The Tastemaster

published in CANVAS Magazine, Weekend Herald, October 13 2007

DEREK CHENG meets a man who daily wades through horrific scenes of pornography and violence for the public good

AFTER seven and a half years as chief censor, Bill Hastings thought he had seen it all. Every gut-wrenching, eyeball-popping, nausea-inducing scene of sex or violence or sexual violence under the sun.

“Then this video came in last week,” says Hastings, leaning forward in his chair, “and I saw one second of it and I had to walk around the harbour for the rest of the afternoon.”

If it makes Hastings flee, it must be at the high end of grotesque. For years he has kept the public bubble-wrapped and safe while his own mind has been exposed to utter filth – mass orgies, limbs being severed, mass orgies while limbs are being severed, extremes most of us would never even imagine, let alone watch.

But this particular video, captured by Customs and sent to his office, made Hastings squirm in an entirely new way. And he refuses to let anyone see it, not even a journalist wanting to see if he has what it takes to stomach the job.

“You’ll never be able to erase it. Your brain will be polluted,” he warns me. I hold firm. However foul, however sickeningly, brutally disgusting, I want to see it. I’m prepared to beg. Hastings eventually relents, but says he can’t watch it again and huffs out of his own office.

It only takes one second. The video opens with a blood-splattering scene involving a blade and the cutest of critters. I can’t reveal more without attracting the Press Council’s attention, but suffice to say it would make the most hardened soul shudder. But even though it affected Hastings so deeply, it’s far from the worst he’s been forced to watch for our sakes.

“There was this necrophilia [sex with dead people], it was actually fresh, before rigor mortis had set in, and that was quite disturbing,” he says, not with pub-boast relish but a kind of embarrassed cringe. “Once you cross the threshold of grossness, it’s really hard to compare one grossness with another. Certainly there are images in my head that I’ll never get rid of. You get this idea that there is nothing new under the sun, but something always happens. I try not to let it seep into me.”

Dealing with this material is, unfortunately for Hastings, his job. With a deputy and a team of 20 censors at the Office of Film and Literature Classification, Hastings must wade through endless oceans of material – films, videos, images, books, magazines, computer contents – to shield us, the public, from things we shouldn’t see.

It’s the type of job you’d imagine suited to an emotionless, dreary, chess-playing bore, not the vivacious and flamboyant Hastings, an ex-law lecturer who snorts when he laughs. To establish whether he’s the kind of man who we want as official national horror taste-tester, I want to know what he thinks is funny, what he thinks is frightening. The answer is a little disturbing in itself; Hastings finds comedic value in Not Another Teen Movie, and thinks Happy Feet and Scooby Doo are scary.

“The first Scooby Doo … there is a scene and they’re underground and there’s this swirling well of souls. Very creepy,” he says.

He raised both ratings from G to PG.

Most days, Hastings’ visual menu comprises a serving of smut, followed by more smut, then smut for dessert. Why would anyone put their hand up for this?

“Because I can make a difference,” says Hastings. “When I ban something, that ban is forever. Anyone who possesses it or deals with it commits a crime. You feel like you’ve accomplished something when you ban something.”

But how does he handle all the obscenities?

“I find if we have a particularly bad week, the best thing to do is to see a movie in a real cinema with a normal audience. It restores my faith in celluloid.”

Other forms of relief include having a masseuse and a psychologist visit the office regularly and locking away disturbing images in a remote section of his brain. Fingers crossed they don’t seep.

ANYTHING with an MA15 rating or above in Australia comes to the New Zealand censors’ office for classification. All other material – which is 85 per cent of commercial content – involves the office only if someone complains.

More material comes from police, courts and the Internal Affairs Department – and this stuff is invariably the worst: snuff films being smuggled into the country, for example, or child porn images sent over the internet.

Censors apply the law – the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act – to draw the line between freedom of expression and social responsibility. They ask: would the release of this material be “injurious to the public good” because of objectionable sex, horror, cruelty, violence or crime?

They only ban about 200 out of the 2000 publications reviewed each year, about 40 per cent of which are child pornography. Other automatic bans include sexual violence or coercion, extreme violence, bestiality, necrophilia, urophilia (sex with urine) and coprophilia (sex with faeces).

Offensiveness, ugliness or shock value has little, if anything, to do with whether a publication crosses the line. Something objectionable is something that “tends to promote or support” a harmful activity. A film with a murder scene may be publishable if it sends a message that the act is abhorrent, but not if it fills those that see it with murderous intentions.

