Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Dare to Be Offended: Why I Choose to Watch A Serbian Film

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 9, 2011

So, it turns out that in a few days I will be attending a rare theatrical screening of A Serbian Film in Columbus, Ohio. Yep. So that’shappening. I have not seen the film yet, though I have read a lot about it online over the past couple of years. I’m not going to go into the film’s history here (feel free to Google it, there are tons of articles about the film both pro and con). Let’s just say it’s easily the most controversial film in recent years, as it depicts various perversions including simulated child rape. The operative word here being simulated. Not actually real. Why would I want to watch that, you ask? It’s a fair question.

serbianfilmcommpicsnews5.jpgFor the past several weeks I have been engaged in an argument with a few people on the event’s message boards who strongly object to the film being shown. There is one particular hysterical lunatic who keeps calling the film “child porn” and “filth”. Which he has every right to do, but the “child porn” tag is simply not accurate, as there is no actual pornographic material (involving children or anyone else) in the film. This is simply a fact. The film is an extreme horror film that is being shown at a 24-hour marathon of horror films. It is no more pornography than any other film ranging from Bambi to When Harry Met Sally. The ironic thing is that these are people who claim to love horror films, and are willing to watch all manner of disturbing and despicable acts on screen, including murder, rape, torture, cannibalism and so on. But when it comes to the particular issue of child abuse, suddenly there’s a line that can’t be crossed. All of a sudden these open-minded horror fans are extremely overreacting and behaving like the Christian Right or Tipper Gore. You know, the kind of people who would like to ban all horror films, and probably all violent films in general. I find it completely irrational. I think it’s obvious that if the film were actual child pornography, it would be illegal to view and there would be no discussion whatsoever. From what I have read, the filmmakers are making a political statement about conditions in their country by including this material. I’m not an expert on Serbia, so I won’t argue that point any further. But that is their intention, and one must accept that when watching the film. It’s not like they’re showing child rape for no reason.Frankly, I’ve always hated the “torture porn” label that has been applied to recent horror films. I think it’s both unfair and inaccurate. Pornography is intended to turn people on and get them off – to sexually excite them, in other words. The intention of extreme horror films (a more accurate term) is to shock and disturb the audience, which is the exact opposite of pornography’s intention. You’re supposed to be disturbed by these films, not turned on by them. So if an extreme horror film disturbs you, that means it’s effective at achieving its goal. If it disgusts you, that means it’s working. If you’re sexually excited by depictions of torture, that says a lot more about you than it does about the film. Look, I don’t even think these movies are going to last much longer – I think people really want to be scared again, not grossed out, and the success of films like Insidious and the Paranormal Activity series prove that. But there will always be filmmakers who push the envelope just a little bit further – there always have been and always will be. Films ranging from Psycho to Last House on the Left to I Spit on Your Grave have pushed the boundaries of their times, and in retrospect are now considered classics by horror fans. At the time, they were reviled by many critics who found them despicable. In 2011, they’re relatively tame stuff. A Serbian Film is simply the envelope-pushing film of its time. Granted, most mainstream moviegoers aren’t even aware of its existence, but I think most horror fans are well aware of the film and its content.

It’s not as if anyone is being forced to watch the film. People who choose not to watch it for any reason are not obligated to do so in any way. There’s the door. Use it. It is one film that’s showing out of 12 films. No one who buys a ticket has to watch any particular film in the lineup. This has been stated over and over again, yet people just don’t seem to get it. If you find a movie objectionable, DON’T WATCH IT. But let the rest of us have the chance to view the film for ourselves and form our own opinion of it. That’s been my argument from the beginning. Some of us don’t want critics and moral guardians to make our choices for us. We are rational, intelligent adults who are capable of surviving the traumatic experience of watching a film. I don’t believe that viewing this film will turn me into a child molester (or a Serbian) or that there will be riots in the streets because of it. I strongly believe that we can handle it. This is an audience that has viewed extreme horror films like Cannibal Holocaust, Martyrs and Irreversible at this event in the past, and in each case the world didn’t come to an end. Some people appreciated those films, some did not. The films were shown and life continued on. I don’t believe that showing A Serbian Film will be any different. So what’s the big deal? Watch the film, don’t watch it, the choice is up to you. I don’t really care either way what other people do. I just want the freedom to decide for myself.

