The other night, basic cable viewers were promised/warned about "brief nudity" in the latest episode of Mad Men. It turned out to be just some artistic nudes in a portfolio, certainly no more warranting of "viewer discretion" advisement than the show's increased inclusion of words like "sh*t" and "dick" and references to handjobs. Never mind that some people see all the smoking and drinking as worse than any nudity, sexual innuendo or bad language. But the issue with the series' content crept into my thoughts about the ratings controversies of two new documentaries, A Film Unfinished and The Tillman Story, both of which hit theaters this week.
Monika adequately covered the story with the former film, a necessary look at propaganda footage shot in the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis, which will likely and deservedly be a contender for the feature documentary Oscar, and not just because it deals with the Holocaust. The MPAA stamped it with an R for "disturbing images of holocaust atrocities including graphic nudity," which will apparently keep it from being shown in classrooms, where it is most appropriate. As for the latter, the profuse cursing by Pat Tillman's family members is so natural that I first didn't even recall that's the reason for its unwelcome R-rating.
These two important films (see our reviews here and here) are only the latest victims of the MPAA's unfairness, but because they're non-fiction works, and educational and/or journalistic ones at that, I need to propose the following: documentaries should be excused from the ratings system.
My very basic reasoning for this proposal is that documentaries are, for the most part, depictions of reality or a perspective on reality. Leave the debate about whether or not docs are indeed truthful for another time and just admit that at least with certain titles -- including the two mentioned above -- we're seeing non-gratuitous, entirely real pieces of life and history. They should not be stamped with censorial labels anymore than should the world outside your home or the live news you watch on TV. Bleeping out the Tillman family's "excessive language" would be a sort of lie. And without the "disturbing images," A Film Unfinished would be no better than the suppressive propaganda it means to expose.
I don't want to align the MPAA with Hitler and Goebbels. After all, they're not restricting the material's existence, only marking it with a brand of condemnation that segregates it, isolates it, hinders its access -- basically ghettoizes it as far as distribution is concerned. And who are these ratings out to protect? Kids who might end up seeing stuff that every human being must be exposed to as young as possible in order that atrocities like the Holocaust never happens again? Ah, but perhaps we should then thank the ratings board for how it unintentionally tends to work as reverse psychology? Maybe youths will happen upon A Film Unfinished and The Tillman Story because they're "not supposed to," and they'll come away with necessary information about the Warsaw ghetto and government/war propaganda (the latter from both films).
The fault with my idea of docs being excluded from MPAA classification is that many non-fiction films aren't primarily historical or journalistic. Many narrative types of documentary are more about storytelling and aren't that different from fiction films, so there's little need for them to be given exception over them. Then there are obvious films that are inappropriate for minors, such as Inside Deep Throat and other titles focused on pornographic material. Other docs that might require some kind of "warning" label include the Jackass features, stand-up comedy concert films (plus the relevant pot doc Super High Me), and certainly explicit musical stuff like Madonna: Truth or Dare and C**ksucker Blues.
Going through a list of 313 R-rated documentaries, though, I see a lot of significant films about war, politics and must-see histories of all sorts of things that present more pressing and necessary truths than any bleep-filled and debaucherous reality series on network and basic cable channels. For the most part these movies are ostracized for language that every American of every age hears on a daily basis. Others are shunned for graphic but real displays of tragic human rights violations, none of which should be ignored. And none of which is worse than stuff seen in news magazines or in museum exhibitions like the documentary photography show (Capo, Griffiths, etc.) I recently saw at LA's Getty Center, where the hundreds of minors present (mainly for the regular family activities and garden concerts for kids) seemed to be permitted whether with a guardian or not.
Who among us grew up without being exposed, through whatever means, to images of naked, emaciated prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps? And comparable, who had not seen the iconic picture of Kim Phuc (aka Phan Thị Kim Phúc) running unclothed from a napalm attack in Vietnam? As for the language in The Tillman Story, who should be sheltered from experiencing Rich Tillman's F-bomb-filled speech at his brother's funeral service? Audiences should feel the honest and unrehearsed anger communicated that day just as if they were in attendance. Who can say they've never had to hear swear words in such a context of emotional or otherwise furious expression? This is a part of life, and the film responsibly and respectfully portrays it as such.
Arguing over the MPAA's jurisdiction with documentary veers into the territory of debate on non-fiction film being accepted as journalism. The same territory that controversially effects filmmakers' legal protections (see the recent matter of Joe Berlinger's Crude). The issue here is beyond and more complicated than much of the MPAA problems exposed with This Film is Not Yet Rated, enough that I'd love for Kirby Dick to revisit the subject matter for a sequel titled This Film Should Not Be Rated. Of course, the ratings system is officially a voluntary system and one could defend it by saying Oscilloscope and The Weinstein Company could have chosen not to submit their respective films to the board, though that would also mean they couldn't be booked in most U.S. cinemas.
There's plenty to think about and consider in this ratings debate, but what do you think about the idea of documentaries getting a special pass or even a separate sort of classification by the MPAA?
A Film Unfinished opened today (8/18/10) in LA and NYC.
The Tillman Story hits theaters in a limited release this Friday (8/20/10).