A Serbian Film RE-Revisited

So, in a bizarre case of universal synchronicity, I stopped at my local video store on the way home last night and hired the censored DVD release of A Serbian Film to compare it with the uncensored version. I also happened to discover as I finished the DVD, that the film was also re-banned yesterday.

It seems that complaints from South Australia’s Attorney-General and an anti-sexual-explotiation community group called Collective Shout had the film back in front of the review board, who overturned the R18+ rating and reinstated the RC. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the released DVD was twice-censored.

The R18+ DVD is quite significantly altered from the original material. Of significant note is that the baby-rape scene is cut down to a point where I would almost say it’s more effective. The censored version shows brief scenes of the video that Vukmir and Milos watch, but spends more of its time focussed on Milos’s distressed face as he struggles to comprehend what it is he’s being shown. Also, curiously, they’ve removed the shot of Vukmir shouting “Newborn Porn” as Milos leaves and instead has it play over a shot of Milos walking away from the house. I assume this was done to accomodate the edits to the scene.

Furthermore, much of the violence has been drastically toned down, almost to the detriment of the film’s comprehensibility.

  • Lejla’s death scene, which originally showed her chained with her hands above her head, naked and covered in blood, teeth pulled out and forced to suffocate around one of Vukmir’s goon’s cock as he rapes her throat, is now instead reduced to a few quick shots of her gagging – it’s easier to stomach (though still unpleasant) but you can barely recognise it as being Lejla, and it doesn’t linger long enough to make you realise she is being killed. It does, in fact, come and go so quickly that it looks like a brief shot of an aggressive blowjob amongst the tapes Milos is rifling through.
  • The scene in which a drugged-up Milos rapes and beheads a woman is cut down to an almost ludicrous detail, whereas she turns around and screams for her life, before the (censored) film has shown Milos being handed a machete. It comes off as looking like he managed to make it magically appear in the film.
  • The final rape scene, in which a drugged-up Milos unwittingly assaults his young son as his brother rapes his wife, has been censored to remove the moment where Vukmir reveals that it is in fact Milos’s son. It’s easy to understand why this reveal was taken out, but not only does it not acknowledge Milos’s son as a victim, it also isn’t firmly acknowledged by the remainder of the film that his son has been raped. A less attentive viewer may even interpret the film’s ending as Milos and Marija taking their own lives out of their grief and taking their child with them as they do it.

There are other cuts to the film, but those above are (in my opinion) the most notable.

This film is like a powder-keg wrapped in nitroglycerin dangling over the mouth of a volcano when it comes to discussing it. Defend it, and you’re endorsing the exploitation of women and children and worthless filmmaking, decry it and you’re a philistine who’s afraid of provocative art. There are too many different viewpoints on the film, and so I’m only going to discuss mine.

The filmmakers claim that the film is allegorical for life in Serbia. In fact, they’ve been quoted as saying:

“I never thought, let’s make a shocking film, let’s make it controversial, let’s break the world record. That was never on our mind. We just wanted to express ourselves in the most honest and direct way possible. You’re raped from birth and it doesn’t even stop after your death.

Srđan Spasojević

This is pretty questionable – violence, and sexual violence in particular may run rife in Serbia, but not in a manner like what is seen on film. It’s hard to equate what can very easily be seen as gratuitous sadistic exploitation with an allegory for a life in a politically mismanaged nation that subjects its citizens to a horrid way of life, but at the same time, it’s hard to equate cooks, thieves, wives and lovers with Thatcherism, but people still do. The thematics here are subjective, and while I don’t necessarily think the film succeeds in this, it is still present at the very least. An allegory that doesn’t quite work doesn’t negate the intent behind the violence.

The film would be easily seen as an exploitative piece, but once again, I think that Poe’s law has come into effect here. If you need to address issues of violence towards women, you need to do it boldly and without hiding behind political correctness.

“You cannot fight against that kind of violence if you don’t say anything about it.”

Srđan Spasojević

The problem here is that I don’t think the film actively says anything about it. If you’re watching it with the mindset that this film is a political polemic, then you might automatically assume this is what the film is doing, but if you’re watching from the point of view that it’s a horror film, then you’ll see the scenes of violence against women as little more than grisly death and/or rape scenes.

That said, as it stood in the uncensored version, it was unflinchingly clear that the women were being subjugated to horrible horrible things. Brutal though they were, there was a very clear definition of victim, perpetrator and consequence. The censored release, in heavily editing these scenes, has removed the substance of what made them so disturbing, and has ironically altered the meaning. The worst offender is Lejla’s death scene. Lejla is shown to be a fierce, independent woman who is unashamed of both her own sexuality but also controversial sex in general. When she is killed in the uncensored version, it’s not only troubling because we’re seeing the death of an independent character, Milos’ only ally, and because of the content of the scene, but also because it’s the torturous death that could easily be equated to the treatment of Serbians by the government. In the censored version, it honestly just looks like she’s giving her murderer a blow job.

For context – Milos finds a video camera and a handful of tapes, and as he goes through them, he sees scenes relevant to his amnesia, as well as snippets of the film Vukmir was creating, which he largely ignores. Uncensored, Lejla’s death scene was one of a number of scenes that drove home the gravity of Milos’ predicament. Censored, it looks like one of the snippets he ignores. Uncensored, the scene had meaning and loss, censored, the scene is trivial.

