PUTRAJAYA: FILM Censorship Board chairman Datuk Abdul Halim Abdul Hamid explains the rationale behind the banning of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and shares the board’s role in safeguarding public interest.
Q: The debacle over the film's “gay moments” seems to be generating a lot of heat from people who have passed judgment without even knowing what it is all about. What exactly is it?
A: There are three parts which we feel are inappropriate for Malaysian audiences. The first is during the performance of a song where a male character (LeFou) hugs the other (Gaston) from behind. Secondly is the suggestive song lyrics with sexual innuendos and the third is a scene that takes place at the end of the movie (for spoiler reasons, New Sunday Times is unable to describe this scene).
We understand the original song (from the 1991 animation) did not have any such (gay) reference. When Bill Condon (director of the live-action version) said that this was the first time Disney has introduced a gay character in its film with a “gay moment”, inevitably people became curious. Our role then became more pertinent because all fingers would be pointed to us if viewers get offended.
Some parents already emailed their concerns to me when they heard that Russia planned to revise viewers rating for the movie, to allow only mature audiences. In Alabama, United States, the movie has also rubbed people the wrong way with many decouncing its overt gay agenda.
Malaysia does not recognise the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) ideology, so we have to be extra cautious in our work. We have our responsibilities to the country, the people and our constitution. If we let these scenes pass, people will wonder if Malaysia recognises LGBT.
Q: What was the length of the cut?
A: The proposed cut was about four minutes and 38 seconds. The length of the song (containing the suggestive lyrics) was about three seconds but we could not recommend a three-second cut as it would make the song choppy and people would be angry. The other cuts are on the actions.
Maybe if Condon had not mentioned the “gay element”, people wouldn’t be so curious and we could let it go with a potentially minor cut. And this whole thing may not have been an issue. We at LPF want to preserve films as much as how they are intended by the director, but the moment the “gay element” is thrown into the mix, we had to protect ourselves.
So what was initially three seconds, has become over four minutes. Parents will definitely ask us what is our stand on the LGBT after watching the film and how did we allow such a film to be viewed by children without censorship. These are the things that will be difficult for us to answer.
I wanted to take my granddaughter as she acted in a school play on the fairytale. She doesn’t know about what has happened but her mother who is my daughter is very frustrated. I think the whole family is quite disappointed.
Q: What do you think of the movie?
A: To me, the movie is very entertaining. And if they had removed those bits, it would not have disrupted the movie because they would only affect a small part of the subplot. The tale hinges on the love of a daughter for her father. Belle is a strong role model because she loves to read and even comes up with her own inventions, just like her inventor father. I personally found the movie very funny and entertaining.
Q: Disney Malaysia has submitted the film for an appeal. What is the appeals mechanism against the board’s decisions?
A: Under the Film Censorship Act of 2002, distributors and producers who are unhappy with any decision the board has made can make an appeal to the Film Appeals Committee. This committee is a separate body from us, comprising a different group of panelists, but is also under the Home Ministry.
They comprise about 20 members with representatives from the Education, Information and the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism ministries and the police, among others. They are not full time members and they meet when there is a request for an appeal. They are scheduled to meet on Tuesday (March 21) to view the movie.
Q: Can they overturn the board’s decision?
A: They are free to reverse our decisions and yes, they can override our decision. They can overturn a ban or downgrade a rating from 18+ to PG13 when necessary. They’ve done this a number of times over the years.
But their decision is final and it cannot be challenged even in a court of law. This is also provided for in the Film Censorship Act.
Q: Over the years, the board has progressively made changes to its guidelines and become more accommodating to today’s viewers, with movies like Deadpool and Logan being screened with an 18 classification (for those above 18 years old). Can we say the board is more lenient now?
A: Yes, I agree. We are quite flexible, more open and we understand the people’s needs when it comes to movies. LPF’s purpose is not to cut movies, but we also try to help the industry as much as we can. We point out all the requirements they have to fulfil to obtain a PG13 rating so that they can maximise their viewership.
Sometimes, filmmakers and producers engage us at the pre-production stage. For local filmmakers, we even open our doors to them to have previews here, where we give our feedback. They will then edit or re-shoot before submitting it for approval. This is our voluntary service and it’s free of charge. They usually come to see us as they don’t want their films to be censored later on, which could affect the flow of the story.
Q: What is LPF’s stand with horror movies, which has seen big changes after the movie Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam in 2004?
A: As long as the horror movies don’t use Quranic verses for the wrong reasons, show dead people returning to life and how the dead can communicate with the living (which is against the tenets of Islam), we can allow them to be released. These guidelines are issued by Jakim (Islamic Development Department).
