Ahead of forthcoming Prime documentary The Naughty Bits, co-creator José Barbosa talks with former Chief Censor Bill Hastings about his career watching video nasties.
Strictly speaking former Chief-Censor Bill Hastings isn’t part of that madcap world of TV production, TV is outside the Office of Film and Literature Classification’s (OFLC) remit, but he’s certainly done his time in front of the camera. He was the Chief Censor for twelve years from 1999 and was often seen on TV current affairs shows explaining why he’d restricted or banned a particular film. Once even a t-shirt was declared “injurious to the public good”; there’s a 3 News item from 2008 which closes with Hastings holding it up to camera grimacing like a man forced at gunpoint to pick through the collected stool samples taken from a group of paleo diet enthusiasts.
That’s not a bad description of how most people think censors spend their day. Bill Hastings once described the censor’s office as “the sewer grate for society”. That seems an apt description. For most of 2014 I worked on The Naughty Bits, a three part documentary series for Prime TV about the history of censorship in New Zealand. Filming in Wellington took the crew and I to the temporary offices of the OFLC.
Decor-wise they were pleasantly boring: highlighters, ring binders and hand sanitiser is mostly what I remember. “Don’t go around that corner,” we were told. The classification staff were about to have a group viewing of an extreme film new to the country. Presumably it was a health and safety matter. Nonetheless, while I made my way to the toilet I accidentally caught a single frame of the film, paused while the staff prepared their highlighters and ring binders. A glimpse was enough to chill me right through.
I first met Bill Hastings in the district court in Masterton at the conclusion of a long day. Long because Judge Hastings, as he is now referred to, had spent the working day hearing the arguments and pleas and tears and anger and fraught lives of people being processed through the court system. It was long for myself and the crew because we’d spent the last nine hours at Auckland Airport waiting for the skies to clear. We were knackered, but Hastings was fizzing like he’d just had nine hours sleep, a fresh shower and a good breakfast.
He loves to talk, which is helpful in an interview, but more importantly he likes telling stories and he tells them well. There’s a good one in the documentary about an afternoon spent discussing the difference between urination and female ejaculation. He punctuates every other sentence with a little “hmm” which seems almost mechanical. He’s clearly Canadian when he speaks, but will drop the most syrupy New Zealand accent on certain words. He makes the word “video” dance around like Tui song.
Steve Crow had a running feud with Chief Censor Hastings over importing porn DVDs. Crow reckoned Hastings was arrogant to deal with. Someone else suggested he had a big ego. Maybe, but he was probably the most effective Chief Censor we’ve ever had in terms of communicating to the public. He once told a colleague that being a censor is one of the few jobs in Government where you can make a tangible difference to society. That doesn’t sound like someone so wrapped up in himself he’s beyond improving the world around him.
Besides, how can you write off a guy who has a great story about Patricia Bartlett and why she thought black breasts were better than white breasts?
I am curious as to what the day to day goings on of the office were like. Were you receiving a lot of correspondence from the public? Were you getting submissions by a lot of people who had very extreme views?
At the start I did get the occasional letter hoping that a bus would run me over. Seriously! Actually I think the bulk of correspondence received in the information unit, which was the part of the office that deals with correspondence and complaints, related to broadcasting. I think a good 25-30% of letters were complaining about TV shows, which of course we had no jurisdiction over.
But with respect to stuff we had jurisdiction over, yeah a number of letters would come in complaining about computer games and why we were allowing R18 computer games out in the market to be played by people under the age of 18. I remember being summonsed on behalf by a lobby group to explain this outrageous conflict. I had to tell them that we do make them R18, which means that no one under 18 should be playing them, and we make them R18 for the exact same reason that we make movies R18. There has to be some room for parental responsibility here. It is an offence – even in your own home, which I was telling people to their great amazement, that allow someone under the age of 18 to play an R18 video game. Even in your own home! I would say these laws are stricter than the alcohol laws.
I guess very genuinely concerned, but some were ill informed about letters with comments. Which were good in a way, they told us the pressure points that we needed to activate our education programme.
