Film Censorship: Pixote: Survival of the Weakest (1981)


 

 

 

 

Pixote: Survival of the Weakest

Directed by Hector Babenco / 1981 / Brazil / IMDb

PIXOTE was chosen to screen at the 1982 Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals. However, the Commonwealth Chief Censor, Janet Strickland had a different idea, and in late May 1982, she called it in for viewing.

In June 1982, the 3402-meter (124:21) print was banned by the Censorship Board for the 'sexual exploitation of a minor'.

 

 

Janet Strickland and film festival censorship

The following article by Scott Murray appeared in Cinema Papers magazine. It provides an excellent history of the PIXOTE controversy.

 

Strickland Strikes

Scott Murray reports:
As predicted in previous censorship items, the Commonwealth Chief Censor, Janet Strickland, has finally achieved her ambition of removing the censorship privileges of film festivals. Not only has she effectively overridden the 1975 Film Festival Agreement, which gave festivals certain censorship exemptions, Strickland has also banned one of the 1982 entries at the Melbourne and Sydney festivals (Pixote, winner of the 1981 New York Film Critics' Award for Best Foreign Film).

 

On hearing of the banning, Melbourne Festival director, Geoffrey Gardner, said

"The film has been shown at more than 12 major film festivals, and has been commercially released, uncut, in the United States. To suppress it is a decision grossly out of touch with what is happening in the best of modern cinema."

Gardner then went on to call for Strickland's resignation.

 

The Sydney Film Festival director, David Stratton, said the ban was,

"an outrageous intervention in the selection of programming. Mrs Strickland has placed the festivals in jeopardy, in total foreknowledge of the consequences... I cannot see the film festivals surviving without the immediate intervention of the [federal] Attorney-General."

 

But perhaps the most direct response came from the Premier of Victoria, John Cain, who opened the Melbourne Festival:

"I thought we had stopped all that nonsense 15 or 20 years ago. I believe it should not have happened and will do all I can to ensure it does not happen for next year's festival."

 

The History

Trouble began soon after Strickland's assumption of office two years ago. Regarding the 1975 censorship agreement for film festivals as "elitist" , she vowed to bring festivals In line with regulations governing commercial importers of films.

The 1975 agreement says in part,

"(b) Every film will be registered without screening with 'Festival Conditions' except:
- Registration will not be made of any film which has previously been rejected for commercial use."

Clearly, any film not already classified by the Censor can be shown in a film festival. This is the very basis of the 1975 pact. But Strickland has, without consultation, abandoned that agreement.

 

Strickland's action in banning a festival film has long been feared and is part of a long campaign. Her first move came in the 1980 Annual Report of the Film Censorship Office:

"By 1977 it had become obvious that the new, system [the 1975 agreement] breached. . . provisions of the state film censorship Acts. . ."

This is nonsense. In 1975 the then Chief Censor, Richard Prowse, was only too aware of what constituted a "breach". The 1975 agreement was a "gentlemen's agreement", In its most correct sense, and found a way of being tolerant instead of insipid adherence to the letter of the law. Strickland knew this and her remark merely reflects her desire to abandon the agreement.

 

The next move came from the Attorney-General, Senator Durack, on August 25, 1981. In answer to a question from Senator Hamer about the need to amend regulations in favour of festivals, Durack said he was having discussions on the matter. His full reply left no doubt about his ultra-conservative views. These were spelt out even more explicitly in the Senate in

Durack also said (in August) that the Censor "always reserved the right to call in a film which might have difficulty obtaining commercial registration". Clearly that contradicts the section of the 1975 agreement quoted above.

 

Strickland's next move was in May 1982 when she called in films from the Melbourne Film Festival for approval (The Order, The Babysitter, Red Love, 1922 ). In his reply of May 7, director Geoffrey Gardner wrote:

"I must protest at your action as I feel it threatens the very basis of the film festival. I am, quite frankly, astonished to receive these requests as it appears to me that you have either forgotten or overlooked the terms of the agreement negotiated by the festivals, with you present, in 1975, an agreement which, up to now, has worked quite smoothly as far as we are concerned. . .

". . . it is obvious that you are uni- laterally disregarding the terms of the agreement and rendering it worthless, if you are of the opinion, as you seem to be, that the agreement should not be honoured by at least one party to it, then surely it is up to you to notify the other parties concerned of this so that all are aware of your actions and representations can be made to the various responsible Governments for discussion."

