Film critics raided as Australia clamps down on screen sex

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The Independent Online

It was a chilly winter's evening, and Balmain Town Hall in Sydney was crammed with people awaiting a screening of a new American film, Ken Park. The lights were dimmed. But the opening credits had scarcely rolled when police burst in and halted the show. Several organisers, including one of Australia's most respected film critics, were taken away for questioning.

It was a chilly winter's evening, and Balmain Town Hall in Sydney was crammed with people awaiting a screening of a new American film, Ken Park. The lights were dimmed. But the opening credits had scarcely rolled when police burst in and halted the show. Several organisers, including one of Australia's most respected film critics, were taken away for questioning.

Thus were battle lines drawn for the country's most heated censorship row in years. Ken Park, by the US director Larry Clark, is about the dysfunctional lives of four young skateboarders in California, and had been banned from Australian cinemas. The abortive underground screening in Balmain was an attempt by film buffs and civil libertarians to thumb their noses at the authorities.

Ken Park, which features teenage sex, masturbation and auto-erotic asphyxiation, is the latest movie to be deemed too steamy for Australian audiences. It has been screened at numerous film festivals, including Venice and Cannes, and has been playing in European cinemas. It has been sold in 30 countries, including Britain and Singapore.

Critics say the decision by Australian authorities reflects a climate shaped by the conservative social agenda of the Prime Minister, John Howard. Mr Howard, who came to power pledging to ban pornographic videos, has tightened censorship laws. Free-to-air television is prohibited from showing uncut adult films, even at night. Five films have been banned since 1995, including, last year, Baise-Moi, shown in Britain with a 10-second cut. Seven more were refused classification without cuts.

Civil libertarians say the Classification Review Board, the highest censorship authority, whose members are political appointees, has been stacked with conservatives. Irene Graham, an anti-censorship campaigner, said: "They are all teachers, childcare workers, lawyers and scientists. There are no film critics, no one likely to consider artistic merit. There isn't a single person with experience in film production."

Ken Park was banned from the Sydney Film Festival, although it was shown at a festival in New Zealand, usually regarded as more strait-laced than Australia. David Marr, a writer and broadcaster involved in the Balmain screening, said Ken Park had become a focal point of resistance. "This is a stupid decision made under a morally bullying government," he said.

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