The Victorian Theatres Act (1958): should films such as The Exorcist be banned on Good Friday?
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Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 09
On Friday April 6, 2001, Victorian Premier, Steve Brachs, decided to overturn a ban on the screening of the director's cut of The Exorcist. The ban would have prevented the screening of the film on Good Friday. However, the premier's decision has not removed the controversy.
Prior to premier Brack's decision, a wide range of people, including cinema operators, civil libertarians and the Victorian Opposition, had objected to the single day ban. Since the premier's decision to lift the ban some church groups and others have expressed regret, arguing that the film is an inappropriate one to have shown in Victorian cinemas on Good Friday.
The larger issue is the continued existence of the Theatres Act (1958), which is the law under which the Victorian Justice Department first prohibited the film for Good Friday screenings.
The law is to be reviewed in May 2001 by the Victorian Parliamentary Law Reform Committee.
What they said ...
'It's not saying, for goodness sake, that they (films such as The Exorcist) are going to be banned on other days'
Victorian premier, Mr Steve Bracks, defending his government's original decision to ban Good Friday screenings of The Exorcist
'People have a choice. They don't have to see The Exorcist if they don't want to'
Victorian premier, Mr Steve Bracks, defending his government's decision to rescind the Good Friday ban on The Exorcist
Copyright © Echo Education Services
First published in The Echo on-line newspaper information site.
Issue outline by J M McInerney
The Exorcist was originally released in 1973. It portrays the fictional story of a 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil and of the attempts by Catholic priests to exorcise her (drive the devil out).
When released the film marked a turning point in horror films and it has since been judged by a number of audience and critic surveys to be the most frightening film ever made. This obviously remains a matter of individual judgement.
The reissued version is not strictly a director's cut. It includes more than ten minutes of footage that was edited from the original film and a slightly modified ending. The changes, however, are in accord with the wishes of the original script writer-producer, not the director.
The decision to ban a Good Friday screening of the revised version of The Exorcist was originally made by a bureaucrat in the Victorian Justice Department. It was then endorsed by the Bracks government under the Theatres Act (1958).
Under the terms of the Theatres Act (1958) any theatre or place of public entertainment that operates on Good Friday or Christmas Day without a special written permit from the relevant government minister could be fined and have its licence to operate either cancelled or suspended.
The Act makes no reference to particular types of film, such as violent films - all are prohibited on Good Friday and Christmas Day unless a special exemption had been granted.
The Act specifies that a special permit could be granted to theatres to show material of a 'sacred nature'. It does not make plain whether a permit would be granted to show secular entertainments.
Currently, in practice, application for permission to show a film on Christmas Day or Good Friday is only made for films with an R-rating. All other films are automatically regarded as being able to be screened.
It would further appear that even some R-rated films are currently being screened without the cinema having applied for a government exemption.
The Act also allows theatres and cinemas to open on Anzac Day, but only after 1pm. Any theatre or cinema that ignores this regulation can have its licence suspended or cancelled. These provisions are currently still applied.
The same Act allows the relevant minister to close down any theatre, cinema or place of public entertainment 'whenever he is of the opinion that it is fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do.'
This would appear to give the government far greater powers than it currently attempts to exercise. For example, it is difficult to imagine a government closing a theatre because it believed it posed a threat to 'good manners'.
The Theatres Act (1958) can be found at
http://www.dms.dpc.vic.gov.au/l2d/T/ACT01227/2_1.htmlThis repays careful reading as it is the legislation under which the original ban on a 2001 screening of the revised version of The Exorcist was made.
It is interesting to note the intended scope of this legislation. It is also interesting to note that it makes no reference to prohibiting films containing either extreme violence or religious satire. Instead it begins from the premise that no films, other than those of a 'sacred' nature, should be shown on either Good Friday or Christmas Day.
The Text This Week is a United States liturgical site which considers a number of popular films from a Christian or liturgical perspective. One of the purposes of the site is to show how films can be used as part of Bible study classes or for religious instruction. An index of some of the films treated in this way can be found at http://www.textweek.com/movies/titleindex.htm
The Text This Week's treatment of the 1973 version of The Exorcist can be found at
Suite 101 is an Internet information and directory service that includes descriptions of and articles about the major religious denominations. It includes an interesting analysis of The Exorcist from the perspective of a Catholic layperson. The article suggests that The Exorcist actually endorses many traditional Catholic values and beliefs and presents the priest characters positively.
