SA film raters do it in public

Johannesburg - A recent article in The Washington Post suggests that the United States is a long way behind South Africa in terms of the democratic process surrounding the rating of films for age appropriateness.

The Film and Publications Board (FPB) which is the South African equivalent of the industry-funded Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) recently launched a public awareness campaign less than three years after it began serving the South African public. In contrast, the MPAA's current rating system has been in place since 1968 and remains a silent, secret system that denies the public any insight into its methods and procedures.

The FPB, which began functioning in 1998, is determined to do away with the former image of state-controlled censorship in South Africa. FPB chief Dr Nana Makaula has emphasised that the organisation functions in the public interest and performs a service to all South African film-goers and video-users. To this end, the FPB has recently initiated a public awareness programme in which adults can actually observe how age restrictions are determined.

According to The Washington Post article (dated April 8), a former member of the MPAAÆs 13-member rating group which decides on the film ratings which are used in the United States was asked to leave the organisation when he tried to change the system from within. The former film rater had joined the MPAA because he wanted to "make a difference in a pragmatic way" but soon found that the methods employed by the association lacked consistency and clarity. He would write reports about the films he had seen and rated, but these were filed away without any possibility of public access. He also had to sign a confidentiality agreement restricting him from talking about the work that he did for the MPAA.

He noted that the MPAAÆs members tend to focus on specific elements, such as sex, but avoid considering the movie as a whole. "A lot of raters come in and look for that particular image or word; theyÆre looking for little particulars that they can hang on to justify their judgement," he said.

The South African Film and Publication Board is determined to make the process of classification as transparent as possible. The involvement of the public as observers is a far cry from the old days of censorship, when film-goers were unaware of the frequent cuts made to movies in order to satisfy the interests of a very specific group.

Whereas MPAA ratings give only an indication of the appropriate age at which a child might watch a film, the FPB provides additional consumer information which advises parents about specific elements which may be offensive or disturbing. The current FPB policy also depends on the public for feedback regarding its age restrictions as well as the guidelines used to determine each and every rating. While these guidelines deal with specific elements, FPB examiners debate each movie in its entirety, also discussing any potential merits of the film for young viewers.

Anyone wishing to observe the FPB at work should contact Keith Bain on (021) 465-6518 or 082-336-7912. Contact can also be made via email, fax or post. Address: Film and Publication Board, Private Bag X9069, Cape Town 8000. Fax: (021) 465-6511. Email:

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