If none of these elements are present then we will consider them as fantasy. Don’t worry, filmmakers can make whatever ghost movies they want as long as they follow the conditions stated. It is also important to note that gory scenes that show too much blood will receive a PG13 rating.
Q: We understand the board is in the midst of reviewing its guidelines, as the last time the guidelines were reviewed was in 2010.
A: We cannot comment on that at the moment. What we are doing now is mainly on formatting the current one for easy reference, which still needs to be approved by the Home Ministry. We are currently using the 2010 guidelines. Among others, they took account four areas namely ideology and politics; religion, national security and peace; as well as social norms. Movies with counter-culture elements like the scenes in Beauty and the Beast went against social norms.
Q: How is censorship done in this digital age?
A: Passwords and time codes are given to all movie theatres by studios to enable us to screen their films. We will issue local distributors noting scenes that need to be cut and they will then communicate with the film studios, who will cut the movies themselves.
We don’t do the censorship ourselves as movies are no longer released in the 35mm film format. Back then, we cut and put the film ourselves with cellophane tape.
Q: Did the public outcry against the board’s decision affect you personally, since even your family members were anticipating the movie release?
A: This is my job and I have been doing this for 10 years. I have learnt to read a film and identify its subplots and hidden messages, things that people don’t usually see. Sometimes, they are hidden messages, like the Mandarin movie New Village. People can call us stupid or ignorant for the censorship we have imposed. I can accept it, but I don’t have to respond to it.
Q: What are LPF’s hopes for the film industry?
A: Our role is to balance the interests of our stakeholders which are the filmmakers, the government and the audience. We don’t want to cause the filmmakers to lose money so we need to look into audience interests. At the same time, we also have to look into safeguarding the country’s interests, which is to uphold national safety and security.
We try to balance all these and that is why our job is challenging. It’s a very fragile balance.
That’s why we engage with the filmmakers as much as we can, and look at ways to expand our cooperation with them.
Q: How many movies were banned last year?
A: There weren't many for theatrical release, but quite a number of them were for TV.
Currently, we have our reps in TV1, TV2, HyppTV, TV Alhijrah. As of this year, I understand TV channels under Media Prima and Astro are practising self-censorship based on our guidelines.
Q: What is your favourite movie and who are your favourite film stars?
A: I try to watch all Hindi and Tamil movies. If there are screenings simultaneously at LPF, I would watch them — both at the same time! I make this a point especially with Tamil movies so that our censors don’t miss out scenes that may be too violent. Sometimes, the theme is mild but the scenes are quite violent.
I also do this because I have to endorse my censors’ reports — I have to know what the content (of a film) is all about. My favourite actors are Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt.
Q: Of late, there has been debate on Section 6 of the Film Censorship Act which stipulates that those wanting to screen movies have to seek the government’s permission. How many have been charged and convicted under this Act? Is it common knowledge that we have to apply to the board for screenings of movies?
A: Any film which is to be screened to the public must be screened to the LPF first. They also have to get a certificate of approval through application. If they don’t have these, the Home Ministry’s enforcement team can charge them in court just like they did with the documentary No Fire Zone.
I don’t know how many people have been charged under this section as our role ends with censorship but they can’t plead ignorance over this Act as it is well known.
There are about 1,800 applications to screen movies yearly. Cinemas for instance will not and cannot commit to screening of foreign films without our certification.
Q: There is a viral social media post seeking justification for LPF’s move to cut Beauty and the Beast despite approving intimate scenes in Ombak Rindu and purportedly excessive violence in KL Gangster. How do you respond to this?
A: Firstly, they have not seen the movie (Beauty and the Beast) and secondly, you cannot compare apples to oranges. We have a clear cut policy on LGBT. The government does not approve it.
Q: Would muting the audio work for Beauty and the Beast?
A: If it’s just one scene, then that would work. Many international film distributors now send us two versions — soft and hard — of a film. We saw this with Ben Hur, where certain scenes were cut for Malaysian release before we even did anything with it.
Most of the censorship have already been done from source, since they have copies of our guidelines. We prefer if censorship could be done that way, so that they (studios) can ensure that the story and continuity of the stories are not affected.
Q: What do you have to say to those who are still clamouring over the board’s decision?
A: I don’t blame them. That is a natural knee-jerk reaction because they were looking forward to the movie. Their children wanted to watch it with their parents. But later on if they get to see it, they will get to know the real story and why we did what we did.
On our part, we have a job to do and we can’t make mistakes. If there is public outcry when the movie is already released, we will have to bear the consequences. First, we have to pull out the movie from the theatres. This has happened before with the Mandarin movie New Village (banned due to political elements) and Tamil movie Viswaroopam (religion and counter-culture elements).