 

Strickland replied on May 10, saying
"...... you state that you are 'astonished' to receive such a request and charge me with having 'either forgotten or overlooked the terms of the agreement negotiated by the Festivals' in 1975...... I draw your' attention to sub-para. (ii) In the second paragraph of that letter in which I stated, '. . that Festival films are processed on receipt of applications and synopses without censorship screenings provided they are not called in for screening by the Chief Censor, . .' In the light of this advice, your astonishment is a little difficult to understand.

"None of the conditions as set out in the 1975 'agreement' to which you refer affects the Chief Censor's right to require that the Film Censorship Board screen any film before registration may occur. Moreover, if the Film Censorship Board is of the opinion that Regulation 13(1) of the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations is applicable, the Board has a statutory obligation to refuse the film's registration.

"No 'agreement', including the 1975 'agreement', can invalidate the legal responsibilities of the Chief Censor or the Film Censorship Board, as laid down in the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations."

 

Gardner has also raised the issue of time delays caused by the Censor calling in films. Strickland replied,

", . . you claim that the Film Censorship Board has held a film (which you have failed to identify) for a lengthy and unreasonable time. Our records would indicate that you are referring, to the film The Order which was I received for screening on April 27, I 1982, screened five working days later and your office informed by telephone the following day of the decision to register. I enclose the Certificate of Registration."

 

Despite Strickland's protestation, Gardner was given to reply:

"I must confess to having little confidence that this [getting films processed] can be done quickly especially in the light of the experience with the previous film, The Order, which I would point out has still not arrived back at this office, 17 days after it was received in your office."

Gardner continued,

"I believe strongly that it is time that the regulations were re-written into some more sensible fashion whereby recognised international film festivals and such organisations as the National Film Theatre of Australia, who I believe act responsibly at all times, should be given the same freedom of operation as is given film festivals in other countries around the world including such bastions of democracy as the Philippines and the USSR."

 

On May 17 Gardner Issued a statement of concern over Strickland's actions, and on May 20 issued a second release. In it he said,

"We remain strongly of the opinion that the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations should be Immediately amended to a position similar to that which applies in Britain whereby British Customs and Excise Regulations permit the direct Import of films for showing at approved Festivals.

"The Shadow Attorney-General, Haddon Storey, has sent a telegram to the Commonwealth Attorney- General, Senator Durack, which endorsed the view taken by the [Victorian] Premier, Mr Cain, on Festival censorship. Mr Storey's telegram reads as follows: 'I am concerned at the decision of chief film censor to examine four films for Melbourne Film Festival. This appears to depart from previous practice over many years and to be contrary to spirit of last Ministers' meeting. I urge maintenance of long- standing position pending resolution at next meeting. Haddon Storey, Shadow Attorney-General.'"

 

But the matter didn't rest with Strickland's action on these four films (two of which are now cleared; decisions are awaited on the others). Late In May, Strickland called In the Brazilian film, Pixote. Then, on June 3, she announced she had refused to register the film and that It couldn't be shown (on a Board vote of 8 to 1). Not only has Strickland done the Festival incalculable harm (the prestigious International Federation of Film Festivals has said it will expel Melbourne and Sydney if Strickland continues to impose censorship on festival films) she has also achieved her long-term ambition.

 

Stop press: On June 9 the Films Board of Review upheld an appeal against the banning of Pixote and released it for the festivals. As well, the remaining two films of the four called in by Strickland ( Red Love and 1922) were cleared for screening So, a few, small victories have been won But the issue of festival censorship - and censorship in general - is unresolved.

 

 

PIXOTE: Cleared by the Board of Review

An appeal to the Board of Review was successful, and on June 9th 1982 PIXOTE was cleared to screen.

A special condition was attached that:

"That the film will be exhibited only at the 1982 Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals and then exported."

 

 

PIXOTE: Banned and R-rated once more

Consolidated Exhibitors picked up PIXOTE for commercial distribution and in July 1982 submitted a 3490-meter (127:34) print. The Censorship Board again refused the film for 'sexual exploitation of a minor'.

An appeal was once more made to the Board of Review who again overturned the decision. This time it was awarded it an R-rating.