While I think the baby-rape scene actually works better in the censored version, and I’ll admit that’s because I tend to favour subtlety over explicitness, the censoring of the other scenes has taken undeniably disturbing material and made it ludicrous and even schlockier than it appeared to be. It’s easier to stomach the censored film on a purely superficial level, but it’s removing quite a lot of the material that you can interpret as the filmmaker’s artistic intent.

I think the film gets it horribly wrong, and I think the last portion of the film degenerates into a literal example of torture-porn, but the preceding film quite obviously has some serious artistic intent. That intent is lost in the later section of the film, but by censoring what is in that later section, the review board has actively removed material that can frame the earlier artistry over the horror unfolding.

But the bigger picture here is that the film has been re-banned.

A Serbian Film has made me seriously question my anti-censorship stance, but I find it largely unforgivable that the film was censored twice, at the expense of Accent, its distributor, and finally saw a release only to have that overturned after one month. The appeal process within the classification system exists to that a film can brought back to standards the board can find acceptable. I don’t agree with censoring films at all, but it’s a better alternative to outright banning. The point is, A Serbian Film was recut to a point where a review board found it acceptable. That ruling should be final. If the distributors wanted to resubmit the uncensored version, then that should be treated as a separate entity in itself, but the already allowed censored release – especially given that the film has been censored twice – should remain allowed if the review board already approved it.

I feel I might be relying on ideals here. I’m sticking to an overly-optimistic view of free speech, especially in regards to one of the most viciously extreme films released in recent memory. But the point is this – our censors pander to the loud voices of a select few concerned groups. Incidentally, the controversy created around the banning of a film gives said film a hell of a lot more publicity than it would probably otherwise garner. Come to think about it, that’s the exact way that I found out about A Serbian Film.

We have a ratings system in place that (if it actually worked as well as it could) would perfectly inform people of the content of films. I’d actually be in favour of a subcategory of the R18+ (R2, if you will) which addressed the more disturbingly violent films, but I’m sure such a rating would eventually be so misassigned that it would become pointless. Furthermore, our ratings system supposedly speaks to responsible citizens capable of making up their own mind, and the ratings are just there to provide information. Censored films are not a good thing in my view, but A Serbian Film has been censored to a point where the ratings board deemed it appropriate material for an adult to judge for themselves. It’s so nice of them to patronise us by saying that it’s not appropriate after all.

I want to make something clear – I don’t like A Serbian Film, at least not in the sense that I’m pissed off about a movie I liked being banned, but I appreciate it for what it is, and what it’s trying to do. Nor am I trying to suggest that the film is not worth the controversy – it absolutely is, but there’s so much more going on in the film than mere violence and other atrocities. I’ve tried to get people I know to steer clear of the film as it is so extreme, but I do that as someone who knows how it might affect the people I know. Our government shouldn’t have the right to make that decision for all 22.7 million of us.

I particularly feel sorry for Accent in all of this, as these losses have a direct effect on their business. They’ve also brought us many fantastic films, not least of all Irreversible which I will stand by despite it’s similarly intense content, or other controversial pieces such as I Stand Alone and 9 Songs. Provocative art is meant to provoke, and we should have a right to see it, even if it mightn’t be of a particularly high quality. Is A Serbian Film high-art? I don’t personally think so, but I won’t make that decision for millions of other Australians. And even if it has no artistic intent whatsoever, I would still say that we should have the ability to see it if we choose to do so.

In response to this decision, which I will chalk up to yet another sham ruling from our censors, I will simply point out that the same body of the government felt that The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence was allowable under an R18+ in its uncut form. I may not like A Serbian Film, but I can definitely tell you which of the two has more artistic merit to it.


5 thoughts on “A Serbian Film RE-Revisited

  1. I feel simularly on this one. While I have no intention of ever seeing A Serbian Film (it’s on the list of stuff that is probably past my personal tolerance levels, along with Martyrs and The Men Behind the Sun) I have seen films such as Audition and Leap Year (Rowe) which I’m sure many people would regard as beyond the pale and yet which I thought were honest examinations of extreme acts rather than simple provocations. So if I’m to find some merit in them I must the possibility that others may do likewise in other extreme media. And even if not – even if they’re only after “cheap thrills” – who am I to deny them their schlock pleasures? To do otherwise is to treat them as condescendingly as easily suggestible or as so mentally deficient as to be unable to distinguish fiction from reality.

  2. Enjoyed your views Dave. Am of a similar view that the uncensored version (watched today for the first time) is very thought provoking but ultimately a reflection of a life in Serbia. Have yet to see the uncensored version (looks like I won’t get the chance!) but cannot see how editing these scenes in any way would reduce either the implied or real violence they portray. Shocking for sure, pushing the boundaries definitely, but most likely indicative of what life has and will be for some in Serbia and similar countries!


    • My problem with censoring the violence is that it’s purely quantifiable violence the censors have forced Accent to take out. Uncensored it might have said something; whether or not it achieved that is up to the viewer. But in trying to uphold morality through visual content alone, the censors have actually taken away potential context, or statement. Ironically, their attempt to make Lejla’s death more morally-acceptable does the exact opposite of what they could have hoped for.

  3. I hate censorship, too. It seems completely ridiculous. I liked this movie, well, the movie itself, not some of the content, but I honestly didn’t think it was as bad as everyone said. This is a great post! 😀

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