The role of the censor’s office seems to have changed a lot; from a purely moral based to one that is about education and harm reduction.
I remember going to a select committee and one of the members said “clearly the internet is making you irrelevant. Why should we keep giving you money?” My response was that, in an ideal world we wouldn’t need a classifications office, because everyone would be able to restrict to what they see themselves, because they would know how exposure to certain things scientifically to affect your attitude and psychology. And therefore, more on the education in ways of the changing modes of delivery of content would be a really good spend of money.
Did the job change how you viewed media?
It opened up a whole world I didn’t know existed.
I remember very early on in the job I went over to the enforcement people to see what they do and how they do it. The were in chat rooms, I don’t even know if they have “chat” any more. I think it was internet relay chat. They were being sent a whole sequence of still images of child abuse and I think I told them after the first three images never to show me this ever again. If I lived to be 180 years old, I could not have imagined what I saw.
Because I just have no idea. I knew there were “b” grade films but I didn’t know – it was huge, it was like a pyramid. In cinemas we see at the very peak, and then there are straight to video releases where they are a kind of level below D grade, they are like C, D, E, F and G and they just got more and more of them. It was just incredible. That was the stuff that the video recording authority had to deal with. Misogynistic, sexually violent and just badly made films.
I would never ever had realised that that stuff was out there until I took the job.
That also made it quite difficult to talk to people like rotary clubs about the work at the office. Because you would give them statistics about the classifications you have, there were a certain number of R18s. And then everyone would inevitably say “why don’t you ban it?” I said well, if you saw what we banned then you wouldn’t be saying that. But of course they can’t see what we banned because we banned it. It is one of the conundrums of the job.
Having seen all that stuff, do you have any wider insight into just what makes humans tick? My dad would say, why would people watch that, it must mean that humanity is sick or something.
I think there is great untapped potential in the human imagination, both on the good side and on the bad side. It is a tie in with one of the downsides of being a censor, that you get a lot of that expression of the bad sides that are sent to you for banning, or certainly for scrutiny, and not enough of the good side. But that is not to say that there isn’t an awful lot of expression of the good side of the imagination’s potential out there, it is just that the classification office doesn’t see it because it is good. The classification office is only concerned with restricting availability of the bad stuff. So some days you are in despair of humanity. Just when you think you have seen the worst the next worst thing would come in.
You’ve said one of the high points or most interesting points for you was talking about Out of the Blue, and the work the office did with the people from Aramoana. What was so satisfying, if that is the right word, about that whole experience?
It was virtually unique. I don’t know of any other situation where it was possible to re-enact, not with the actors, but with the real people – the characters that the actors were playing. Real people, but they were just ordinary. They were just ordinary people who were thrust into history through no desire of their own and continue to be through no desire of their own to be a part of history. But who responded to horror. It was real horror in such a magnificent way. You knew that the concerns that they were expressing about Out of the Blue were heartfelt and genuine, because they were there. They were what the film was all about. They weren’t all speaking with one voice, and they had many different views. But we had to go down and just tell them that we – of course, it is a no brainer that we had to listen to them and allowed them to express their concerns. They had all seen it at that point, I think they had made sure that they had seen it. It allowed us to hear what they were saying, but also to convey to them what the law actually allowed us to do, which wasn’t what many of them wanted us to do. Just by explaining the classification criteria, you tell me whether you think they address your concerns or not. They said, they don’t really. I said, well you know it is a terrible position that I’m in too.
So, they may not have been happy with the classification that we gave it. I think Robert Sarkies was a bit grumpy in the media about the R17, but realistically I think the R17 was necessary, just because the film conveyed a very real environment, something that actually happened. And it conveyed the actions of ordinary people, so it was a setting everyone could identify with. That was horror in the setting. So an R16 I think was necessary so that children would not be exposed to the horrors inherent in what was then a very natural setting, and what continues to be a very natural setting, particularly because those horrors were one off. It is unlikely to ever happen again.
The important thing to us was the process, that we were seen to be listening to genuinely held concerns.
The Naughty Bits – a three part history of censorship in New Zealand – debuts on Prime at 9.30pm this coming Monday March 16.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.