Braithwaite first imagined liberating the ‘orphan frames’ as a kind of anti-censorship project, but her mandate shifted. The period from which she samples clips, 1958–1971, was a time before the term ‘rape culture’ came into popular usage; and yet the orphan frames illustrate that culture perfectly. Almost all directed by men, the sequences offer what Braithwaite calls a potent and ‘distilled’ vision of ‘male fantasy.’ In [CENSORED], Braithwaite groups clips from the National Film and Sound Archive by their illicit action, structuring the film as a series of montages: women showering, dressing; mouths kissing; voyeurs through windows; bodies close in the dark. La Notta, The Hong Kong Affair, La Dolce Vita. Most of the time, the clips shown are absent of actual sex.
Through this cavalcade of repetition, tropes emerge: beautiful, endangered women demeaned in banal and unimaginative ways.
It piles up, it gets worse: men dragging women by the hair across dining rooms; generic stripteases; women slapped by their partners; gangs of men salivating over a sole woman at parties; peeping Toms. The latter two in particular, despite the absence of physical violence, are the creepiest, most predatory. Through this cavalcade of repetition, tropes emerge: beautiful, endangered women demeaned in banal and unimaginative ways. The same types of shots, the same types of prettiness, the same slapping foley, the same demeaning putdowns (‘little wildcat,’ murmurs one man before he hits a woman’s face), all build toward an aesthetic of entrapment.
Throughout, and with her own observations in voiceover, Braithwaite laces the sequences with the censor’s instructions for cutting: foul language, threats of violence, evidence of intoxication, counter-cultural deviance. Then comes the rape montage – many of the women clad in lacy lingerie – and we realise the extent to which these scenes have been aestheticised from the vantage point of the rapist. Poison, I write in my notebook in the dark.
Despite the rose-tinted view of the Swinging 60s as an era of free love and sexual abandon, it’s hard to see anything liberating or rebellious in this collection of forbidden scraps. This on-screen world is not about women on the brink of their own sexuality, or advancing their own complex passions, or understanding how to endure an oppressive life. Rather, they form the cinematic conventions of a society in which sexuality is expressed via rigid stereotypes – and of which censorship only cultivated a culture and a craving for this unsanctioned world of malevolent footage.
Many of the clips spool without their original sound, against a dazed, downbeat jazz score that sets the film’s contemplative tone. Braithwaite was at first reluctant insert her own voice into the film, but her narration is conceptually vital – it stands as the self-representative voice of women who have been absent, or rather, excluded, from cinema history. The film is freighted with its maker’s searching and questing and navigating the ethical puzzles of her own role as filmmaker, censor and viewer. The feeling is very much that of being stranded and alone in the abyss of the archive, and not knowing where to go.
The film is freighted with its maker’s searching and questing and navigating the ethical puzzles of her own role as filmmaker, censor and viewer.
The film’s intellectual humility sets it apart from the indie debuts of many male filmmakers brashly blitzing the festival circuit. Though if anything, [CENSORED] could tolerate a stronger directorial perspective to guide us through the torrent of difficult imagery, and the dense themes of and misogyny and toxicity. Audiences need to be led confidently through such shadowy pathways – much like how a troubled detective leads viewers in a crime film.
‘This performance of masculinity, which men make, diminishes them,’ says Braithwaite over a montage of men in herds, sloppily attacking one another in knife fights. What allows this insight – into men, not women – to leap out from the tide of footage is the force of its moral judgment. We tend to avoid the words morality and judgmentalism today, thinking of them as pejoratives and replacing them with talk of ethics, which is about what to do and how to live. But the history of censorship has been a history of morality – as film historian Ina Bertrand has written, it was very often religious women leading the censorship charge in Australia in the first half of last century – and it continues to be.
As much as a catalogue of footage, [CENSORED] is also a story of its own production. Although censorship formed the project’s origins, the finished product spoke to me more of sexual malice, and the issue of how women are represented on-screen, at ransom to the male gaze – in the latter lies the film’s real power. This is partly because of what remains unspoken: the kinds of toxic material perhaps should be censored, and the different types of censorship that exist – puritanical or progressive. At a Q&A for the film at Sydney Film Festival, Braithwaite commented, ‘you can be pro-censorship or anti-censorship, but at the end of the day, censorship just is.’
Although censorship formed the project’s origins, the finished product speaks more of sexual malice, and the issue of how women are represented on-screen, at ransom to the male gaze.
Cinema is looking directly at another moral reckoning at present – the endemic ostracism of women, and their treatment as passive subjects on and off screen. I see [CENSORED] as one new voice in this cultural moment of atonement. Beyond its meditations on the pros and cons of censorship, [CENSORED] damns and judges the ways women have been exploited and slandered over the decades on screen. It positions cinema as a moral project, questions what kind of morality should be supported, and asks us where we spectators stand in relation to that project.
Two clips in particular glimpse at a future cinema, and show that today’s debates are only echoes of the past. In a dark room in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Liv Ullman listens to Bibi Andersson wander through her recollections of a sexual encounter: ‘Never had it been that good, not before or after.’ The sequence, minutes long, is not visually explicit – rather, it captures the erotics of the face and the voice, of women speaking and thinking and listening, their features moving and their eyes luminous as thoughts and memories pass across. And in Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur (1964), a triangular love story, the film’s riot of colour subsides into faded, fleshy pastels, as the camera glides around two lovers talking of their feelings for one another in bed. Again, the clip is not graphic, but intimate and sincere when it comes to people and their sensuality – a deeper upending of the male gaze than may first appear. That male gaze, beyond issues of representation, has hamstrung cinema’s very visual language. New stories, and new ways of telling them, await.