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When Censors Attack: What Really Happened With "A Serbian Film," "Turin Horse" and "Presumed Guilty"

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | feelingsoblahg.blogspot.com March 8, 2011 at 9:18AM

Censorship brought global headlines to three films this week. In Hungary, screenings of native son Béla Tarr's "The Turin Horse" have been canceled. A Spanish festival director is under attack for attempting to screen "A Serbian Film." And in Mexico, a prison documentary has been pulled from distribution. For details on what really happened, read on.
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Censorship brought global headlines to three films this week. In Hungary, screenings of native son Béla Tarr's "The Turin Horse" have been canceled. A Spanish festival director is under attack for attempting to screen "A Serbian Film." And in Mexico, a prison documentary has been pulled from distribution. For details on what really happened, read on.

Béla Tarr Hurts Hungary's Feelings; Hungary Cancels Screenings

The Issue: Days before Béla Tarr's "The Turin Horse" was set to have its home-turf debut in Hungary, the premiere -- as well as the Hungarian theatrical release were canceled. As David Hudson reports on MUBI, the film's Hungarian distributor, Mokep, has bowed to pressure from the government and has canceled the film's Hungarian release when the nation's right-wing government was offended by the content of a Der Tagesspiegel interview (German text here) Tarr gave while doing press for the Silver Bear-winning film in Berlin. Hudson points out that Tarr did not bring up the situation in Hungary; he was provoked by the interviewer to talk about the state of culture in Hungary under the current administration.

What's at Stake? The chance for Tarr to show the film to the people of his home nation. Tarr's integrity is also being put into question. Along with canceling the screenings, Tarr's distributor has also distanced itself from the director, calling the Der Tagesspiegel interview a mistake, a "dumb interview."

Hungary Says: In the interview, Tarr was asked to comment on the drastic fund cuts that Viktor Orban's government has initiated against the film and cultural industries. Tarr, an active critic of the cuts, was accused by the Hungarian government for being ungrateful for the support they gave him in producing his films.

Tarr Says: Aghast, Tarr has accused the distributor and the government of turning his film into a political issue, "dragging it down to the level of everyday poltiics."

indieWIRE Says: Tarr's new film, which follows the life of the owner of the horse that infamously caused Nietzsche's mental breakdown for the six days after the event, is, according to Tarr, his last. As one of the great Hungarian auteurs, the film deserves to be seen there, on the big screen. Though it's certainly not for everyone (rumors are it was turned down by the other big European fests), iW reported from Berlin that "the film was widely admired by its audiences for the careful and deliberate exploration of its mostly silent characters." No word on a release in the states.

Barcelona Goes Against "A Serbian Film" via Sitges

The Issue: The Office of the Public Prosecutor in Barcelona is exploring legal action against Ángel Sala, director of the Sitges International Film Festival of Catalonia. The case centers on the festival's 2010 screening of Srdjan Spasojevic's controversial "A Serbian Film." Spasojevic's film features scenes of (simulated) violent rape and pedophilia, graphic enough to disturb the city of Barcelona into legal action.

What's at Stake? While one might expect legal action against a film to be focused on the film's producers, filmmaker or even exhibitors, this case stands out because it targets a film festival director. The Sitges festival ran a number of screenings of the film in age-restriced, late night sessions. The film's content and exhibition in Sitges have created a legal equation that apparently makes the festival director "responsible" for the controversy. If the case proceeds, it could create a dangerous legal precedent.

The Prosecutor Says: The charges are associated with rape scenes in Spasojevic's film that are linked to child pornography.

Spain's Film Festival Directors Say: In an open letter, a group of Spanish festival directors decry the situation: "We also condemn the fact that behaviour such as that shown by the Office of the Public Prosecutor in Barcelona appears to be taking us back to times of censorship limitations on freedom of expression and cultural programming that we sincerely believed belonged to the past." (Full statement here)

indieWIRE Says: It's not the first time Spasojevic's film has generated controversy in Spain; the film sparked similar attention in San Sebastian last year. The peculiar aspect of this case comes from the prosecutor in Barcelona, a city with a long reputation as one of Spain and Europe's most progressive. Any charges related to the exhibition of child pornography are a serious matter, but it's hard to imagine how a sentence against Sala would contribute to the fight against child pornography. More obvious is how such a decision would be critically detrimental for cultural programming in Spain's immediate future.

"Presumed Guilty" Indicts Mexican Judicial System, Mexican Judicial System Returns the Favor

The Issue: An indictment on Mexico's judicial system, "Presumed Guilty" quickly became a box-office hit in its home country -- a rare feat for a domestic documentary. The film's box office receipts in Mexico increased through its third week in release, bringing it to second place in last week's charts. This came to a halt when federal Judge Blanca Lobo Domínguez placed the film under a "provisional suspension" last week. The film was pulled from Mexican screens March 7. The decision rests on Víctor Daniel Reyes, a key figure in the film, who claims his image is being used without consent.

What's at Stake? Technically, it's not a censorship battle as much as a judicial one. Copies of the film are available. The film is distributed in the US by Icarus Films and is available in its entirety online through PBS's POV series, which aired the film on television last summer. Finding the film won't be difficult for Mexican audiences, but it'll come at a heavy price for the filmmakers and Mexican distributor Cinepolis: Film piracy is a thriving business in Mexico. Just when the national film industry found a success story, this ruling has halted any economic momentum for the filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors. Cinepolis might be the hardest hit there; apart from being the film's Mexican distributor, it is also one of the country's most important multiplex chains.

The Judge Says: The "provisional suspension" was carried out on March 7. A follow-up on the decision is scheduled to be reported on March 11.

The Filmmakers Say: The filmmakers argue they did not need Reyes' consent, since he was filmed inside a public space (a courtroom) in which they were authorized to film. Public opinion is on their side, with a strong reaction from social media websites decrying what many are quick to label as censorship.

indieWIRE Says: The "provisional suspension" is a highly questionable move, but the legal issue of Reyes's right to claim control over his image deserves attention in itself. The real question is by pulling the film out of theaters, whose image is really being protected?

Update: According to a report from Mexican newspaper El Universal (Spanish text here), the exhibition ban on "Presumed Guilty" has been lifted after a unanimous vote was passed on March 8 declaring the film's removal from screens as detrimental to public interest and social order.

This article is related to: World Cinema, Features, The Turin Horse