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culture

Censoring the Toronto International Film Festival

Before it could become the influential industry event it is today, TIFF had to do battle with Ontario's official censors.

David Cronenberg's The Brood was one of many early TIFF films that had issues with provincial censors

David Cronenberg’s The Brood was one of many early TIFF films that had issues with provincial censors.

Once upon a time, there was a film festival that strove for international recognition. Its organizers hustled to bring a wide range of films and a touch of glamour to their fair city. As with any ongoing event, it experienced growing pains, and while the festival did ultimately succeed in cultivating a cosmopolitan image, there were occasional embarrassing moments along the way.

For the first decade of the Festival of Festivals (as the Toronto International Film Festival was known until 1994), programmers fought the guardians of public morality. Provincial censors—known at different times as the Ontario Board of Censors and the Ontario Film Review Board—wielded their power whenever they felt the festival was getting too naughty. Battles over the content of films at times threatened to derail gala openings. While the negative publicity fuelled public curiosity, it occasionally raised questions about Toronto’s suitability as a film-fest desination. Even after the festival earned an exemption from the censors in 1987, some of the films shown were still banned from general release.

Below are several examples of TIFF films that earned the wrath of the censors. Some of the clips included are NSFW.

Je, tu, il, elle (1977)
Director: Chantal Akerman
Starring: Chantal Akerman, Claire Wauthion

This film, selected as part of a programme assembled by French director Agnès Varda, ran afoul of Ontario’s morality enforcers because of its final 13 minutes. Provincial censors ordered 1,000 feet of celluloid cut in order to expunge footage of two women making out on a bed. Watching the film two decades later, critic Brian Johnson observed that “you can’t ‘see’ much, just two look-alike bodies all mixed up, a tangle of limbs and hair.” He suspected that the censors were “confounded by the idea of two women making love for an eternity.”

The festival pulled the film.

Five years later, when censors refused to permit the screening of Pierre Rissient’s Cinq et la peau, programmers didn’t substitute another film. A sign was placed outside the theatre during the scheduled time explaining why the screen was dark.


In Praise of Older Women (1978)
Director: George Kaczender
Starring: Tom Berenger, Karen Black, Marilyn Lightstone, Helen Shaver, Susan Strasberg

Can a film be censored “artistically”? That’s what censor Donald Sims promised would happen when, a week before In Praise of Older Women opened the 1978 festival, the board wanted to excise two minutes. Co-producer Robert Lantos vowed the film would be run uncut, despite the fact that doing so would put the licenses of the theatre and its projectionist at risk. Both sides compromised on cutting a 38-second scene involving Berenger and Lightstone making out behind a couch.

It was a publicity goldmine. Papers across the country commented on the furor, increasing demand for tickets from people eager to see a dirty movie. The festival sold 2000 tickets for a screening at the 1600-seat Elgin Theatre, assuming there would be no-shows. Problems arose when somebody noticed that each printed pass admitted two. The result was a mob scene, where those denied entry hissed “fraud!” as they stood in the rain outside the theatre. Those without seats were urged to go to a slightly later screening at the New Yorker (now the Panasonic Theatre).

Those inside the Elgin applauded federal secretary of state John Roberts’s opening speech. He told the audience that “because of the actions of the Ontario censor it is time for an active affirmation that censors shouldn’t tell people what they should or should not see.” Though an on-hand censor was shown proof that the edited version would be screened, careful camouflaging during the cycling of reels between the Elgin and the New Yorker ensured the audience saw the film in all its uncut glory.


Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography (1981)
Director: Bonnie Sherr Klein
Featuring: Margaret Atwood, Kate Millett

The censor board approved one uncut screening of this National Film Board documentary about the porn industry. An overflow crowd inspired festival officials to request permission for another screening. The board refused, prompting the Star to wonder, “Was the censor board perhaps fearful that one showing of a film will not corrupt an audience, but a second might?” After the festival, screenings of the film were restricted to private venues, and for adults only.

The attention paid to Not a Love Story typified the festival’s relations with censor-board chair Mary Brown, whose tenure from 1980 to 1986 was characterized by controversy. Her objections often raised the profiles of the films she insisted on cutting. According to former festival director Helga Stephenson, “Silly old Mary Brown filled some theatres with some pretty tame stuff. The ranting and raving was a very good way to get the festival into the minds of the public, but internationally it was hugely embarrassing. And it filled the theatre with the wrong people, because they came looking for nothing but blow jobs, and they found themselves in the middle of a long, hard, boring film waiting for a few seconds of a grainy image showing something that looked vaguely like a male sex organ.”


The Brood (1983)
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle

One of the highlights of the 1983 festival was a retrospective of David Cronenberg’s work, the first time a Toronto-reared director was honoured. The censors spoiled the fun by insisting that the commercial cut of The Brood, which it approved in 1979, be used. That version hacked out a 50-second sequence depicting Samantha Eggar birthing a broodling and snacking on the placenta. “While ideally we believe the festival should only run full-length versions and without cuts of any kind,” observed festival director Wayne Clarkson, “saying we wouldn’t run a print that has played in Ontario many times over the years seemed unreasonable. It’s very difficult to say anything else when the director and the distributor have agreed to cuts.”

We suspect an uncut print will be part of TIFF’s upcoming salute to Cronenberg.


Fat Girl (2001)
Director: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Arsinée Khanjian

Though the festival earned a blanket exemption from the censors, the films it screened weren’t guaranteed to escape problems after the festivities. The board refused to approve a general release for Fat Girl following the 2001 edition of TIFF, because of scenes of sexual content involving underage girls. The film was approved in other provinces and in other jurisdictions known for stringent classification systems, like Great Britain. Newspaper ads in British Columbia screamed “Banned in Ontario.”

Additional material from Brave Films, Wild Nights by Brian D. Johnson (Toronto: Random House, 2000), the September 8, 1978, September 15, 1978, and November 22, 2001 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the September 20, 1981 and September 14, 1983 editions of the Toronto Star.

Want more TIFF coverage? Torontoist‘s film festival hub is right over here.

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