30 April 2007

15-18 (Lower That Number)

(Spoiler warning: Some spoilers for the film This is England follow. You may wish to see the film before reading this post.)

The above clip of a young skinhead's induction into his club of friends is one of the sweetest moments in Shane Meadows' new film, This is England. It resonated with me partly because I'm biased toward remembering subcultural rites of passage fondly. I wasn't a skinhead, though, so the hair didn't come off, it just got dyed fuchsia. While I promise pictures will follow at a later date, this post is about this fine new film, not my hair.

The rituals carried out to welcome a new person into a subcultural group serve a purpose for more than just the inductee. The veterans have their sense of unity reinforced as they remember how they met their friends. Everyone is given a chance to recall what it felt like to be delivered from teenage outsider isolation into a family that cared about you and looked out for you possibly more than your own biological one ever did.

The hair falls to the floor and young Shaun (played by newcomer Thomas Turgoose) gains a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, as with any coming-of-age tale, the innocence is confined to Act One. When an old friend of the gang returns from a recent prison stay, his racism splits the group and he persuades an impressionable Shaun to stay on the wrong side of the divide.

Easily the best film I've seen so far this year, This is England sees exceptional performances from each of its actors, a soundtrack full of ska classics (I do love hearing Toots and the Maytals on a cinema sound system) and a superb period recreation of early 1980s England. In some ways it's a skinhead Quadrophenia, which the film directly references with its shot of the full ensemble cast lined up against a wall on its promotional poster. However where The Who's film focuses on the internal struggle of a boy finding himself, Meadows' story is as much about an era's and a country's identity crisis as it is about one boy growing up.

Offering a complex depiction of racial violence, it is a story every bit as relevant to 2007 as to 1983. This makes it all the more frustrating that the British Board of Film Classification gave This is England an 18 certificate, citing "realistic violence and racist language" as its reason for keeping any person under 18 from seeing it without parental consent. Meadows sadly notes that "the film is now unavailable to the audience it will benefit the most".

After seeing this film, I'm completely at a loss as to how this would get an 18 certification when so many more violent films receive 15s and 12s. In the above news segment, the BBFC representative attempts to single This is England out by noting that its violence dwells on the infliction of pain. Somehow this is more harmful than other kinds of non-pain-focused violence?

The most recent James Bond film, Casino Royale, received a 12 certificate from the BBFC. Aside from numerous instances of hand-to-hand and weapons-based combat as well as massive explosions, there was a particularly memorable scene of graphic torture. I'm 32 years old and when the big bad captures Bond, strips him naked and proceeds to penalise his, um, penis, well... I'm still emotionally scarred. But at least it was educational. Kids may not learn about the history of racism and youth culture in their country, but they will know that if they become MI5 spies, they should avoid capture by Le Chiffre, because he is prone to go straight for the penis.

All Meadows has asked for is a 15 certification, which thankfully Bristol's City Council has had the good sense to grant. Following an appeal by Mark Cosgrove, Head of Watershed Media Centre's Film Programme, the Bristol City Council's licensing committee unanimously voted in favour of reclassifying the film. Hopefully other enlightened city councils will do likewise and give more young people access to this great film. If twelve year-olds can go to the cinema on their own to see a baddie bludgeon Bond's bollocks, certainly young people three years older than them should be able to watch an intelligent movie about growing up dangerously.

Official site for the film
Under My Skin by Shane Meadows
Response by Shane Meadows to 18 certification
Bristol City Council re-classifies This Is England


UPDATE (13 May 2007): Westminster City Council has followed Bristol's example and lowered the film's certification to 15.


Off said...

Hello - thank you for posting that More4 clip.

'[T]he British Board of Film Classification gave This is England an 18 certificate, citing "realistic violence and racist language" as its reason for keeping any person under 18 from seeing it without parental consent'.

This doesn't seem to have been why the BBFC gave This is England an 18 certificate, despite what Shane Meadows says on The Guardian's blog. The BBFC cited 'very strong racist violence', not 'realistic violence' - and indeed 'realistic violence' never seems to be cited in BBFC decisions. I don't know why the director misrepresented the decision to Guardian Unlimited readers: the paper itself reported the decision accurately in a story printed last Saturday; furthermore, the BBFC website is unambiguous, and it restated its position in very clear terms when Meadows' supporters queried the 18 rating.

Frustratingly, the spokeswoman interviewed on More4 seems to misrepresent the BBFC decision too, focusing attention on the language more than anything else - which seems to have been less a primary factor in the decision to award the 18 rating, than a supporting consideration. (The 'infliction of pain' issue looks more like something that C4 pulled out from BBFC guidelines militating against granting 15 certificates.)

Apologies for banging on about this here as well as on the original Guardian blog - it just looks as though Shane Meadows (and now the BBFC too, it seems) are hesitant about discussing the fact that it was, above all, the depiction of a racist attack which led to This is England being 18-rated.

Dave Knapik said...

Thanks for your comment, Off. No worries about "banging on", I'm happy that you chimed in!

I appreciate your clarification regarding the depiction of "racist violence" being more central to the 18 certification than "realistic violence" or "strong language". Do you have a link to that story in The Guardian?

Admittedly the reasons surrounding the 18 certification are confusing, with all sides having a slightly different story. That said, I still feel that the most important issue here is that this film would be far more beneficial for younger audiences to see than it would be at all harmful.

Racist violence is indeed shown, but it is by no means glorified. Doesn't context matter at all to the BBFC? Certainly it should in this case. Saying that it is inappropriate for under-18s because of "racist violence" implies that the film could promote racist violence. I can't imagine anyone, of any age, who has at least 2 or 3 functioning brain cells watching that horrifying scene and thinking "wow, yeah, that's cool, let's go do that to some [insert racial slur here]!"

This is England shows racism dividing friends and ruining lives in a chapter of the recent past that 15-18 year olds weren't alive to witness. It's educational in the way that helps us avoid having history repeat itself. The specific chapters of BBFC guidelines that were invoked to justify the 18 certification are less important than the bottom line: this BBFC decision insults the intelligence of Britain's youth and misses a great opportunity to teach.

Off said...

Thanks - without sounding like a narcissist, if you look through Shane Meadows's Guardian blog for the comments from OffClowns, there are various links to bits and bobs to do with this story: the BBFC website; a BBFC examiner's commentary on the film; and the Guardian's (Press Association) report last Saturday.

Context does matter to the BBFC: the examiner's commentary makes clear that they take This is England to be anti-racist film, and that its depiction of racist violence serves this purpose. But I suppose the BBFC is obliged to consider all possible viewing responses, and it has to consider imitable behaviour in particular.

I see what you mean about 'the bottom line', and it may be that this decision represents a missed opportunity. However I think the debate equally represents a missed opportunity, because it has studiously avoided the issue of on-screen racist violence. Mark Herbert and Shane Meadows highlight the inanity of Hollywood gunfights and torture scenes: while the hypocrisy of attitudes here is obviously worth debating (Casino Royale, Snakes on a Plane etc), the actual BBFC decision implies that racist violence warrants particular scrutiny. And that leads to a wholly different argument - one worth having, surely. Meadows seemed anxious to avoid it altogether, to the point of characterising the racist violence in his film as solely 'verbal'; and the BBFC's spokeswoman, by not raising the specific issue - perhaps it was C4's editing? - allows dark mutterings about political correctness to thrive (some of which can be seen on the the 'BBFC delivers a kick to the balls' thread on the This is England forum at www.shanemeadows.co.uk).

Thanks for replying!