Sorry to break it to you, dear reader, but all art is political. Historically, even the most innocuous forms of popular artistic design have, at one point or another, been the subject of suspicious government scrutiny. And while books and printed materials have been, on terms of volume, the central focus of most politically-backed censorship campaigns, films and cinema have been taken their fair share of heat as well.
Most notorious in the world of cinema — just to cite a notable example — is probably the 72 “Video Nasties,” the infamously collected horror films that were strongly legislated against in England in 1982. THE EVIL DEAD, if you didn’t know, was included on that list, as well as some downright obscurities. Each one of those films was banned for, essentially, being too violent or far too sexual.
But sex and violence are not the only things to get films banned. Indeed, some nations have banned films for some pretty weird reasons, some of which no one would be able to predict.
For instance, BEN-HUR was banned in China — a nation historically stingy about what sort of art it allows across its borders — for its religious themes. Mao Zedong banned BEN-HUR for promoting “propaganda of superstitious beliefs, namely Christianity.” Ouch for Christians living in China at the time. For a nation that sponsored a general sense of irreligion, any promotion of Western religious practices (especially one subtitled A TALE OF THE CHRIST) would certainly not be allowed. Confusingly, though, THE DA VINCI CODE was also banned in China “for blasphemy,” and NOAH was banned “for depictions of prophets.”
Religious clashes were also the reason FUNNY GIRL — yes, the sprightly musical with Barbara Streisand and Omar Sharif — was banned in Egypt. Sharif, a Muslim, was seen having an affair with a Streisand, a Jew. Their religious differences aren’t addressed too much in the film, but Sharif was born in Alexandria, and a local darling. The clash was not acceptable at the time.
It’s not surprising that the Nazi regime banned a good number of films, most of which for obvious political and/or religious reasons. The Marx Brothers were banned merely because they were Jewish. But some of the reasons the Nazis came up with for banning films were baffling. A Mickey Mouse short called THE MAD DOCTOR was banned because — get this — it was considered too scary.
The Fritz Lang film THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE was banned by the Nazis because of its depictions of criminals (perhaps inspiring copycats), but also because it ripped off dialogue directly from Hitler’s magnum opus MEIN KAMPF. Indeed, Goebbels was a censorship-happy dude, and banned films on his own whim. He banned the 1943 film TITANIC — even though, bizarrely, it was actually made by the Nazi propaganda department itself. He also banned a film called A PRUSSIAN LOVE STORY because he felt it was a spoof of an affair he was currently having; he felt the actress in the lead looked too much like his own mistress. Way to tip your hand, Joseph.
Speaking of scary movies, Ub Iwerks’ amazing 1930 landmark short, THE SKELETON DANCE was originally banned in Denmark, having been deemed “too macabre” for mainstream audiences. I ordinarily adore the art and thought of Denmark – it is the home of Lars Von Trier, Søren Kierkegaard, and The Cartoons — but, as someone who feels that THE SKELETON DANCE is an indispensable part of human upbringing, I have to object to this choice. Luckily, the ban has since been lifted.
The famed French heist movie RIFIFI was banned in Finland because it, perhaps too accurately, depicted people cracking into safes. This is a great, exciting flick, and the Finnish government was concerned people would watch it and try cracking safes themselves.
The Czech New Wave was one of the more exciting times in cinema (indeed, most “New Waves” are pretty exciting times in any nation’s cinema), but one of the movement’s central films, DAISIES, was banned in Czechoslovakia “for depicting the wanton.” The film is about two young women who give into every one of their appetites, mostly for casual destruction and overeating. The film’s political underpinnings were not cited in the ban, a grace not granted to other banned films of the movement, including Miloš Forman’s THE FIREMAN’S BALL.
Here’s a fun one. Did you know that SHREK 2, the middle-of-the-road hit animated film, was banned in Israel? As it turns out, there was an off-color joke added to the film’s Hebrew dub that got it in trouble. Evidently, there was a scene wherein a group of characters gathered around a prone victim, and mused “Let’s do a David D’Or on him!” David D’Or is an Israeli pop star who is well known for his high voice. Israeli distributors saw the comment as a joke about castration, and had the film banned as a result. The line was changed, and the ban was lifted.
Also briefly banned in Israel was the seminal James Bond movie GOLDFINGER, which was censored for one of the actors. As it turns out, Gert Fröbe, who plays the title villain, was rumored to have a past collaborating with Nazis. The film played for several weeks before being wrenched from theaters over these rumors. An anonymous witness ended up having to go to the Israeli embassy in Vienna to explain that Fröbe did not collaborate with Nazis, and, indeed, that Fröbe had gone out of his way to hide his mother and himself from the Nazis. Fröbe was exonerated, and the film was released.
Paraguay banned Michael Cimino’s Best Picture winner THE DEER HUNTER for a reason I haven’t been able to understand. It was banned for fear of “being misunderstood.” Which part, exactly?
Sometimes films are banned for personal reasons. Larry Clark, the provocative director of oversexualized films like KIDS and BULLY famously includes, in most of his films, multiple scenes of of near-pornographic sex featuring teenagers. His film KEN PARK was no exception, and has been touted for its overwhelming sexual content, including an infamous cunnilingus scene. When KEN PARK was about to be released in 2002, the film’s British distributor made some comment about 9/11 that Clark found offensive, and Clark allegedly assaulted him as a result. As such, due to a personal beef, KEN PARK is still banned in the UK to this very day. It was also banned in Australia because of its sexual content, a ban which has been challenged and has held. Although KEN PARK screened at festivals in America, it’s still not been released in the U.S. either.
And then there was Idi Amin who was a little less discerning, and a little more isolationist when it came to movies. During Amin’s terrible Ugandan regime (from 1972 until 1979) every single film that was not made in Uganda was banned from general consumption. So, technically, thanks to Idi Amin, every film in the world — at least those made before 1979 — has been banned at least once. Anything from DEEP THROAT to AT LONG LAST LOVE to STAR WARS to THE RED BALLOON. At the time, Uganda wasn’t really known as a filmmaking nation… so your cinema choices were thin on the ground during Idi Amin’s regime. However, things are looking up more recently: as of 2005, the country is undergoing its own form of New Wave, and their nascent film industry has already been nicknamed “Ugawood.” I’m eager to see a Ugawood film, myself.
It’s unlikely that the tide of censorship will ever fully come to an end; some content-control board somewhere is bound to take offense at one film or another, onward into time immemorial. As audiences become more open-minded in general, however, and if more nations come to embrace their place in a global community rather than promote isolationist philosophies, then we will be that much more open the the rich world of international cinema.
As that old Landmark Theaters bumper used to say: “La langue du film est universelle.”