The article is titled 'What compels us to visit The Exorcist?' It was written by Kathy Shaidle and can be found at http://www.i5ive.com/article.cfm/6549/49840
Each of the two treatments above is interesting as each suggests that many Christians would not find The Exorcist offensive from a theological perspective. While this argument addresses none of the issues of principle in this debate it does suggest that perhaps there was no need, from a contemporary Christian perspective, for the Victorian Justice Department to have placed a Good Friday ban on The Exorcist.
There are many reviews of The Exorcist, in its revised form, available on the Internet. One nicely detailed treatment that considers both the strengths and the weaknesses of the film and the likely reaction of contemporary audiences to the reissued, revised film can be found at http://www.colossus.net/movie-reviews/movies/e/exorcist.html
The review was written by James Berardinelli. It is available on the Reelviews site.
Arguments against banning The Exorcist on Good Friday
1. Other R-rated films are being shown
It has been claimed that the initial ban was inconsistently applied as other R-rated movies were allowed to be screened on Good Friday. Hannibal and The Girl Next Door, both of which are rated R, were scheduled for screening on Good Friday, 2001, and there was no attempt made to ban them on that day.
Further, last year, the R-rated, Bring Out Your Dead, was screened on Good Friday.
This point was made by Premier Bracks. 'If you look what else is happening around Melbourne and Victoria there's all sorts of inconsistencies in other films which might be R-rated ...'
The original decision to ban The Exorcist more on religious grounds rather than for its violence concerned some critics as this appeared to them to be an attempt to censor ideas rather than to protect people from exposure to disturbing scenes of violence. This form of censorship appears particularly objectionable to many people.
Paul Coulter, the director of Lumiere Cinema, has stated, 'They are banning it because of its content and that is a little concerning. We are showing The Girl Next Door, which is rated R. If it was a blanket ban on all R-rated films it would be logical.'
2. Those who do not wish to watch the film need not do so
Victorian premier, Steve Bracks, made this point after his government decided to allow The Exorcist to be screened on Good Friday.
Mr Bracks stated, 'People have a choice. They don't have to see The Exorcist if they don't want to.'
According to this line of argument, those who find screening The Exorcist on Good Friday offensive simply need not go to view it on this day. It is claimed that there is no need for those who would wish to see the film on Good Friday to be prevented from doing so because some people find the film offensive.
3. The law allowing the banning is going to be reviewed and is likely to be amended or repealed
It has been claimed that the Theatres Act (1958) that allows certain films to be banned on Good Friday and Christmas Day is inconsistent and inappropriate and is likely to be amended when it is reviewed in May 2001.
It has been suggested that the current law is anachronistic or outdated. The law on which the Theatres Act (1958) was based was originally promulgated in 1928. It has been claimed that the law reflects values regarding censorship and the primacy of Christianity that are no longer generally applicable within Victorian society.
It has also been suggested that the current law allows for major inconsistencies in that many other entertainments that some Christians might find offensive are allowable on Good Friday and Christmas Day.
On these grounds it is likely that when the law will be changed when it is reviewed in May 2001.
No other Australian state has similar legislation on its statute books. At the end of March 2001, the Gallop Government in Western Australia overturned a 22-year-old ban on the Good Friday screening of R-rated movies.
4. Some church leaders support the film
It has been claimed that a number of Catholic leaders, including the current Catholic pontiff, Pope John Paul II, do not find The Exorcist offensive. It has been claimed that the current Pope has seen the film at least twice. It has also been claimed that that the Vatican owns its own copies of the film that it uses as a teaching device.
The Age in an editorial written on April 6, 2001, claimed of the film, 'No one who has seen The Exorcist could doubt that it presents the Catholic Church in a sympathetic light. It takes seriously, for example, the church's teaching that demonic possession is possible and that the church's ritual is efficacious against it ...'
5. Victoria is a secular, multi-cultural, multi-religious society
The authors of the Australian Constitution established no church, that is, they gave no particular state-enforced status to any religious creed or denomination.
Section 116 of the Australian Constitution states, 'The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion ...'
Critics of the attempt to ban screenings of The Exorcist on Good Friday object in part because they see it as an attempt to confer a special status on Christian religions and so unconstitutional.
