Classified material

Their decisions can kill a film before its release, but the identities of America's movie censors ar

In this golden age for film documentaries, directors are increasingly turning their cameras on the movie business itself. After Lost in La Mancha (2002), an account of Terry Gilliam's struggle to get his project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote off the ground, and Overnight (2003), the true story of an aspiring film-maker, the latest addition to the genre is This Film is Not Yet Rated, a polemical exposé of the American film ratings system.

The documentary, which opens here and in America next month, is directed by Kirby Dick. Given that Dick's work includes the Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith, which recounts abuse in the Catholic Church, and Sick: the life and death of Bob Flanagan, supermaso chist, it's not surprising that he has clashed with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the organisation responsible for US ratings.

The American system runs along lines broadly similar to the UK's until the upper categories. The US equivalents of the UK's 15 and 18 ratings are either an R rating - meaning that all under-17s must be accompanied by an adult - or an NC-17, which bars anyone aged 16 or below from screenings of the film. An NC-17 certification, which excludes a large part of the lucrative teenage demographic, is seen in Hollywood as the kiss of commercial death. Many cinemas and home entertainment outlets refuse to screen or stock NC-17 films, and even getting advertising for such work is an uphill struggle.

This Film is Not Yet Rated catalogues the battles of directors - mostly inde pendent film-makers - to save their work from the NC-17 rating. The MPAA, which was first set up in 1922 and established its modern-day ratings system in 1968, emerges as a clandestine, non-accountable and ultra-conservative institution. Unlike the British Board of Film Classification, an independent, open body, the MPAA's board membership consists of the six major Hollywood studio presidents and chairmen. The identities of its raters are a closely guarded secret, and the MPAA's decisions are often capricious.

"The American ratings system is hugely inconsistent," explains Dick. "It focuses too much on sexuality and not enough on violence. Their stock response to criticism of the way they operate is that the current system is 'best for parents'. But the system which is best for parents would be one that gave them real information, not just a letter rating and a description of five or six words." And he notes: "This feeling is not new, but hopefully the film will add to the outrage that people are feeling, and pressure the MPAA into making changes."

Dick accuses the MPAA of being in thrall to the studio system and of discriminating mercilessly against independent directors. His thesis is supported in This Film is Not Yet Rated by the Team America and South Park co-creator Matt Stone, who recounts how, when his 1997 independent porn satire Orgazmo was given an NC-17 rating, the MPAA offered no suggestions on how to avoid it. Two years later, the first cut of his South Park movie, financed and distributed by Paramount and Warner Brothers, received the NC-17 rating with detailed guidelines on which scenes to remove in order to get it downgraded to an R. This Film is Not Yet Rated also shows how the independent lesbian teenage comedy But I'm a Cheerleader was threatened with an NC-17 at a time when American Pie, the sexually explicit but "straight" college farce from Universal Pictures, was getting no such hassle.

"The major studios have set up a system that works for their own benefit," says Dick. "Ratings have a real effect on a film's box-office performance, and films with edgier material and which feature more adult sexuality are treated more harshly."

Take Steven Spielberg. The world's most commercially successful director is often thought to receive lenient treatment at the hands of censors, even in the UK. In 1993, Jurassic Park was awarded a PG with a (then unprecedented) special warning, infuriating executives at Columbia Pictures, whose rival blockbuster Last Action Hero was simultaneously rated 15. Previously, the MPAA had created the PG-13 rating specifically for Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Spike Lee spoke for many insiders frustrated by the system's perceived bias when he observed of Saving Private Ryan, which got an R rating in the US: "It's a great film, but how is it not NC-17?"

But it is not only Spielberg who receives pref erential treatment, Dick says. "If a major star shows up to a ratings appeal hearing, that film has a much better chance of winning the appeal than an independent film."

As one might expect, this kind of privilege has not been extended to This Film is Not Yet Rated, which has been dogged by controversy though it was a huge critical hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Dick accused the MPAA of making illegal copies of the documentary when he submitted it for review, a claim later confirmed by the board. The film itself is being released in the US unrated, a move that will preclude a wide release or mass advertising but allow Dick to avoid the "X-rated" connotations of an adult certificate. His first cut did, in fact, receive an NC-17 rating; the final cut, however, including footage of his own battle with the MPAA, has not been seen by the raters. " It was always our plan not to ultimately run the film past the ratings system," he says. "It will damage the film at the box office, but it doesn't have the stigma of an NC-17."

Dick argues that the UK's ratings system is far more enlightened, especially when it comes to erotic cinema. "In Europe not all sex scenes look the same - unlike in America, where audiences lose out on seeing a range of sexual expression as a result of an autonomous group of parents in LA." He cites Bernardo Bertolucci's Parisian student love triangle The Dreamers, given an NC-17 in the US in 2004, as an example of a film that the MPAA discriminated against because of its offbeat approach to sex. Sue Clarke, of the British Board of Film Classification, confirms that UK censors have become more liberal towards sexual imagery following a public consultation exercise in 1999. Dick's claim that "the MPAA doesn't set standards but reflects them" doesn't apply over here. In the past decade, just 3 per cent of films released in UK cinemas have been cut, from a high of 27 per cent in the 1970s. Baise-moi, 9 Songs, Hostel and Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, which might well have been banned in previous decades, have all been passed uncut.

The novelist Gilbert Adair, who scripted The Dreamers, agrees that the MPAA's line on sex is "incredibly hypocritical". "You can go into a video store and see hard-core porn," he says, "and at the same time when Janet Jackson bares her breast at the Superbowl, everybody foams at the mouth." But he argues that, for experimental film-makers, an NC-17 certificate can be almost welcome. "We all admired Fox Searchlight for not forcing Bernardo [Bertolucci] to cut the film to get an R rating," he says. "I would have been more saddened if he had made the cuts. There is something about self-mutilation that is the most shocking thing of all."

Kimberly Peirce, director of Boys Don't Cry, the 1999 transsexual drama that won Hilary Swank her first Oscar, agrees. In This Film is Not Yet Rated she describes her reaction to the film's certification: "My producer said, 'We have some bad news. You got an NC-17.' I was, like, 'That's great.'"

As for Kirby Dick, he is bound to find himself engulfed in more controversy when his film is released in America. How will the MPAA treat his next project, whatever the subject? "Perhaps because we've attacked them, they'll go out of their way not to give it the harshest rating because they don't want any controversy. They like to remain under the radar."

"This Film is Not Yet Rated" is released in the UK and the US on 1 September

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Burma Special: A nation in waiting