This article was originally a college essay for my Freelance Journalism course. My thanks to Margaret Pomeranz who was extremely helpful.
Refused classification in 2003, Ken Park is still no closer to being released in Australia. John Noonan talks to Margaret Pomeranz about her part in the attempts to help the public see the film.
A teenager arrives at a busy skate park. He pulls two items out of his backpack; a video camera and a loaded gun. With the video camera set up, he takes a look around and produces a massive grin, which he maintains even as he puts the gun against his temple and pulls the trigger. As openings go, Ken Park (Larry Clark, 2002) is pretty confrontational, but that harrowing scene is not even the most controversial aspect of the film.
Made in 2002, Larry Clark’s Ken Park centres on the lives of four teenagers; each suffering a hand-to-mouth existence filled with abuse and disenfranchisement. With frank and graphic depictions of realistic sex – including an act of auto-asphyxiation – the film was met with polarising reviews.
Margaret Pomeranz, presenter of movie review program At the Movies, has a history with Ken Park. Having organised an illegal screening a few weeks after it was refused classification. I asked Margaret about the first time she saw Ken Park.
‘I first saw Ken Park at the Venice Film Festival in 2002. I said to Larry Clark then, that I thought he might have problems getting a classification for the film in Australia. He scoffed at that idea, said Australian audiences were some of his biggest supporters.’
One of the main reasons given for the film’s classification refusal was cited as being down to the scenes involving unsimulated sex. In the Board’s opinion, these scenes are graphic, depict the characters as minors, involve sexualised violence, as well as one scene of implicit sexual abuse and, in some instances, were ‘unnecessarily long in duration.’ It was judged too strong for an R and, due to the depiction of minors and masochistic sex, it could not receive an X either. The film was in limbo.
The film was originally lined-up to play at the 2003 Sydney Film Festival. Whilst a film shown at a festival can often bypass classification for public viewing, a stipulation under the Commonwealth Classification Act says that, films have to be classified before they can be sold, hired or shown publicly. Ken Park’s distributor, unbeknownst to the Festival, had applied for the film’s sale and distribution. As such, the film went under closer scrutiny.
‘The timing was horrendous,’ Margaret said, ‘If they’d held back until after the festival, not nearly as much fuss would have been made.’
However, that was not to be the case. Ken Park was refused classification on 21 May 2003 and the Sydney Film Festival found itself with a hole in its schedule.
‘The festival organised a Q&A session with Larry Clark, no vision, just audio.’ Margaret said. ‘Julie Rigg (movie specialist and previous host of Movietime) and I discussed the issues of the film and the cause celebre of its banning with him. He was not happy.’
Straight after the session, Margaret, Julie and documentary filmmaker, Martha Ansara discussed Ken Park and formulated a plan to organise an illegal screening to give people the opportunity to see the movie. As well as Margaret and well-known Australian journalist David Marr, around 500 people attended the screening, who had learnt about the event through the wonders of ‘word of mouth.
Also making an appearance were Balmain’s boys in blue.
‘It was pretty impressive, the support we got from film lovers,’ said Margaret. ‘There was a certain hesitation about actually going through with it because of the police presence, but we felt we should at least show it.’
After addressing the audience, the play button was pressed and, before the opening credits could even finish, the authorities immediately put the kibosh on it.
‘It was bit of an impasse, the crowd was getting agitated. And so I said, damn it! And pressed play again.’
The police then cut off the power which successfully stopped the screening but of course they were unable to remove the illegal DVD from the player because there was no power! With the screening officially over, names and addresses were taken and David Marr let off a bit of steam.
‘This is ultimately how it’s done,’ he said. ‘By a team of police, in a public hall. Full of adults who wish to see a film that is freely screened in many countries around the world.’
In a live debate on ABC following the event, Maureen Shelly, then of the Classification Review Board, admitted that Ken Park, ‘had substantial artistic merit’ but reiterated that it was still the right decision to refuse it classification. This comment still concerns Margaret today.
‘I don’t understand the granting of ‘artistic merit’ status and then refuse classification. However there were conservative forces at work in Australia then.’
It’s been 10 years since that screening and Ken Park is still yet to receive a classification in Australia. In that time, films like Shortbus (Jordan Cameron Mitchell, 2006), which depicts real sex acts, and the previously banned Salo (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975) can both be bought at your local JB HiFi. Conversely, I Want Your Love (Travis Mathews, 2010) was banned from being shown at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, for its explicit nature.
‘These days I think censorship is irrelevant in its current form,’ Margaret says. ‘What I think the role of the Board is to give adequate and detailed advice on content so (people) can make up their own minds.’
Margaret doesn’t believe she’s alone in this view, either. Indeed, there certainly does appear to be a rising tide of protest towards censorship in Australia. The power of social media means people are free to express their thoughts about classification decisions quickly. Earlier this year, the videogame Saints Row 4 was turned down twice for classification and had to be edited for an eventual. This is despite newly introduced R rating put in place to supposedly stop these kind of issues.
‘The “Nanny State” is anathema to me and to a lot of people,’ says Margaret. ‘Whenever I have campaigned on censorship issues the overwhelming response has been support from the general population who want to be treated like adults.’
Winding up our conversation, I asked Margaret what her thoughts about Ken Park are like today and whether she stills stands by the decisions she made ten years ago.
‘I haven’t seen Ken Park in a while, but I am still convinced that there is an honesty in the film about the alienation of children. I was very moved by the movie when I first saw it. I hope I still would be. You’ve made me want to go back and revisit.’
About The Author
My name is John Noonan. I’m a freelance writer that specialises in arts and entertainment. From genre flicks to chick flicks, I love the stuff. So much so, I started a film review blog at earlybirdfilm.wordpress.com. I also contribute to online and hard copy press, including FilmInk magazine.
If you like what you see, I am available for hire. You can contact me via the social media channels above or the form on my home page.