Cancellation & Censorship in Film – five screenings & a talk at #imaginebelfast

I recently caught up with Hugh Odling-Smee from FilmHubNI who are supporting a strand of films at this year’s Imagine! Festival that explore cancellation and censorship.

Ourselves Alone is described as one of the most significant films ever made about the Troubles, a powerful story of love and conflicting loyalties set against the battle for Ireland’s independence.

Set in 1921, it’s the story of a young girl under pressure, torn between loyalty to her brother (unbeknownst to her an IRA leader), her fiancé (who is a police inspector), and his comrade and rival in love, a British Army captain.

Directed by east Belfast filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst, the political representation in the film provoked a storm of controversy across the UK and Ireland upon its release in 1936, and it was subject to local censorship and acts of protest.

While the focus remains firmly on the human cost of conflict in uncertain times, Hugh highlights that “there’s the sort of idea that if you depict and represent something on screen, are you then endorsing it or are you giving people the wrong kind of information?”

The screening of Ourselves Alone on Monday 21 March  (6.15pm in Queen’s Film Theatre) will be followed by a talk by Queen’s University’s Dr Sian Barber (senior lecturer in Film Studies) exploring the history of film censorship in and around Northern Ireland and how it affects what we see in the cinema.

“She’s been working for a long time on censorship. Things like the Frankenstein scandal in Belfast and the most famous ones of course being The Life of Brian and Last Tango in Paris where people used to have to get a train to Bangor to go and watch smut in a cinema … arty smut obviously!”

Decisions around what can and cannot be seen and said are contemporary issues as well as historic fascinations. Hugh elaborates:

“It’s an exploration of where power and decision-making and gatekeeping meets artistic freedom. And obviously that’s an extremely hot topic at the moment. And you know, there’s a sense that we’re at we’re at a time where information is at a premium. We are deluged with information. We’re not entirely sure what kind of information it is. Do we trust the government to be the gatekeepers? Do we trust censorship boards? Is there a sensible room of adults who know what is good for us to see, or has the internet blown that away?”

Dr Sian Barber wrote recently about the new classification that Belfast City Council brought in for The Batman, reducing it from 15 to a somewhat novel 15A certificate (allowing parents the ability to bring children under the age of 15 with them to view the film). The 15A certificate is not used by the British Board of Film Classification (U, PG, 12A, 12, 15, 18 and R18), though is one of the ratings that can be issued by the Irish Film Classification Office (G, PG, 12A, 15A, 16 and 18). Hugh says that debates over classification are “as old as cinema itself”.

Other films being screened in this series include Tommy (Tuesday 22), My Beautiful Laundrette (Wednesday 23), Hidden Figures (Thursday 24, a film about figures censored from official narratives) and The Last Temptation of Christ (Sunday 27).

FilmHubNI is an audience development project, funded by the BFI through the National Lottery, that supports around a hundred member organisations from right across Northern Ireland, including big names like Belfast Film Festival.

While Northern Ireland is well served with commercial screens – Cineplex, IMC, Movie House, Odeon, Omniplex, etc – FilmHubNI works with smaller community cinemas in Dungannon, Fermanagh, Portrush, and Limavady. They support organisations to use film, to engage, and to make their audiences more diverse, and most importantly to engage with independent, cinema.

Hugh notes that “the Imagine! Festival has now built this reputation for exploring ideas and we’re delighted that we’re able to support this film strand, which looks directly at how censorship and how films can be become the hot topic of the time.”

There are films that push the envelope.

While we might look at some of these films through the lens of 2022 and wonder why anybody ever had a problem with them (and didn’t just choose to avoid seeing them if they felt they’d be offended), these films all pushed the envelope of their day time using the creative medium of film to engage people with ideas and concepts that otherwise might have been ignored.

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