Oct 23, 2012

Singapore - Singapore Bans Film, Director Vows Appeal

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The film “Sex. Violence. FamilyValues.” is one of the rare Singaporean films to gain traction beyond its shores, garnering good reviews at international film festivals including London, Sydney, Seoul and Tampa Bay.

But Singaporeans may not get a chance to see it at their own cinemas. The film was banned from public screening days before its scheduled opening by government authorities who said it would offend racial sensitivities.

The film’s director and supporters have appealed the government’s decision, underscoring the continuing conflict between Singapore’s aim to foster a thriving local arts scene and its limitations on free speech.

“Sex. Violence. FamilyValues.,” a work by independent film director Ken Kwek, is made up of three short films, each tackling issues seldom discussed in Singapore’s government-controlled media – dysfunctional families, racism and promiscuity.

Described on the film’s official website as a series of short films that “pitches political correctness out of the window of Singapore mainstream cinema,” one of the segments, “Porn Masala,” was deemed by authorities to be unsuitable for public viewing.

A spokesman for the Media Development Authority, or MDA, a government watchdog responsible for rating media, said the movie contains “overt racial references which are demeaning and offensive to Indians.”

The segment, in which a Chinese pornography director sets out to make an “arthouse porn movie,’’ includes a scene where the director, played by locally well-known actor Adrian Pang, rants against an ethnic-Indian actor with a slew of stereotypes.

The film had initially received a rating of M18 (unsuitable for those below 18) and was scheduled for release in mainstream cinemas in early October, but a spokesman from the authority said “public feedback” led to a review on the rating with the Films Consultative Panel, which then decided that the film should be given a Not Allowed for Rating (NAR) classification – keeping it out of cinemas. The panel is composed of volunteers from various professions, including civil servants, and is consulted when the MDA receives complaints on a film’s classification.

Mr. Kwek, who also wrote the film, said at a news conference last week that he plans to appeal the decision, following due process allowed by the government body. A decision – not expected till at least next month – will be final. The deadline for filing the appeal is Nov. 9.

“Far from condoning racism, ‘Sex.Violence.FamilyValues.’ attacks racism, ignorance and all manner of negative sexual, racial and familial stereotypes using the tools of satire and parody,” Mr. Kwek said.

Mr. Kwek told The Wall Street Journal that he hasn’t thought of alternative distribution channels yet. One Singaporean who says he watched the film in New York started a petition to reverse the panel’s decision, and by Monday had listed nearly  1,000 signatures.

For Mr. Kwek, the ruling stings not only for artistic reasons but also for causing a “considerable financial loss” to the film producers, though he didn’t specify how much. The film cost 100,000 Singapore dollars (US$81,800) and took him two years to make, he said. Mr. Kwek sees the film as especially pertinent to Singapore society, made to explore “different facets of life in this city, not just race,” he said in emailed comments to The Wall Street Journal.

Ho Hwei Ling, the body’s director of communications, said the MDA had “received public complaints concerning the racist language used by one character, and another in a local school uniform” after a trailer of the film was released online. Besides scene with the tirade against Indians, a trailer for the short film also shows a girl — portraying a porn actress — in a school uniform belonging to a Roman Catholic girls’ school.

“We do not attempt to push the boundaries beyond what the community is prepared to accept, nor seek to defend a status quo when the community has moved past it,” Ms. Ho wrote in a letter to the local Straits Times newspaper’s forum page. The ministry referred to the letter when The Wall Street Journal sought further comment.

Tensions have always been in play between artistic license, free speech and racial tensions in multiethnic Singapore, with laws that ban negative and inflammatory comments about members of racial and religious groups. However, the government also spends hundreds of millions yearly in funding for the arts and has the goal of turning Singapore into a regional arts center.

Shibani Mahtani

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