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The Independent Culture
THE Man Bites Dog saga continues. The first shocking fact to note about Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde's serial-killer opus is that it's a black comedy and it's from Belgium. But even that terrible truth palls before the picture's apparently endless capacity to generate controversy.

A quick history. Man Bites Dog caused near-riots at Cannes, so outraged were some audiences.

The director of the Tokyo Film Festival was fired for booking the film, which was then banned.

The French advertising standards authorities demanded that a poster that seemed to show 'Ben' shooting a baby - there was an image of an infant's blood-splattered dummy - be changed to that of an old person. An image of blood-splattered false teeth was put in its place.

The US release cut all the rape scenes and most of the killings, gun-play, strangulations etc. The end result was almost unintelligible.

The cinema poster was banned from UK cinemas - after being on show for a month.

British tabloids then called for the picture to be banned from UK cinemas, along with Reservoir Dogs and Bad Lieutenant, similarly violent epics stalking the arthouse circuit and frightening the patrons.

Pundits insisted the trio had no chance of hitting the home video market, given the new Puritan climate. While the eventual fates of Reservoir Dogs and Bad Lieutenant have yet to be decided, Man Bites Dog does indeed hit video shelves today - in a complete, uncut version with an 18 certificate. How come?

'When Man Bites Dog was submitted to the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) for video certification, we were extremely nervous and prepared for the worst,' says Tartan Video's Leslie Ehm. 'Incredibly, it was passed uncut, although the logic amazed us.

'They said it was because it was in black and white, and foreign. They felt nobody would see it anyway, thus removing the need to censor.'

BBFC chief executive James Ferman is a little taken aback to hear this. 'To begin with, we don't give reasons as to why a film has been censored. Man Bites Dog was actually passed for film and video last year, before recent concerns about the violence under-age children could be seeing on video.

'We did think that as the film was a subtitled, grainy, black-and-white, low-budget student film for adults it would go to self-selected audience. Also the genre is black comedy, where the deliberate excessivess of the violence is the joke.

'As to the appalling rape scene, it is exactly that - appalling. That's when the comedy ends and audiences have the smiles wiped off their faces. As our viewing board pointed out, if we censor that scene, then audiences might go on smiling. Cinema audiences certainly took the point that the film is an attack on 'reality TV' and how the media suspends moral judgement to collude with killers.'

Still, Ferman is quick to add, 'If Man Bites Dog had come out this year in the 18 category, it would have been one of the films we have on hold, pending research into the viewing habits of young offenders, contrasted with the viewing habits of a control group of 2000 school children.'

Which may explain why the VPRC (Video Packaging Review Committee), mindful of public opinion, fought a last-minute rearguard action, refusing to sanction the video sleeve showing 'Ben' with his trusty gun. Tartan was able to show that the previously passed sleeves for Patriot Games, Excessive Force, Unlawful Entry and The Untouchables - each and every one a profitable Hollywood product - flaunted far more aggressive images of firearms. After what Ehm calls 'a heated appeal' the sleeve has now been passed fit for public consumption.

'I think the turning point was Channel 4's Right to Reply special on media violence a couple of weeks ago. They used the same 'corruptive' picture before the commercial breaks. This at 6.30 in the evening. Hey, lock up your children.'