Film Review: [CENSORED]

This year’s Sydney Film Festival sees the premiere of Sari Braithwaite’s provocative documentary [CENSORED], made entirely from footage cut by Australian film censors – by Vanessa Abbott

Deep in the vaults of the National Archives of Australia are thousands upon thousands of celluloid scraps. These are the scenes that had been cut by the Australian government from films, from the 1950s to 1971. No one knew that the government was keeping the banned clippings as a souvenir. 

When Director Sari Braithwaite gained unprecedented access to this mysterious collection, she thought she could create a work to liberate this censored archive; to honour these displaced frames, and condemn censorship. But, after years of bearing witness to these fragments of film, this archive became challenging and unnerving. It felt almost impossible to celebrate, impossible to reconcile. 

[CENSORED] is a work stitched entirely from these never-before-seen artefacts of censorship: it is the story of how one filmmaker confronted an archive to reckon with film, censorship, and the power of the gaze. Hundreds of boxes of bureaucratic paperwork, thousands of clips, over forty hours of world cinema, scissored and quarantined in the vaults of our National Archives. A word here, a shot there; whole sequences deleted by the Australian Government. 

Peppered through this collection are banned scenes from some of the most influential directors in history: Godard, Polanski, Bergman, Varda, Fellini, to name a few. But censorship extended to hundreds of forgotten films – from Hollywood B-grades, through to avant-garde European cinema. 

Braithwaite discovered this forgotten archive when making a short film about David Stratton’s censorship battles during the 1960s. Apart from a handful of government employees, no one had laid eyes on these artefacts of censorship. Until now. From its very invention, film was to entertain the masses. What started as a novelty evolved into the 20th centuries most popular form of entertainment. For social reformers, and the government, it was a technology that needed to be closely monitored and controlled. 

Some films were passed with no amendments. Some films were banned in their entirety. But frequently, censors discovered they could approve films if they deleted particular scenes. It is this phenomenon, of deleting the offensive scenes, which is the focus of [CENSORED]. If a film contained material deemed violent, obscene or blasphemous, the censors would cut out the offending frames. 

Mostly, the censors cut sex and violence. The audience would never know it was missing – for much of the 1960s, the operation of Australian government censorship was conducted in secret. It an exciting time now as this film and archive is unlocked and exhibited for the first time, curated and constructed with such enormous rigour in this unique and compelling work of cinema,said the film’s Executive Producer Robert Connolly (The Slap, Balibo, Deep State). 

Entertaining and provocative, [CENSORED] is a fascinating polemic, challenging audiences with questions that defy easy answers. Just as the censor and the filmmaker are made complicit, so is the audience, who bear witness to this ambitious work. The film is narrated by Braithwaite, as she describes the process of stitching together hundreds of censored clippings to tell a story about the power of the censor, the power of the filmmaker, and the power of the spectator. 

Vanessa Abbott is a writer based in Melbourne. 

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