(Yes, the movie is coming out on DVD soon, but most major retailers are not going to carry it. Netflix isn’t going to, and other retailers like Redbox, Blockbuster, Wal-Mart, Target etc. will follow suit. Let’s not be naive. I imagine there will be places you can buy the film online, but I generally prefer to see a film before dropping 20 or 30 bucks on it. As there have been very few theatrical screenings of it in the US, most people have not been able to make the choice for themselves. This amounts to censorship by default: no one shows the film, no one rents the film, no one sees the film.)

But none of that answers the main question: why do I want to see this film? It’s still a fair question. I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, nor would I ever choose to view actual child pornography. I don’t have kids myself, but I do have a nephew and niece that I love dearly, and the thought of anyone hurting them in any way turns my stomach. On the other hand, child abuse is a real issue in the real world, and people do commit these acts, as despicable as they may be. To ignore that is to bury your head in the sand and deny reality, just as it would be to ignore murder and rape. I’m old enough to remember when rape was considered a taboo subject; now people joke about it on network TV (I’m speaking of the awful sitcom 2 Broke Girls, in which jokes about rape are a regular feature and yet no one’s complained about it that I’m aware of). The world has changed since I was a kid. Who knows, maybe in 30 years people will be regularly joking about child molestation on network television. That doesn’t make the fact of it any less terrible. It just means people acknowledge it as something that happens in the real world. I don’t think the writers of 2 Broke Girls actually approve of rape (which doesn’t make their show any funnier) or that the makers of A Serbian Film actually approve of child molestation.

And that’s another thing that certain people don’t seem to get: just because a film shows a despicable act, that is not the same as actually committing that despicable act. If that were true, virtually every film director who ever lived would be guilty of murder. Nor does it mean that the filmmakers or the audience approve of the act in question. Psycho is one of my all-time favorite films; that doesn’t mean I approve of stabbing blondes in the shower. It doesn’t mean Hitchcock approves of it either. I don’t believe watching Silence of the Lambs turns people into cannibals (unless they’re already disturbed and oriented in that direction) or that watching GoodFellas turns people into violent gangsters. The mistake people are making is that showing an act amounts to tacit approval of that act from both filmmakers and viewers – which any intelligent viewer knows not to be true. Actual child pornography does imply approval, of course, and that’s one of the many reasons why it is illegal to view in this country. If A Serbian Film was actual child pornography, I would not want to view it, just as I would not want to view I Spit on Your Grave it it contained actual rape or any horror film that contained actual murder. Where I Spit on Your Grave features a graphic depiction of rape to show how truly ugly it is, I believe that is also the case with A Serbian Film and child molestation.
If it turns you on, well, that’s your issue, not the film’s.

The whole thing reminds me of the case of the German film The Tin Drum in 1979. I’m not going to go into the entire case in detail here, but the gist of it is that a film which depicted two underage kids having sex with each other (without any actual penetration being shown) was considered so offensive in this country that theatrical screenings were shut down and video stores that rented the film were raided. It was an extreme overreaction to a serious art film that was not intended to titillate in any way, and the film was eventually vindicated on its artistic merits. 32 years later, apparently not much has changed. Our moral guardians are still hitting the roof over anything that even suggests child pornography to them, even when it’s not child pornography. Never mind that underage kids actually do have sex in the real world (shocking, I know, but true) – which doesn’t justify child molestation, of course, and I would never make that claim. Just that it happens, and that a fictional depiction of it doesn’t equal pornography any more than a simulated depiction of adults having sex equals pornography.