It has further been argued that not only should such a ban be illegal under the Constitution it is also inequitable or discriminatory. It has been claimed that Australia is now a multicultural, multi-religious society and therefore that if a film can be banned because it gives offence to some Christians on a day of religious significance to them than other films or entertainments that are likely to be offensive to other religious groups on particular days should also be banned. Herald Sun commentator Ross Brundett has made this point. Mr Brundette states, 'Surely there are other movies that may offend other religions on other religiously significant days. Mr Bracks might have to ask himself, where does one stop once one starts.'
Critics of such bans suggest that the only sensible answer to this dilemma is to impose no bans at all.
Arguments for banning The Exorcist on Good Friday
1. It is not a significant restriction of people's viewing opportunities
The Victorian premier, Mr Steve Bracks, has made this point. Mr Bracks has stated, 'This is one day in the year. One day. I think people would be patient enough to realise one film on a very important day is not such a big issue.'
Mr Bracks appears to be arguing that banning The Exorcist on Good Friday is not a significant censorship or civil liberties issue as the ban applies for only 24 hours and does not affect audience's ability to view the film at any other time.
In defence of the original ban, Mr Bracks stated, 'It's not saying, for goodness sake, that they (films such as The Exorcist) are going to be banned on other days.'
According to this line of argument, such as prohibition does not constitute censorship, as its impact on audiences' viewing opportunities is so slight.
2. The ban was in accord with the Theatres Act (1958)
The 1958 Theatres Act allows the Justice Department to prevent the screening on Good Friday or Christmas Day of films that are religious satires or show extreme violence.
Critics of the ban and some of its supporters have claimed that the film was to have been prohibited because it is a religious satire. Chris Maxwell, QC, the president of Liberty Victoria, made this point. Mr Maxwell (an opponent of the law which allows the ban) acknowledged that the prohibition was consistent with the Theatres Act, including its restrictions on religious satire. (As will be noted from a reading of the Act, it actually requires an all-but-total ban on the screening of films on Good Friday and Christmas day.)
Other defenders of the ban have claimed that the prohibition was to have been enforced under the Theatre's Act only because of the film's violence. This was the position put by Premier Bracks who is reported to have claimed that the film was to have been banned on Good Friday because of its R-rating and not because of its religious themes. (Again it needs to be noted that the Act could be used to justify a suppression of the film on Good Friday, irrespective of its violence.)
3. The film may offend some Christians
Premier Steve Bracks made this point in his original defence of the ban. Mr Bracks claimed that it was reasonable to ban a film like The Exorcist on such a holy day for Christians.
Commenting on why Christians might find the film offensive, Father Christopher Prouse, a spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, has claimed that the film 'trivialises the central and consoling message' of Good Friday, of good triumphing over evil.
It has been claimed that the film exploits religious themes for sensationalising purposes and reduces to the level of shock entertainment issues of fundamental concern to Christians.
The same point was made by a spokesperson for the acting Attorney-General, Bob Cameron. The spokesperson claimed that the ban was not imposed primarily because The Exorcist had an R classification, but because 'the nature of the film might be found to be offensive by some members of the community, given the day.'
4. People should be encouraged to observe the religious significance of Good Friday
Former archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, has noted that Holy Week (the Easter week) is the most important period in the calendar of the Catholic Church. He has urged that Catholics spend it appropriately and avoid the temptations of film, football and gambling.
For practising Christians Easter is a time of prayer and reflection. It is a time to contemplate the significance of the crucifixion and the resurrection.
Historically public holidays such as Good Friday and Christmas Day occur because of their significance in the calendar of Christian churches. Therefore, many Christians believe that nothing should occur on those days that would distract people from their religious observances.
Father Christopher Prouse, a spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, praised the original ban on a Good Friday screening of The Exorcist, claiming it would encourage people to 'stop and reflect on the significance of the death of Christ'.
Similarly, Canon Ray Cleary, chairman of the Melbourne Anglican diocese's social responsibilities committee, has said that the original ban was a 'welcome initiative to encourage reflection on this particular day.'
5. Removing the ban on The Exorcist and similar films could encourage further practices such the playing of rugby and AFL football on religious holidays
Church groups are concerned about a general trend toward the secularisation of what were originally religious holidays.
