IFC brings you This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a raucous and riveting expose of the inner workings of the most influential censorship group in the country – the notoriously secretive MPAA film ratings board. When the MPAA refuses to let Academy Award nominated director Kirby Dick’s cameras in, he hires a team of female private investigators to uncover Hollywood’s best kept secret – the identities of the film censors themselves. With John Waters (A Dirty Shame, Matt Stone (South Park), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), Kevin Smith (Clerks II), and more.
eyelights: its informative look at the MPAA. its thorough investigation into the MPAA’s identity.
eyesores: the lighter aspects of its investigative work.
‘This Film is Not Yet Rated’ is an engrossing documentary about the secret censorship of U.S. motion pictures. Written and directed by the award-winning Kirby Dick, of ‘Twist of Faith’, ‘Outrage’ and ‘The Invisible War’ fame, it attempts to peel back the layers of the industry’s controversial self-regulating body, the Motion Picture Association of America.
What a lot of people don’t know is that, in the U.S., films don’t need to be submitted to the MPAA ratings board for approval. It’s voluntary. There are five possible ratings: G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. NC-17 is the kiss of death, because they aren’t allowed to advertise a movie of that classification, and most cinemas will not even play it on their screens. And forget about an Unrated one.
The problem is that the rating system seems somewhat arbitrary: no one knows why the movies are rated the way that they are, and sometimes some movies get away with showing something that another isn’t. But the Motion Picture Association refuses to explain the way it judges films, why a movie was rated the way it was, and what changes could be made to get a lower rating.
Basically, filmmakers have to submit their films… and hope for the best, And, should they get a worse rating than they wanted, scramble in the dark to recut their film to make it less objectionable. In some cases, there’s nothing to be done: some movies simply cannot get a lower rating. But others do, hence why we have R-Rated and Unrated home video versions.
This film features a brief overview of the MPAA, to provide historical context and a better understanding of the issues. However, much of the film consists of interviews with various filmmakers, who explain how opaque the whole process is and discuss the ethical implications of being subject to such a non-democratic process – just to have their works released.
This is not a big secret, but some filmmakers, knowing that their films will likely get an NC-17 rating, at first, actually submit a cut of their films that is worse than they intend it to be – just so that when it comes back to them, they can cut it down to their original version, making it seems comparably better. This is how some filmmakers get their work out intact.
One perfect example of how unusual the ratings are is with the South Park movie: Matt Stone talks about a bestiality video that the kids were supposed to watch. It was never shown on screen, but it ended up being censored. So they changed it for a !@#$-eating video instead… and that passed. It’s utterly baffling because no one except the MPAA knows why.
‘Gunner Palace’, a 2004 documentary on the second war in Iraq, got an “R” rating for language and drug use. The director argued that he was showing real soldiers in a war zone, that he didn’t stage anything – adding that the MPAA were concerned that pressure groups would have a fit if they rated the film lower. He commented that if society can’t deal with this reality then it shouldn’t send people to war.
Speaking of war, ‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’ talks about how violence frequently passes the censors, while sex doesn’t. Emilio Pacull, director of ‘Operation Hollywood’ explains that, for 50 years, the Pentagon and Hollywood colluded to make war films based on guidelines that don’t make the Army look bad. He added that this contributed to making American society more war-like.
Beyond the shared personal experiences, which are riveting enough as it is, there is an added element to the picture: Kirby Dick decided to hire a private investigator to find out who were all these people who rated America’s motion pictures. Since the MPAA refused to disclose any information about them, he decided to find out for himself.
During the investigation, Becky Altringer tracked down all of the MPAA’s raters with the help of an assistant. Then, she and Kirby went through their garbage to find out about them, who they were and how representative of the “average parent” they were. In the process, they found forms that were used to rate some recent movies. The notes were confounding.
Dick eventually decided to submit the early version of this documentary for rating by the MPAA. Because of all the sex scenes in ‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’ (which were used to prove how arbitrary the ratings were), he got an “NC-17” rating for it. Ironically, even though the MPAA is a huge copyright enforcer (calling so-called piracy a “terrorist war”), they made a copy of his film for their own use.
He decided to take his rating to the appeals board. He talked about the appeals process, discovering that there was even more secrecy involved, and how there were apparently clergy people on that board. After doing an investigation into the identities of the board members, it was discovered that they were mostly all industry people (cinema owners, film buyers, …etc.).
It may all sound very sober and serious stuff, and it certainly is important, but Kirby Dick wasn’t averse to using humour to lighten things up from time to time. That helped to balance the film and highlighted the absurdity of some of the MPAA’s positions. In particular, I loved the count of offensive language and behaviour in the documentary at the tail end of the credits. Nice.
‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’ is an astounding piece of work. Not only is essential viewing for cinephiles, but it should be seen by all North American audiences – not just because it opens one’s eyes to the extent to which the industry is manipulating our values through so-called entertainment, but because it shows the dangers of unfettered censorship in any context.
In this day and age of greater corporate and government control, it’s more important than ever. Awareness can make a HUGE difference.
Post scriptum: Following the release of this film, the MPAA announced that, starting in March of 2007, it would change its policy and allow filmmakers to cite other films’ ratings as comparison (until then, they weren’t allowed to defend their film by using another motion picture as a point of reference). The MPAA would also provide information about the demographics of its board.
Dates of viewing: March 21+23, 2014