages of tickets online, you may be barely aware that you are also buying a film club membership. But if you are walking in off the street to get a few tickets, you are likely to have to go through the quaint process of paying something like five euro and filling out a card to become a member of the film club, if even for a day or two. It has always struck me that this custom is sort of the cinematic equivalent of the way my relatives in Oklahoma used to have to (and maybe still do) bring their own bottle of wine to their private club to have it opened and served to them with dinner.

It might be tempting to attribute all this censorship stuff to the country’s history of strong Catholicism. And that undoubtedly has played a part. But censorship has gone on in the United Kingdom as well. In fact, I Spit on Your Grave was a cause célèbre in Britain in the 1980s when the Department of Public Prosecutions included it in a list of 72 movies that could lead to prosecution of retailers under the Obscene Publications Act. Among other films on the list was Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. In the end, that so-called “video nasty” episode was seen as a marketing boon for the movies on the list, which were being positioned as outré shockers, and the suspicion is strong that history is repeating itself with the new Irish ban.

As I mentioned, this current Irish banning is only of a DVD re-issue. (Apparently, there is additional footage added to the DVD version.) But this will not be the last we hear about this. Like so many horror movies of that era lately, I Spit on Your Grave has been remade. The new version, directed by Steven R. Monroe (he was the first assistant cameraman for the pilot TV movie for Babylon 5!), has played a few film festivals and is scheduled for a limited U.S. release on October 8. Needless to say, there is no word about an Irish release.

-S.L., 23 September 2010

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