Feature Blogs

Why Can't I See Ken Park?

Created on Tuesday, 24 June 2003 21:00
Written by Matthew Toomey


The Ken Park issue is unsatisfactorily resolving itself so this week I thought I’d take the time to explain more about it and my dissatisfaction with certain authorities.


Firstly, some background on the director, Larry Clark. Clark has always been controversial since his first feature film, Kids, debuted in 1995. There was much hoopla about the subject material here but after heated debates, the film was cleared for release in most countries around the world. It’s currently available on video in Australia and it’s a film I have seen but wasn’t particularly dazzled by. It’s the tale of a teenager in New York City who tries to sleep with as many virgins as he can. When one of these girls gives him the news that she is HIV positive, he is unfazed and continues to sleep around. The drama culminates when he has sex with a girl who has passed out (knowing full well he would be infecting her).


Clark’s second film was Another Day In Paradise with James Woods and Melanie Griffith. They played two drug addicted parents who use their children to help commit robberies. Clark’s third film was one I spoke highly of last year – Bully. The film didn’t get released in Brisbane so when in Melbourne last August, I saw it at the Jam Factory on Chapel Street. It was a gut wrenching film about peer-pressure and teenagers. When a bully from school has rough sex with fellow student, a group conspires to kill him without being caught. Starring Brad Renfro and Nick Stahl, the film is now on video and DVD if you want to check it out.


I hope you can see trends in these films. They involve teenagers and the problems they face. Now not having seen Ken Park, I use the following plot summary from the Internet Movie Database to explain what it is about… “Ken Park focuses on several teenagers and their tormented home lives. Shawn seems to be the most conventional. Tate is brimming with psychotic rage; Claude is habitually harassed by his brutish father and coddled, rather uncomfortably, by his enormously pregnant mother. Peaches looks after her devoutly religious father, but yearns for freedom. They're all rather tight, or so they claim. But they spend precious little time together and none of them seems to know much about one another's family lives. This bizarre dichotomy underscores their alienation # the result of suburban ennui, a teenager's inherent sense of melodrama, and the disturbing nature of their home environments.”


I haven’t been a huge fan of Clark’s works but I admire what he does. He is making the effort to shock audiences not with cheap thrills, but with honest realism. He is bringing the often overlooked dramas of teenagers to the big screen to make people aware! Films like She’s All That, Bring It On, American Pie… all have their place but is that what life’s really about for most kids in America? I think not.


Now we find ourselves in a position where Ken Park has been banned from Australian cinemas. Who banned it? The Office of Film & Literature Classification (OFLC). The folk of this government organization classify every film, video and computer game that is legally available in Australia. The Classification Board is selected to broadly represent the people of Australia. Day to day administration of the Board is provided by the OFLC which is staffed by Australian Public Service employees who process applications, provide services to the industry and community and respond to media enquiries and consumer complaints. The OFLC is managed by a Director who is also Director of the Classification Board. He reports to the Commonwealth Attorney-General on all matters.


At many film festivals, an unclassified film will screen. This is allowed provided the festival is an “approved organization”, they apply to the OFLC to have the film exempted, and it meets certain criteria regarding its content. Back in April, I attended a screening of the film Irreversible at the French Film Festival. Irreversible had a scene in which a woman was raped for 10 minutes and then beaten to within an inch of her life. It was one of the most shocking things I had seen in a movie and many audience members walked out. I am still glad that I had the choice to see the film and let it be noted that the OFLC approved this film to screen at the festival.


I have read the media release that was issued by the OFLC regarding Ken Park. He’s some extracts from this document…


“In a 6 to 1 split decision, the majority of the Classification Board found this film warranted refused classification “RC”.” … “In the Classification Board’s view, this film deals with matters of sex in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that it should be refused classification. In the Classification Board’s view, the film contains scenes of actual sexual activity involving characters who are portrayed as minors that could not be accommodated within the “R18+” classification.”


The film has been shown at film festivals in the United States, Italy, Canada, Austria, Turkey, The Netherlands, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hong Kong, Spain, Belgium and even New Zealand. The film was to screen at the London Film Festival but Clark punched the festival director at a dinner and it was subsequently pulled from the line up. It was not pulled as a result of its content.


Why not talk about the content of the film? Ok, it portrays under age sex. So what? If it’s a problem in society, then isn’t this the message Clark is trying to tell us through showing the film? It is important to note that no actor in the film is under 18 although the characters they play are under 18. In Irreversible, a woman was raped and beaten in a 10 minute scene. This is an illegal act and punishable with a heavy sentence. Sex by two 16 year olds is legal and yet for some reason showing this on camera for a legitimate purpose “offends the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults”. Who the hell are these reasonable adults? They can watch Irreversible but not Ken Park? This is truly insane.


I don’t want to be seen as making a wild accusation but in my opinion, the OFLC is taking this stance to show they actually do something. Not since Base-Moi can I recall them banning a film and I think they find themselves needing to do this every now and again to satisfy themselves and the public that they are doing their job. This may not be the case but if there is another explanation for their stupid decision, I’d like to hear it.


Ken Park was to screen at the Sydney Film Festival this month. They appealed the decision of the OFLC but were unsuccessful. They received a letter from State Attorney General Bob Debus which said: “The situation at law is complicated. It is unprecedented that a film festival has requested an exemption for a film that has been classified RC. Festival Guidelines, agreed to by State and Territory Censorship Ministers, clearly state that films that have been either classified X or RC will not be granted an exemption to be shown at a film festival. These Festival Guidelines have the status of an intergovernmental agreement and I am under an obligation to uphold the terms of this agreement. I regret therefore that I am not in a position to direct that an exemption be granted for Ken Park to be shown at the Sydney Film Festival."


The matter is far from finished however. In the place of the screening, the Sydney Film Festival held a forum which was well attended. It was presented by the lobby group Watch On Censorship (WOC) and the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA). Larry Clark spoke via satellite and other panelists were Margaret Pomeranz (from SBS’s The Movie Show), Julie Rigg (from the FCCA) and former Deputy Chief Censor David Haines. I wish I was there for that one.