This version ran 127:34, in comparison to the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festival print that was only 124:21. Despite this, the longer R-rated print was in fact censored.

 

In his statement below, the Chairman of the Board of Review, Sir Richard Kingsland explained the reasons.

This was a slightly different version to the print viewed in relation to an earlier appeal to the Board of Review. It has a new introduction and deletes or reduces some unpleasant language and scenes. None of these changes weakened the film's dramatic impact.

The new introduction to the film points out that the roles are acted by children who have a common background to that of those portrayed in the film. This sharpens the impact of Pixote as a film dealing responsibly with the plight of underprivileged young people in a corrupt society.

 

 

PIXOTE and the Australian Censorship Board

The following article by Scott Murray appeared in Cinema Papers magazine. It provides a history of the PIXOTE controversy following the decision of the Board of Review to allow the Festival screenings to take place.

 

The decision of the Film Censorship Board to ban Pixote from the Melbourne and Sydney film festivals has continued to arouse controversy.

First, an appeal was lodged by the Sydney Film Festival and on June 9 the Films Board of Review overturned the ban and release the film for festival screening.

Then the Australian distributor, Consolidated Exhibitors, applied for. censorship certification for a commercial release of Pixote. Despite some cuts having been made (the new print was claimed to have been the U.S. version), the Censorship Board again banned the film.

This was an act of defiance on its part as it knew the Pixote ban had been overruled in the past and would most likely be again.

Not surprisingly, this is what happened, the film being cleared by the Films Board of Review for general release. Contrary to usual practice. the chairman, Sir Richard Kingsland, prepared a statement on Pixote's worth as a silm and the reasons why it should be released (see below).

 

So, twice in two months, on the same film, the Censorship Board's views have been found to be at variance with those of the Films Board of Review. Of course, In principle, this is how it should be, the two bodies being hope- fully independent of each other. In this case, though, one can't help feeling the Censorship Board has taken a stubborn, bureaucratic attitude to an issue that commonsense could have resolved long ago.

More disturbing, however, is the Censorship Board's reliance on state Acts of Parliament to 'support' its actions. In particular, the Chief Censor, Janet Strickland, said in explanation of the first ban that the Board considered Pixote to contravene the Victorian Police Offences Act 1958. But the Censorship Board is not the adjudicator or enforcer of state police Acts. This was pointed out only too clearly in the letter of the Victorian Attorney- General, John Cain, to Strickland on June 15:

"This Act Is subject to my administration and if its terms are breached, I can assure you that prosecutions will ensue. However, It is the function of the appropriate Victorian law officers to decide whether that is the case and it is not a function which resides with you."

Cain also wrote to the Federal Attorney-General, Peter Durack, Informing him of this. (See both letters below.)

 

When the Censorship Board banned Pixote for the second time, however, Strickland again claimed that it violated, among others, the Victorian Police Offences Act 1958. Consequently, it appears as if the Censorship Board is knowingly acting outside its jurisdiction, specifically in regard to Victorian state laws. This, and its second banning of Pixote suggests that the Censorship Board is acting in a somewhat cavalier and isolationist fashion. It is time the Federal Attorney- General, under whose wing censorship falls, acted to see sanity prevail. But so far the Attorney-General's office has been notable for its lack of direction and action, Several issues need instant attention: whether film festivals should be outside usual censorship requirements; whether one should introduce an "X" certificate to cover explicit violent and sexual material; whether the Censorship Board is acting outside its legal Jurisdiction in banning and cutting videotapes (it is only empowered to do so, as it admits in its Annual Report of 1980, In New South Wales),

 

In May, I telexed the Attorney- General to voice, among other things, concern over the Censorship Board's banning of Pixote and what I felt to be destructive power games being played by the Chief Censor, Janet Strickland. The Attorney-General replied on July 29, saying:

Dear Sir,
I refer to recent correspondence concerning the film Pixote - Survival of the Weakest, which was imported for the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals.

While certain concessions have been extended to recognized festivals for some years, both the present Chief Censor and her predecessor have made it clear to the festival organizers that they cannot ignore their statutory responsibilities under the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations and complementary state legislation. It is implicit in any arrangements made with the festivals that the Film Censorship Board retains the right to refuse registration If, in the opinion of the Board, a film contravenes the Regulations.

