Like a lot of people who follow Horror movies closely, I picked up on the early stories about A Serbian Film and filed the film in my mind alongside other recent examples of movies that push the envelope of taste in order to gain web infamy.Although films that seem to break taboos simply because the taboos exist can be exciting, the likes of the August Underground movies, the peerlessly offensive output of Japan’s Psycho Studios (producers of charming family viewing like Girl Hell) and the Human Centipede hold less attraction for me as I get older. I got into cult cinema in the years immediately following the Video Nasty furore, when kudos was awarded among friends for possessing the gnarliest shock and gore on nth generation VHS but nowadays I need some plot, style or intrigue or maybe even a message in my movies to hold my interest. For me, the Guinea Pig movies are the beginning and end of celebrating dismemberment for it’s own sake. Endlessly bleak torture epics need to have some point to make sense of what I’ve just been subjected to.
So, after reading about the A Serbian Film for months, I’ll admit to a feeling of dread when I was told Cult Labs would be running a promotional campaign for the movie. I knew that the film was tabloid frenzy fodder, a gift to the Richard Littlejohn’s of the this world, whose knees would be primed to jerk the moment they read the synopsis on Wikipedia (This one page was mentioned more often than any other in articles and forum discussions).
Indeed, I was nervous of what my own reaction would be when the screener landed on the doormat a few months ago. What if, having signed up to promote the movie, my reaction was strongly against the film? Could I shove my moral objections in a dusty corner for the next eight weeks and sing the praises of a film I thought may be damaging to the social fabric?
I decided to sit down and watch A Serbian Film in the afternoon (back to back with another sadistic shocker we’re working on… I felt it best to get them both in one hit and minimize the damage to my psyche) and, although the film left me shaking, I knew we’d made the right choice. A Serbian Film turned out to have depth and meaning far beyond what I’d expected and although I didn’t know an awful lot about the politics of Serbia or the producers intended messages about pornography and corruption, I was easy to read the film as a howl of protest about the ubiquity of porn and the damage it can cause.
This turned out to be a blessing and a minor curse. The nature of my work is that I think about a film for months. I watch the film, I read about the film, I constantly hunt down news stories and web pages about the film and I try and see the connections and hidden meanings within it (if it has any that is). When you have a film as dark and transgressive as A Serbian Film, it means you have to think about dark and transgressive things for much of the working day. Sometimes I’d think of an angle on the movie as I was falling asleep at night, which then triggered visions of worst scenes in the film, causing occasional sleep loss. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the sacrifice I made to bring you weeks of think pieces on the movie.
The most important conclusion I came to when I mulled the movie over was that it certainly wasn’t for everyone. The issue with films like this is that a big proportion of those who shouldn’t watch the film in the first place also think that no one should have the chance to make up their own mind. So I tried my hardest to explain the thinking behind the film. I needed to explain that some films exist as a form of protest and present the audience with the worst of humanity in order to put the viewer back in touch with their own.
It’s easy to draw the conclusion that an abundance of media is what pushes fictional cinema to new extremes. In the 60s, the Vietnam War became the first armed conflict to recieve relatively unmediated coverage. Instead of the perfectly honed propaganda of the old fashioned news reel, viewers could see rawer images of the fighting on their TVs. Horror cinema reacted with more visceral, less fantastical movies that dealt in reality and human boogeyman. We now live in a world of 360 news saturation, with an endless choice of media outlets and amateur footage. A few clicks of a mouse will reveal the true human cost of the power struggles and bloodshed that plague much of the world. This constant background hum of despair leaves many of us overly connected citizens jaded and unreceptive to the suffering of others….
I mean, how do you process it all?
Cynical business men and film industry moguls take advantage of a growing lack of boundaries to create Multiplex films that trade in nihilism and degradation while the sex industry battles to ‘pornify’ more of the mainstream, distorting sexuality and disconnecting people further. A Serbian Film is attempting to shake the audience out of this complacency and this is the main point I’ve been trying to push home. Irreversable played the Rape-Revenge genre in reverse and used incredibly graphic and unsettling footage to make it’s point about sexual violence as entertainment but it got away with less vocal complaints because it could still be viewed as an art film. A Serbian Film goes after a big audience by using the style and techniques of Torture-Porn Horror flicks, asking the people who seek out these films to question what entertainment value their extracting from all the visions of pain they sit through.
That’s a hard sell for a lot of people. It’s an easy argument to make among hardcore Horror fanatics, less easy to make when you’re talking to people who don’t look outside the mainstream for their movies. I can totally understand how someone who loves Rom-Coms, Action Thrillers, Bromance movies or Hollywood weepies and who hasn’t already steeled themselves with a diet of Last House on the Left and Ichi the Killer first might find A Serbian Film too overwhelming to take. I never recommended that those people watch the film, I just wanted them to understand and accept it’s existence and allow others to make up their minds.
Some of the best comments on the film were made on Mumsnet, which may come as a surprise. While the thread was started as an attempt to petition for a ban, it developed into a proper discussion of the issues behind the film. One thing they did establish is that, if you make a lot of noise about how much something offends you, it’s going to make a lot more people seek out the thing you’re objecting to.
At the end of the day, BBFC cuts aside (and for the record I’ll state that, even though I have to declare an interest, the edits don’t hinder the work), A Serbian Film was passed as a legal work. Any controversy stoked up by the media about the film once the film was approved only helped the campaign. Marilyn Manson and a host of other music stars based their career on the principle that offending ‘right thinking’ people is your best source of publicity if you want to sell your art to disaffected kids. Even though I’ve been at pains to represent the film as a piece of intelligent art, those reviewers, web sites and forum users writing ‘Don’t See This Movie’ in bold text have been a real help.
The Actual Conclusion
From a work standpoint, promoting A Serbian Film has been a strangely uplifting experience in which I got to deal with a film I felt was important and worthwhile but also incredibly challenging. From a personal point of view, it meant a free beano to London for the premiere and the chance to meet the director and producer, who, it turned out, didn’t at anytime attempt to kidnap my girlfriend and force her at gunpoint to star in an Eastern-European smutfest. They were smart, switched on and passionate about the film they’ve made and rightly so.
This isn’t the end of the story for A Serbian Film. The producer is working on a documentary about the world-wide reaction to his movie, which should be fascinating and, unlike other similar movies which have caused a stink, A Serbian Film has infiltrated the mainstream to a much greater extent. It’s become the yardstick for measuring cinematic offence.