A Serbian Film is shocking. It’s sexually brutal and transgressive cinema that is unrepentantly provocative gratuitous and manipulative. When fragmented fish reviewed it a couple of months ago he was driven to warn the reader that you can’t unwatch this film. The debut feature of Srdjan Spasojevic, like Salo, I Spit on Your Grave or even A Clockwork Orange it uses violence or in this case sexual violence that involves children as a metaphor for the depravity of the Balkan war in the 90’s.
It’s caused controversy overseas and in order to secure a release here the distributor Accent cut three minutes at the classification boards behest. It’s this version of the film that was finally released, however outcry from community groups and the South Australian attorney general sparked a review, and the film was effectively banned.
It’s a decision that reignites the censorship debate in Australia, bringing to mind the furore around Salo, Base-Moi, Bruce La Bruce’s La Zombie and Larry Clark’s Ken Park. It also highlights how subjective and open to manipulation the censorship laws are in this country. It’s peculiar that the board can ask for specific cuts to a film, release it, only to reverse their decision months later.
For Accent who have released edgy controversial films like Irreversible and Destriction, it was not about the depravity. “We never pick up a film because it has extreme violence or sex in it,” General Manager George Papodopoulos offers. “There has to be more than that and we have seen and passed on many very graphic films because we felt they were total exploitation and had no redeeming qualities.”
The film reads like a comment on the pornification of our culture, where women, men, even children have been reduced to sexual commodities by mass media. Spasojevic though seems to take a certain salivating delight in the depravity, drawing it out much further than is tolerable. It’s a point taken up by Melinda Liszewski from Collective Shout, an organization that fights the sexualisation of children and submitted to the classification board to have the film banned.
“The story line of A Serbian Film does reflect the message that the making of pornography causes real harm to people,” she states. “However, this message is undermined by putting in front of the viewer detailed depictions of sexual violence against women and young children. A Serbian Film is the violent pornography it pretends to condemn.”
Yet there’s something about the excess, pushing things further beyond taboo that help shine a light on our own cultural practices. And that’s where the debate lies. Can the extreme sexual violence be justified as political comment or art? At this point in this country the answer is no.
For Collective Shout it’s a victory, though they believe that a classification system that passes a film like A Serbian Film needs a complete overhaul. For Accent though it’s a financial hit, highlighting the perils of bringing challenging transgressive cinema into this country. Papadopoulus though is undaunted.
“It’s probably made us even more determined to ensure quality, challenging films can be seen in a democratic, free country like Australia,” he offers.