PUTRAJAYA: When Mohd Zamberi Abdul Aziz was appointed as chairman of the Malaysian Film Censorship Board (LPF) in January last year, replacing Datuk Abdul Halim Abdul Hamid, he knew exactly what he was stepping into.
Only a year before, the board was the subject of public discontentment when it banned the local release of the live action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast over the inclusion of “gay scenes” in the film.
The decision was later overturned following an appeal by Disney Malaysia, coupled with a huge outcry from Malaysians. Beauty and the Beast was eventually released in Malaysia with no cuts and a P13 rating.
At the time, the board was reviewing the Film Censorship Guidelines 2010, an initiative many years in the making.
Zamberi has taken the mission to heart. In an interview with the New Straits Times, he reveals how LPF has agreed to introduce new film classifications that would reduce the need for censorship.
WHY SOME FILMS ARE BANNED
Zamberi said a film could be banned if it threatened the country’s racial, religious and cultural harmony.
“Public security and peace, religion, sociocultural aspects, decency and morality are the four main aspects taken into account, as listed in the Film Censorship Guidelines 2010.
“In general, we want to allow all films to be screened as long as it does not pose any danger to the nation’s harmony. But even films that are permitted for screening will still be divided into clean copies without censorship or with some scenes censored,” he said, adding that the same criteria applied to local and foreign films.
Zamberi said the guidelines were adopted after discussions and negotiations with stakeholders, such as filmmakers and government agencies.
“It’s hard to control foreign films, but for LPF, we think local filmmakers should understand and abide by the guidelines as they have agreed to them.
“If producers understand and follow the guidelines, there is no reason for LPF to ban or censor their film. They only need to avoid creating controversy that could jeopardise national harmony.
“For example, a movie that depicts one race as superior to another or a race being left out, that will lead to controversy.”
CENSORSHIP AND CLASSIFICATION
LPF’s main duty, said Zamberi, was to protect the public from negative influences.
“That’s our main objective. We edit out scenes with negative elements, scenes that may cause trauma to the audience.
“Take a beheading scene, for example. The moment when blood bursts out of the wound will be censored, not the moment where the character is using the weapon.
“Drugs, alcohol and smoking are also not encouraged. A scene showing an addict injecting drugs will be censored, but not a scene where addicts gather to take drugs. As such, the censored scenes won’t affect the storyline as a whole.”
Classification of films, he said, was also one of the board’s responsibilities.
Currently, films are classified as U, P13 or 18.
Zamberi said most of the time, local distributors and producers seek a U or P13 classification.
“Figures show that movies in the U and P13 brackets tend to attract a bigger audience.
“But sometimes, certain content isn’t appropriate for children. While we can approve it for screening, it will be classified 18 (for viewers aged 18 and above).
“Most of the time, local distributors disagree with an 18 rating, and that is when we need to censor some content that may be unsuitable for U or P13 viewers.”
Zamberi said apart from the four main aspects the board used to assess a film’s screening
potential, there were also other elements at play.
He said genre, theme, storyline, scenes and dialogue were also taken into account.
“In the crime genre, for example, there are different levels of crime. For a U rating, the crime is portrayed only through storytelling. It will be P13 if, for example, there are fight scenes with sharp weapons.
“No censorship is needed in this case for an 18 classification if the violence is not excessive.
“This is because some children cannot differentiate yet between fiction and real life, while those 18 and above can regard it as a form of entertainment.”
MOVIES BANNED IN 2018
Last year, LPF approved 2,283 films for screening. A total of 677 films were censored and allowed to be shown in theatres.
Eight movies were banned. One of the eight films, said Zamberi, was a local production titled Dua — Dunia Untuk Aku.
“Any film with LGBT elements, whether directly or indirectly promoting or propagandising this element, will be banned. That was why Dua — Dunia Untuk Aku was banned.”
The other banned films were Padmaavat; Iruttu Arayil Murattu Kuthtu; Love, Simon; A Fantastic Woman; Bilal; 18.05.2009; and The Happytime Murders.
He said the animated film Bilal was banned as its portrayal of Islam was not in accordance with the Sunnah practised in Malaysia.
The Bollywood movie Padmaavat, meanwhile, was axed as it depicted Muslims negatively.
“Other movies contained LGBT elements or had extreme sexual scenes.”
MOVING TOWARDS REDUCING CENSORSHIP
Zamberi said like other laws, Malaysia’s film censorship guidelines need to be reviewed from time to time to remain relevant.
He said there were plans to expand the current classifications from U, P13 and 18 to even more categories.
“Based on our experience, the board thinks three classifications are not enough. One of the reasons we need censorship is because we want to present content that suits the classification. As such, by introducing new classifications, there is a good chance of reducing censorship.”
Zamberi said currently, there was a significant gap between the P13 and 18 categories.
LPF, he said, was mulling introducing new classifications, like P15 or P16, to bridge this gap.
“Some scenes could be deemed inappropriate for children 13 years old or under, but is something that a 16-year-old has no trouble understanding and accepting. A category in between could bridge that.”
He said LPF also studied mechanisms used in other countries.
“In most countries, the authorities classify films without the need for censorship. This could be done because they have more classifications than we do.”
He said some European countries, for example, had up to seven film classifications. He said LPF’s research had concluded that there was a need to introduce new classifications.
“We are engaging and getting feedback from other quarters, including academicians, non-governmental organisations, government agencies and stakeholders.”
HELPING LOCAL FILMMAKERS
Zamberi said LPF had taken the initiative to help local filmmakers and guide them on how to navigate the censorship guidelines and help them face problems later on.
The board, he said, was willing to help filmmakers and studios before they embark on a project.
“We are open for discussion even before they start a production, all they way until before they wrap up the film. They can always come to us with the script.
“We can go through the script and explain the elements that they have to comply with, and assess which areas the film would likely be classified under.”
He said there was a misconception that “controversial scenes” would be totally cut out.
“Controversial scenes are not completely prohibited, provided they can serve as lessons or send a message to the viewers. It is after all, a form of creativity.”
IS LPF RESTRICTING CREATIVITY?
Asked if the Film Censorship Act should be amended, given that many have accused the board of restricting creativity, Zamberi disagreed. The act, he said, was necessary for administrative purposes.
“The act defines what is a film, what films can be screened and what films are prohibited.
“If they do not contravene the guidelines, they can be screened.
“This shows that the act does not necessarily restrict creativity. While we do agree that it may be up for review as it was created in 2002, its fundamentals remain the same.”
He hoped people would change their perception of LPF.
“When the public, film distributors and filmmakers think about the board, they think our existence is to restrict creativity.
“That’s not new. This perception was formed a long time ago.
“We hope they will drop their prejudices and try to understand that our duty is for the benefit of all parties.
“We are trying to improve the local film industry based on our capacity. That’s why we are flexible and our door is always open for discussion.
“As such, we are committed to reviewing the guidelines and film classifications so that they remain relevant to current trends.”