The 5 Most Controversial Films in Australian History by Jake Robinson

Posted on March 23, 2012



Media enquiries, Andrew Bolt and Serbian horror films have re-ignited the simmering undercurrents of debate through Australia over the rights to free expression. Unlike in America where the right is enshrined in the Constitution, here we have only an implied right of political communication. Our rights of expression are moderated through laws of defamation, vilification and incitement.

Conservative social organisations have shown their ability to bring to the national consciousness issues they deem to breach social standards of morality and decency. This year, a poster advertisement showing two men promoting safe sex was temporarily pulled after complaints from a Christian lobby group. Furthermore, only a few years ago the Prime Minister admonished an exhibition of famed photographer Bill Henson as “revolting”.

As we stand on the crux of an eternal argument between censorship and free expression, may I present: “The 5 Most Controversial Films in Australian History”.

Note: These films are not necessarily the “most banned” (which would include luminaries such as Cannibal Holocaust, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nekromantik or Pink Flamingos) nor the most controversial films worldwide (like A Clockwork Orange, The Last Temptation of Christ, Last Tango in Paris); but the ones that caused the biggest stir here in Australia:

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

The world’s first ever feature film was also the first feature film to be banned. Charles Tait’s hour plus account of the bushranger Ned Kelly has only survived in the form of a 17 minute restored version, released by the National Film and Sound archive in 2006.

Politicians at the time denounced it for glorifying criminals, such as the convicted cop-killer Ned Kelly. This is the same dichotomy that pervades the reputation of Kelly today; was he a hero of Irish Australian resistance or a vicious murderer? The film was banned in the regional Victorian towns of Benalla and Wangaratta throughout 1907, and then later New South Wales and Adelaide in 1911. The film continued to tour the rest of Australia, New Zealand and Britain and was a massive success for its investors, returning an estimated 25 times its original budget.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

“Salo”, or “The 120 Days of Sodom”.

Probably the film with the most storied history with Australian classification. Written and directed by Pier Paulo Pasolini and based on the book by the Marquis de Sade (from whose name ‘sadism’ derives), Salò is a 116 minute exercise of extreme physical, mental and sexual torture. De Sade’s tale of libertines indulging in four months of decadence is transported to Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, allowing for debates over the merits of its intellectual subtext. For further infamy, only weeks before the film’s release Pasolini was murdered.

The film was initially banned upon release in Australia, only to be unbanned in 1993. Liberal Senator Julian McGauran led a campaign to have the ban reinstated, and in 1998 the Australian Classification board succumbed. It was only in late 2010 that the film was permitted a release on DVD due to the extra features that contextualise the content. It is currently illegal to publicly screen Salò without also showing these accompanying documentaries.

Baise-Moi (2000)

The posters for this film were censored in Britain for fear of upsetting Francophones, whilst here in Australia, this film’s depiction of explicit sex and violence caused media hysteria. The film tells the story of two girls (played by adult entertainment actors Karen Bach and Raffaela Anderson) who go on a vicious spree of sex, drugs and murder.

The Classification Board actually initially passed the film with an R18+ rating. The film played in cinemas for several weeks and over 50,000 people saw it legally throughout cinemas Australia-wide.

However, the Attorney-General, under pressure from “concerned individuals and groups” (including Fred Nile and Senator Brian Harradine), referred the film back to the classification board, and this time the board voted to refuse classification. The film was literally pulled from cinemas across the country. Despite this, the Lumiere in Melbourne and Valhalla in Sydney defiantly continued to screen it. They surrendered after a few days of police presence and the film remains illegal to this day.

Ken Park (2002)

“Ken Park”.

This film was initially scheduled to be exhibited at the Sydney Film Festival back in 2003. However, it was refused classification due to depictions of underage sex, incest and auto-erotic asphyxiation. In defiance of the ban underground screenings of the film were organised throughout Australia.

The most prominent of these was organised by movie critic Margaret Pomeranz. This particular screening ended in the makeshift theatre being raided by police, as well as the film’s confiscation. Pomeranz remarked at the time: “we are not allowed to see a film that millions of people around the world have seen.” While perhaps exaggerating its popularity, Ken Park incurred little resistance to exhibition in pretty much every other Western country. It also holds the infamous title of first film since the reconstitution of the Australian Classification Board in the 1960’s to be denied screening at either the Melbourne or Sydney Film Festivals.

A Serbian Film (2010)

“A Serbian Film”.

While critics have called it the “most outrageous film ever”, director Srdjan Spasojević says that it “is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government… It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about.” It tells the story of a former porn actor who is convinced to partake in an ‘art film’ which he soon realises is a sadistic snuff film. The film delves into just about every taboo including but not limited to extreme paedophilia, necrophilia and graphic violence.

Originally in 2010, the film’s uncut version was refused classification and later an edited version was further denied classification. Finally in April 2011, a re-edited version was passed at R18+. However, days before its planned release, South Australian Attorney-General John Rau banned the film in the state and called for a national review.

In August 2011 A Serbian Film opened the 12th Melbourne Underground Film Festival in its edited format. The Melbourne Underground Film Festival has in the past couple of years specialised in censorship-bating movies. In 2010 L.A. Zombie was refused classification by the board, yet MUFF director Richard Wolstencroft proceeded to exhibit it regardless and was slapped with a $750 fine.

In September 2011 the Classification Review Board re-banned the film.

Jake Robinson is You’re Dripping Egg’s music staff writer. For more of Jake’s lists, check out The Thin Pop Line. 

Posted in: Movies