Someone to watch over me

7th February 1997 at 00:00
The director of the British Board of Film Classification speaks of his concerns about what children should be allowed to view.

For more than 20 years, James Ferman, director of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), has struck an uneasy bargain between preserving a director's film and protecting viewers, particularly young people, from artistic licence gone awry. He has never found the options easy.

But he acknowledges that, with an estimated third of the country's eight to 11-year-olds having watched 15 or 18 rated films and the rise in the home ownership of VCR machines, more and more children are becoming viewers of adult films.

Mr Ferman, a former television documentary director, spoke recently to Children's Express and told of his concern with many films that could "worry or frighten children or confuse them about the way to behave in the world".

The most recent controversy has been over the granting of an 18 certificate to video versions of Natural Born Killers and Executions - the Video. Some months ago the board was criticised for its treatment of the film Kids, which displayed graphic scenes of violence, sex, and drug abuse. He acknowledges a constant adult concern for what children should be allowed to watch and readily expects the work of the board to be subject to public pressure and government strictures.

"We never really want to touch any film, but we will if the law requires it," he says, adding that it is impossible to keep all children away from unsuitable adult films - without the help of responsible parents.

The BBFC employs 13 censors who view up to 10 films daily. Each week one viewer may see more than 50 films, plus videos, short films - even cinema advertisements.

"We are very busy," he says. "Our censors come from a variety of backgrounds: former teachers, a psychologist, a probation officer - even a social worker and a journalist.

"They are all people who know how to understand films and how they work. We don't think that anyone should have the power to change a film unless they respect them. We don't want to damage films by what we do."

He says the board is worried that some parents take little notice of certificates. "Lots of parents are just too busy . . . or too tired to watch videos before the children see them." A couple of years ago, certain MPs proposed legislation to prosecute parents who allowed children to see over-age films. "But they decided it would be wrong to have a law where the police could go into the home and stop parents doing what they wanted to do."

He points out that because such films can be so easily seen in the home, the board tends to be "stricter with videos because we have less control of the audience than in the cinema". He mentions as an example the board's treatment of The Exorcist, which was specially cut for home viewing.

Mr Ferman said that there was a considerable difference in censoring films for adults and children. "With adults and older teenagers we are more worried about how a film will make them behave. There are some violent films where we actually think it could make some people who watch more violent because it makes being violent look exciting."

With younger children the worry is more about what is likely to make them frightened. In particular, scenes of family discord such as mothers and fathers shouting at each other. "We don't pass that in a film for younger children, " he says. "The older you get the more you realise that the world is a difficult place and that some people have unhappy lives and it becomes easier to see a film about being unhappy."

With young grandchildren, Mr Ferman is aware of how realistic technological images or animation can influence a child, and often uses children as advisers on censorship.

"Jurassic Park posed a special dilemma," he says. "After all our examiners had a viewing they couldn't make up their mind about the violence. We brought in 200 children from five London schools for a test screening and had them fill out a questionnaire on what they thought." The results were unexpected.

"Older children were frightened by the film because they could easily imagine what would happen if a T-Rex stepped on them," says Mr Ferman. "Every eight-year-old said that Jurassic Park was 'good and scary' and every 11-year-old wrote down that it was 'too scary'. We also had to accept that it was too much for some adults, but that children loved it. We really depended on what the children told us."

Children are now used to judge about a dozen films each year, but Mr Ferman says only individual parents who know the personalities of their children can really judge what is suitable.

"Some are ready to see at seven and some at nine. Some children think they can skip a decade. I know children get hold of tapes that are classified as being over their age, but I don't know what we can do about this really."

Mr Ferman took his six-year-old granddaughter to see a test screening of The Lion King, and thinks that the tale contributed to her growth. "We were worried about how she would feel after the death of the father. My granddaughter asked me, 'Is the dad dead?' and I said, 'Yes, darling, he is,' and she began to cry. She wasn't frightened, just very sad. The next day she told her mum that she liked the film very much."

Is film classification obsolete in a world of computer-game shockers, Internet pornography and videos on demand, or even children with their own televisions? Mr Ferman thinks not.

"The people I work with care about the world, and it's nice to work with them because they care so much. It's an entertaining job, challenging - and making the right decision is difficult. It's not being the Prime Minister, but it is useful."

* Children's Express is a programme of learning through journalism for children aged eight to 18. James Ferman was interviewed by editor Nurul Ali, 15, and reporters Toni Jennings, 13, Abeyna Jones, 13, and Kathleen Dawes, 13

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