In this instance, the Board formed the opinion that the film Pixote - Survival of the Weakest should be refused registration. On appeal, the Films Board of Review took a different view and directed that the film should be registered for festival exhibition. There can be no doubt that both independent statutory boards formed the opinions conscientiously on the information available to them and in the light of their perception of contemporary community attitudes.

Whether the community at large would see it as appropriate that film festivals should be exempted from censorship altogether remains open to question. The matter is to be discussed at a forthcoming meeting of Commonwealth and State Ministers with responsibility for censorship and the views you have expressed will be kept in mind.

Peter Durack Attorney-General

As can be seen, the issues raised in the telex were ignored. Promises of discussions in the future do nothing to solve the turmoil film censorship is in today.

 

Kingsland Statement

Statement by Sir Richard Kingsland, chairman of the Films Board of Review, July 30, 1982:

The applicant, Consolidated Exhibitors, requested the Films Board of Review to review the decision of the Film Censorship Board to refuse to register the Brazilian film Pixote.

The Films Board of Review viewed Pixote yesterday. This was a slightly different version to the print viewed in relation to an earlier appeal to the Board of Review. It has a new introduction and deletes or reduces some unpleasant language and scenes. None of these changes weakened the film's dramatic impact.

The new introduction to the film points out that the roles are acted by children who have a common background to that of those portrayed in the film. This sharpens the impact of Pixote as a film dealing responsibly with the plight of underprivileged young people in a corrupt society.

The Film Censorship Board rejected the film under Regulation 13(1)(d) of the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations on the grounds that the film depicts matter which is undesirable in the public interest. Judgements under Regulation 13(1)(d) require considered assessment of current community attitudes and standards.

The major points of contention relating to this application raise the issues of child pornography and sexual exploitation of children. In this regard, it should be recognized that the Films Board of Review has specific responsibilities. These are not to register material which is blasphemous, indecent, obscene; injurious to morality or an incitement to or encourage crime; or undesirable in the public interest. In essence, it must satisfy itself that a film can be screened for general or restricted audiences without offending on any of these grounds.

Particular attention was paid by the Board of Review to scenes in Pixote where a child is in the presence of people engaged in sexual activity. These scenes, which made important dramatic points, were an integral part of the film. Their treatment was neither salacious nor prurient.

The Films Board of Review takes into account all relevant states' legislation, which although representing diverse opinions, nevertheless provides an important indication of general community attitudes. In reaching its judgement, however. the Board did not consider itself obliged by its charter to comply with any individual state act. In dealing with the application, the Board took into account all states' legislation dealing with child pornography and sexual exploitation of children.

The Board considered that from the point of view of child pornography Pixote does not breach the NSW Indecent Articles and Classification Act, the Victorian Police Offences Act or the South Australian Criminal Law (Prohibition of Child Pornography) Act. It considered that the context of the child's brief association with persons engaged in activities of a sexual nature was not indecent, obscene, injurious to morality, nor undesirable in the public interest.

The only state legislation which Pixote appears to contravene in this regard is the wider Tasmanian Restricted Publications Act. This Act prohibits the appearance of a child in the presence of a person engaged in an activity of a sexual nature - apparently even if the quality and intent of the context are unexceptionable.

The Films Board of Review does not consider that a decision applicable to all states should be adjusted to meet the legal requirements of individual states alone, when it is the Board's considered judgement that the material is not offensive. Accordingly, the Films Board of Review upholds the appeal and classifies Pixote for Restricted Exhibition.

 

The Cain Letters

Mrs J. Strickland, Chief Censor,
Film Censorship Board.
Piccadilly Court,
222 Pitt Street, Sydney,
N.SW., 2000

Dear Mrs Strickland,
Re: 1982 Melbourne Film Festival

I enclose a copy of a letter sent this day to Senator, the Hon. P. D. Durack, whom I understand is the Minister in charge of your Office. You will note my dissatisfaction with your action in banning the film Pixote. I note from your press statement that part of the foundation for your action was a purported substainance of the Victorian Police Offences Act.

This Act is subject to my administration and if its terms are breached, I can assure you that prosecutions will ensue. However, it is the function of the appropriate Victorian law officers to decide whether that is the case and it is not a function which resides with you.

