So another Batman film and another controversy…

The Dark Knight (2008) was the most complained about film in recent classification history with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) castigated for their allocation of this film with its high levels of violence, a 12A. This meant children under the age of 12 could see it if accompanied by an adult. The Joker (2019) explored mental health and was given the 15 thus shutting out the lucrative 12-15 market. And now we have The Batman (2022). This film was also recently certificated 15 by the BBFC whose classification rulings apply to all of the UK including Northern Ireland. However, local councils and authorities have the power to change certificates or ban films altogether. This is all to do with cinema licensing. For the majority of the time, local councils and authorities do not get involved in censoring or classifying cinema, preferring to leave it to the classifiers, now known as ‘compliance officers’ of the BBFC. Film classification is a minefield of complications: with such great power comes great responsibility, or rather one huge headache.

And yet, with The Batman, Belfast Council have weighed in. After their film sub-committee agreed to keep the film at 15, an appeal from a local cinema owner promoted the whole of the council to revisit this decision and grant the film a 15A certificate – the one location in the UK to do this. This decision means children under the age of 15 can watch the film provided they are accompanied by an adult. (BBC article on film)

As someone who has been researching censorship and local film censorship in particular for the past 15 years, I have some interest here. While this may seem like a minor tweak to the screening of a superhero film, there are some really fascinating aspects to this case. Firstly, and most significantly, the 15A is not a UK film certificate. No such category exists for the exhibition of film in the UK. In creating this specific category, Belfast City Council are actually adopting an Irish categorisation. The 15A exists as part of the Irish categorisation system and it would seem that Belfast City Council are either bring their categorisation into line with the classification system in the Republic or, they are making this adjustment based on the assumption that cinemagoers in Northern Ireland understanding what the 15A means through familiarity with the Irish classification system.

The second part of this case which is interesting is that the council are claiming that the category has been changed to allow the supervised admission of younger children as part of a family group in the interests of the family experience of a trip to the cinema. This is all well and good, but is The Batman really such a family-friendly film? There will inevitably be complaints from people who take their younger children to see the film and then are shocked by the content and concerned over the impact it may have. Of course, the argument runs that parents know their children best and are well able to make the best decisions in the interests of their own children. This is true, but the BBFC would argue that it needs to protect the most vulnerable and this is the basis for its category decisions, not knowledge of individual children. While parents may know their own children best, the BBFC would claim that they know contentious material the best.

Thirdly, arguing for the film to receive a softer rating than other material categorised 15 by the BBFC is unusual. Usually, though not always, councils move ratings up to offer more protection to audiences. Bringing a category down is going to create a precedent.

I am intrigued to see what happens next. Will this be an isolated incident or will other councils start to question the 15 in the case of this film and make different decisions – perhaps a 12A? Will other councils in Northern Ireland reach the same conclusions and take their lead from Belfast thereby moving closer to a form of regional rather than national classification? Or will they stand firm and thus create the silly situation whereby people from one area travel to a different cinema in a different location so that they can see a film which is banned in their own town? We shall see.

All of this has its roots in the two tier system of film censorship which currently operates in the UK and which has been in existence since the early 20th Century. The BBFC was established in 1912 as a form of film industry-funded, non-state sanctioned censorship. And yet its authority rests on the acceptance of their decisions by local councils. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s local councils dissatisfied with the BBFC, weighed in on cinema, changing categories, rejecting films and in some cases, with locally elected officials spending weekday morning’s watching films to decide whether they should be shown or not. This was the case with A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Last Tango in Paris, The Exorcist and Life of Brian. These are extreme examples, but there are other cases where councils emboldened by their decision-making powers start to look at other films – sex education films, sexploitation comedies, horror, literary adaptations – and begin to make local decisions based upon perceived local sensibilities.

When politicians begin weighing in on culture and making decisions based on what they think local people want to see, troubled waters lie ahead. Will Belfast council now start to consider all films due to be exhibited in the area under their jurisdiction? Or just superhero films? Will they consider films aimed at children, or all films? What about festival material, or films which have yet received a certificate from the BBFC? And making classification decisions about these films is just the tip of the iceberg, making time to view them, discuss them and decide on different levels of certification requires a huge amount of work. And much of this is a duplication of work already undertaken by the BBFC. Are local areas really so different? Is The Batman much less scary for viewers in Belfast, than in Basingstoke or Bradford?

We shall see… as with all films in this genre, I am sure that a sequel is in the works.

All of this and more will be discussed on 21 March during the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics as part of a screening of the iconic film Ourselves Alone in QFT.

Join us at QFT as we explore the history of cinema censorship through a series of screenings and talks. Using examples from mainstream cinema, we consider the role played by the British Board of Film Classification in allowing or preventing particular issues being shown on screen across the UK and Northern Ireland, and how they operated as taste-makers and arbiters of morality and decency. We delve into the issues that make films’ contentious, explore explosive content and examine sex, politics, religion and popular culture to consider what makes a film controversial and how these notions of taste and taboo change over time.

Dr Sian Barber is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She has published on film censorship, the British Board of Film Classification and Film History and is currently researching local film censorship and classification.

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