So the question becomes, if we decide that A Serbian Film is unfit for adults to view, where does it end? Do we ban Lolita (either version)? Taxi Driver? Pretty Baby? The Blue Lagoon? Kids? Hounddog? The Runaways? Thirteen? Baby Doll? All of these films, and many more, suggest underage kids having sex either with each other or with adults. None of them are child pornography. They simply depict a fact of life – you don’t have to approve of that fact of life, just acknowledge that it exists. And you can choose to watch or not watch any of those films. But if you watch them, you have to deal with that subject at least on a very basic level. I recently watched David Schwimmer’s film Trust, which depicts an underage girl being seduced and raped by a much older man. It’s pretty clear that the film is against this act, but the film does portray it as something that happens. Do we ban that one too, even though Schwimmer clearly means it as a warning to parents to pay attention to what their kids are doing? Sure, let’s bury our heads in the sand and pretend the subject doesn’t exist. Will that really help protect your children? Doubtful.

Having said all that, I mostly want to see the film because I can. Because I have a right as a viewer to decide for myself what I watch. Do I expect it to be disturbing and disgusting? Of course I do. I am well aware of its content. I would be disturbed if I wasn’t disgusted by it. That is the appropriate reaction to have, since that is the reaction they are trying to provoke. If people view the film and are outraged by it, perhaps they should direct that outrage towards people who commit real acts of violence towards children rather than a goddamn movie. Write your Congressman or volunteer to help kids who have been abused. For myself, I am going to watch the film and, whether I hate it or appreciate it, I know that my opinion will be mine. If someone wants to print up T-shirts that read “I survived A Serbian Film”, I’d gladly wear one because I know I will survive it as a thinking, rational adult. And I think the rest of us will as well.

3 Responses to “Dare to Be Offended: Why I Choose to Watch A Serbian Film”

  1. I’ve been following this one, a few weeks back this news came out :

    I will be 100% honest. I am uncomfortable seeing this one. A little too far? .. but I agree that it’s my right to choose, as it is yours.

    I’ll chalk this one up to reading about it but now seeing it.

  2. CinemaPsycho said

    Exactly. You have every right not to watch the film if that is your choice. And those of us who want to see it should have the right to do so as well. If it goes too far for you, or is just not your thing, that’s fine. I would never suggest that people should have to watch something they are not comfortable with.

    The bizarre thing is that if we follow the no-logic hysteria of the moral guardians, everything from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Dazed and Confused could technically be considered “child porn” because they imply underage teens in sexual situations. Even a film like Trust, which is clearly against child molestation, does feature an underage girl in a sexual situation and could be considered offensive. It’s a bizarre and irrational argument that does absolutely nothing to protect children. That’s what bothers me. Whether people watch this particular film or not is up to them.

  3. People don’t like to be uncomfortable. I never heard any complaints about the sex implications in The Hole (2001) with an underage Keira Knightly.. (Actually i kept seeing a lot of people going on about watching it because she shows her breasts, and the fact she i underage doesn’t matter that much to them) But when the movie becomes disturbing in its realistic portrayal, even just by spurring the thought that these things actually DO go on, people will start screaming. They don’t want to THINK things are really this bad, somewhere out there way outside their picket fences. Is it okay to have underage sexual references if the character in the movie is consenting? i just don’t get where THAT particular line is drawn.
    But anyway, I agree that if the movie is so bothersome then they should take action to prevent those kind of things happening in the real world, not attack a movie that (whether it is the real intent or not) is raising awareness, albeit in a different way. Maybe they can start by helping all the youth on the streets of anywhere, that have to result to prostitution to survive.
    I’m glad i found this review because it really sums up how i feel about the movie response. I’m worried i might be dead inside because i wasn’t really as phased by the movie.. but i think that’s because I’m not as ignorant on the topic (though i guess i could just be trying to justify my reaction.. or non-reaction.)
    Whatever it comes down to, it was my decision to watch it and feel how i felt about it.
    Where exactly is the line drawn between giving a review boycotting a film anyway?

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