3 min

Films ‘R’ us

The review board's failing grade

Have you seen South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut? How about Election or American Pie? If you have, then you might be as young as 14 since they were rated AA by the Ontario Film Review Board, the agency which rates every film (including trailers) and every video (including pornos) shown in the province. Considering that these films contain their fair share of coarse language, nudity and sex, one might think that the OFRB has relaxed the reins of film classification.

But many queer films continue to receive R ratings (18 years of age or older). In the last year, movies like Better Than Chocolate, Relax It’s Just Sex, Head On and Velvet Goldmine have all been given restricted ratings.

Even the super-sweet flick about a high school student coming out, Edge Of 17, received an R due to “coarse language, full male rear nudity in a sexual situation, implied sexual activity and substance abuse,” according to the film’s distributor. That meant teenaged audiences couldn’t see it.

Luckily, the rating was challenged by someone on the board (the agency won’t give out the names of individual panel members). Eventually, the film was awarded an AA rating, with extra warnings of “mature theme, sexual content and not recommended for children.”

What was so dangerous about Edge Of 17?

There is a growing discontent that the board is unfair to queer films. Hussain Amarshi is president of Mongrel Media, which distributes a lot of gay films, including Like It is, Relax It’s Just Sex and Edge Of 17. Most have received an R rating. He will not accuse the board of any mistreatment, but asks: “In relation to the South Park film and American Pie, are our films any more vulgar?”

Dana Inkster, publicist for the lesbian love story, Better Than Chocolate, asks a similar question: “If the content didn’t include lesbian sex – if it were heterosexual sex – would it have received an R rating?”

Before it was rated, Better Than Chocolate was originally targeted to young women in their late teens. “It’s a film that queer youth could benefit from,” says Inkster, “but the R rating limits that.” In Germany, in contrast, anyone over the age of 12 could see it. “In its first week of distribution, it was in the top 10 grossing films, up there with Notting Hill,” Inkster says.

Last year, out of 5,252 titles rated, there were 29 appeals, 17 of which were successful. Small distributors, who usually pick up more independent, potentially controversial films, must pay a fee for challenging a rating. At a cost of $4 per minute, says Amarshi, “the appeal can become quite costly very quickly for those on a smaller budget.”

In addition to cost, some commentators point to another road block for gay and indie films. When asked why the OFRB gave Better Than Chocolate an R rating, the film’s publicist claims the make-up of the board is becoming more conservative. “It’s been part of the mandate of the [Mike] Harris government to change the body of the review board,” Inkster says.

Bob Warren, chair of the Ontario Film Review Board, argues that the board does include and represent all communities in their decision making. “We have people in the gay and lesbian community that are actively part of the panel and involved with making the decisions.”

In fact, Warren claims queer participation on the board has become quite significant. “Fifteen to 20 percent of the board is compromised of gays and lesbians,” Warren says. He states there is a great deal of effort put into maintaining diversity on the board, whether it’s members of different cultural backgrounds or whether it’s representation from other parts of Ontario. But given the board’s policy on not identifying which member has rated what film, there’s no way to tell.

In a recent radio broadcast of CBC’s Talkback, a former OFRB member talked about her involvement with the board just after the Tories were first elected. “I noticed a significant change,” she said. “In terms of the policy of trying to ensure diversity, there was a big shift. The Tory government is using the appointment to the Ontario Film Review Board as something to give to Tory supporters or Tory workers. That certainly hurts the diversity on the board. The board has become a lot whiter, a lot older and a lot more male.”

Is this the future of the review board? If critics are right, R ratings will be appointed to many queer films still to come – regardless of what gay and lesbian audiences think.