You will doubtless be familiar with the terms of the Victorian Films Act which amongst other things pick up and mirror the classifications decided upon by your Board. Let me assure you of the continued co-operation of the relevant Victorian Authorities concerning the operation of this Act.

You may care to comment upon the terms of this letter and that of the enclosed letter to Senator Durack.

John Cain
Attorney-General

 

Senator the Hon. P. D. Durack, Q.C., M.P.,
Attorney-General,
Parliament House,
Canberra, A.C.T 2600
Dear Attorney-General,
Re: 1982 Melbourne Film Festival

You are almost certainly aware of press reports concerning the action of the Chief Censor in calling in and initially banning the film Pixote from screening before the Melbourne Film' Festival. I understand you are the Minister having responsibility for the office of the Chief Censor. Now that the appeal process has been completed and the film Is available for screening, I write to you on matters of principle without the attendant glare of publicity,

The Censor attempted to Justify her action in calling in that particular film and subsequently banning it upon the basis that its contents offended the Victorian Police Offences Act 1958, particularly those sections dealing with child pornography. Whilst one would hope there was universal support for the proposition that children must be protected from exploitation, it is not the function of the Chief Censor to take it upon herself to decide the application of Victorian domestic law. Certainly her actions must not appear to have prejudged the application of that law. Further she should not do so without seeking my advice, or advising me of her intended actions.

You may recall that at the last meeting of Ministers, it was agreed that the status quo should be maintained until the next meeting. In spite of this, the Censor has taken unilateral and unprecedented action In an apparent attempt to bring to an end the 1975 agreement with the Film Festivals. Shortly before the 1981 Melbourne Film Festival, I understand that the Chief Censor called in one film for screening. The film was supplied under protest by Festival organizers and was subsequently released by the Censor without comment. The matter was then discussed at the Ministers' meeting and it was agreed that the previous practice of registering Festival films without screening would continue for the time being. This year, instead of maintaining the status quo and leaving it to the Ministers to decide what the future arrangements should be, the Censor has called in five films for screening and had banned one. In my view her action is unwarranted.

I am sure you will further appreciate that the Chief Censor's intrusion into these matters of films before the Film Festival can and, in fact, has done immense harm to the International reputation of the Melbourne Film Festival. It is not too extreme to suggest that her action could affect the continued viability of that Festival. My Government supports the contribution that Festivals make to the diversity of cultural life in Australia and my Government is strongly of the view that the terms and the spirit of the 1975 agreement with the Festivals should be followed so that the independence and integrity of Festivals is protected.

In other words, provided that the organizers of Festivals comply with the conditions laid down in the 1975 agreement, films for Festivals should never have to be screened by the Chief Censor.

Incidentally, I note that as a result of the last Ministers' meeting you were taking action to amend the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations to remove the apparent requirement for films to be screened before registration. I understand that this action has not been taken and, therefore, I wonder why only five films were chosen. If the Censor believes that she is merely following legal requirements, what basis is there for her to act in this discretionary manner?

I would be interested to know whether you were aware in advance of the Chief Censor's intended actions. If so, why was I not given a chance to consider whether Victorian legislation would in fact prevent the screening of the film Pixote at the Festival? In any case, you are now aware of the Censor's actions and I would like to know what action you propose to take.

I enclose for your information a copy of a letter I have sent to the Chief Censor.

John Cain
Attorney-General

 

 

Palace Academy video release

Palace Home Video had a 125m videotape of PIXOTE passed with an R-rating in December 1984. It was released on their Palace Academy arthouse label. Thanks to Stephen F for the cover scan.

 

Pixote (1981) - Palace Academy Video [au] Video poster     Pixote (1981) - Palace Academy Video [au] VHS

 

Uncut 1987 SBS screening

In his 2008 autobiography, I PEED ON FELLINI, David Stratton describes the background to the uncut screening on SBS.

I think it was some time in 1987 that I programmed the Brazilian film Pixote, which had initially been banned by the Film Censorship Board but which had eventually been passed, on appeal, without cuts. I was expecting to hear from the in-house classification officer about the film, but no memos were forth- coming. On the day I was set to record the introduction to Pixote, I thought I had better talk to him first, but I was told he was away. Peter Barrett, too, was away, and the chief executive was in a meeting and couldn't be disturbed. It was my call, said the producer, so we screened Pixote uncut.


 

 

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