Brisbane's Anglican Archbishop, Peter Hollingworth, has recently criticised the National Rugby League for scheduling a match on Good Friday.
Archbishop Hollingworth has claimed that 'There is only one reason why we have Good Friday and that is to allow people to observe it. If it is not observed it will disappear.'
Although it has yet to happen, Herald Sun commentator, Ross Brundette, has claimed that AFL lobby groups have been attempting for some years to have AFL football also played on Good Friday.
Brundette has paraphrased church leaders' concerns over such developments as the fear 'that the day's religious significance will be almost obliterated'.
In a sense those who claim that the screening of films such as The Exorcist on Good Friday is not simply a censorship issue are correct. The possibility of banning 'unsuitable' films on Good Friday and Christmas Day is really a meagre concession to the Christian churches compared to the period when no films were shown on these days.
This is a civil liberties issue, however, it is really an extension of the Sunday trading issue. The question is should governments and church groups be able to limit people's behaviour on particular days in the name of promoting a more devout frame of mind.
When a majority of Australians were practising Christians the answer may have been a qualified yes. Even then, one had to sympathise with the non-Christian who wished to shop on Sunday or see a film at a cinema on Good Friday. However, now that a majority of Australians are not practising Christians it seems inappropriate to place such limitations on the community at large.
Victoria is the only state that still has legislation such as the Theatres Act (1958) still on its statute books and it is highly unlikely that the Victorian law will survive its May 2001 review by the state's Parliamentary Law Reform Committee.
It further seems probable that we will ultimately have both National Rugby League (NRL) games and AFL games played on Good Friday. An NRL game was played on Good Friday this year and there appears to be no legal impediment to this. It is only a matter of time before there are also AFL games being played on this day and presumably Christmas Day.
Victoria and the other states also have an ANZAC Day Act, governing the observance of that day. Part of Victoria's Theatre Act (1958) relates to ANZAC Day and prohibits films being shown before one o'clock in the afternoon on that day. Interestingly, there has been virtually no media discussion of the advisability of allowing cinemas to open on the morning of ANZAC Day.
The core of this discussion appears to be the manner in which our laws and behaviour, as a society, reflect what we as a society value. It seems likely that the limitations on public entertainment on the morning of ANZAC Day will remain in place. Those applying to Good Friday and Christmas Day are likely to be removed.
At least one church spokesperson, Peter Hollingworth, has claimed, 'There is only one reason why we have Good Friday and that is to allow people to observe it.' While that may once have been true, it would appear to be no longer the case. For many, if not a majority, of Australians Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday have no active religious significance in their lives. The Friday to Monday holiday, falling as it does during Victorian term one school holidays is simply a long long weekend when it is possible to go away with the children.
The consternation of some Christian church leaders is, however, understandable. These holidays do still coincide with days of extreme importance in the Christian calendar. As a society we seem to be sending mixed messages.
Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $27.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)
6/4/01 page 3 news item by Darrin Farrant and Adrian Rollins, 'Bracks stands by ban on The Exorcist'
6/4/01 page 3 comment/review by Jim Schembri, 'Move over Freddy, real horror's back in town'
6/4/01 page 16 editorial, 'Exorcise the Justice Department, please'
8/4/01 page 18 comment by Terry Lane, 'Still missing the big picture'
8/4/01 page 19 comment by Andrew Masterson, 'Censoring the screen's insensitive'
6/4/01 page 3 news item by Misha Schubert, 'Bracks defends Good Friday ban on Exorcist'
6/4/01 page 3 news item, 'Off the game'
9/4/01 page 3 news item by Alison Crosweller, 'Bracks exorcises film ban'
9/4/01 page 12 editorial, 'Censorship threatens our secular society'
The Herald Sun
6/4/01 page 9 news item by Kathleen Cuthbertson and Daniel Hoy, 'Bracks in spin on Exorcist ban'
6/4/01 page 21 comment by Ross Brundett, 'Movie ban is a horror'
6/4/01 page 19 cartoon by Knight, 'The Exorcist - R'
7/4/01 page 1 news item by Felicity Dargan, 'Exorcist lives'
8/4/01 page 6 cartoon by Knight, 'The Exorcist: the premier's cut'
8/4/01 page 6 news item by Gerard McManus, 'Play it again, said the Pope'
9/4/01 page 4 news item by Natalie Sikora, 'Exorcist tempts flock'