The office recently ordered a scene to be cut from horror flick Hostel Part 2, in which a naked woman is sexually aroused as she brutally cuts another naked woman with a scythe, while bathing in her victim’s blood. The office described the scene as “unreservedly disturbing”.

If material is facing a ban, publishers have a last resort: artistic merit. Hastings can recall it being used only one time – for a photo in Pavement magazine of a girl, her skirt hoisted up, in a bedroom surrounded by a soiled mattress, condom wrappers and stained walls. Hastings sought the advice of an art history lecturer from Victoria University, who told him: “The very concept of artistic merit is a nonsense in a post-modern world.”

“It wasn’t very helpful,” says Hastings. He restricted the issue.

SO WHO IS the man tasked with keeping our minds clean?

Articulate and charming, Hastings is sharp, witty, dresses immaculately and, until recently, considered himself hip enough to have blonde highlights in his hair, stopping only because his hairdresser kept moving and “it’s so hard to find someone who is good with colour”.

If he sounds a little bit gay, well, that’s because he is. He loves America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. He speaks French.

He’s never been in a fight. He is sensitive about his looks and won’t say how old he is: “I’m in my 40s, and ageing rapidly.”

Born in Canada, Hastings tried being a corporate lawyer but had little taste for long, unrewarding hours. After finishing a Master of Laws in London, he came to New Zealand in 1984 and ended up at Victoria University, becoming senior lecturer and deputy-dean of the Law School.

From 1990 he worked part-time in several censorship roles before becoming deputy-chief censor, taking over his current job in 1999.

For 12 years, Hastings was married to Loretta deSourdy and had three kids – each with five names, including a Maori name – before coming out of the closet in 1997. He and his wife separated and, within six months, Hastings was with Jeremy Baker, executive director of the Industry Training Federation.

Hastings and deSourdy remain close friends. “I told her when … when I felt it,” he says of coming out to his wife.

Hastings is not religious and is predictably liberal on social issues. He supports the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act. He sees the Civil Union Bill as a nice offering to the gay community but as still discriminatory because it falls short of allowing gay marriage.

He is less open about whether he leans towards Red or Blue, pointing out that he was appointed to the censors’ office under National, then reappointed under Labour. But he has a new respect for Eminem – Hastings was criticised for rating Eminem CDs R18 – after he heard the rapper take several swipes at George W. Bush.

Home is an open-plan apartment in a block in downtown Wellington that he shares with Baker. It seems to reflect the man: modern, warm, immaculately presented. It is spacious with wooden floorboards, and the walls showcase vibrant modern art and photography. Gourmet and Wallpaper* magazines fill the bookshelf.

His vinyl collection leans heavily towards Culture Club, DuranDuran, and the Eurythmics, while Ricky Martin, Aqua and Faithless CDs suggest what Hastings might have grooved to in past nightclubs. Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen, is the greatest song ever written, he insists, but Bob Dylan is unlistenable because his singing conjures up images of a giant nose.

He is less sure about favourite movies – except for the “deeply flawed but magnificent” Magnolia – and he has a distinct lack of a DVD collection at home. And for the record, he’s not a fan of porn. That includes gay porn. But he can’t see himself kicking up much of a fuss if he caught his kids with it, so long as the material was legal.

The kitchen is fit for a culinary genius, and Hastings fancies himself as a bit of a chef. His signature dish?

“The same meal, every night,” says his youngest Daniel Tobias Te Ra-ka-herea deSourdy Hastings, or Toby for short.

“Meat and three vegies,” adds Sarah, 20, a fourth-year student at Victoria University.

Toby, 13, and Sarah say they were never found wanting as they grew up, though there were issues of fairness.

“As the eldest, I was the most deprived,” says Sarah. “I was never allowed to stay over at my friends during the school week, but Chloe (Hastings’ middle child) was.”

Her father answers: “You get straight As and A+s, so maybe the rest of them should have been so deprived.”

Hastings clearly adores his children. Their portraits decorate his workplace office that overlooks Wellington’s waterfront, among them a picture that Toby drew when he was four, and which Hastings tries to pass off as an invaluable piece of contemporary art.

Other office features include a bag of licorice allsorts for movie watching and the television and video/DVD player that prompted complaints from the neighbouring building.

“They phoned and said they could see this filth that I had to watch, but the TV has always been in the same place, on the same angle (barely visible from their building), so they must have been going to some sort of effort to watch it.”

Nevertheless, Hastings complied and erected a curtain.

HIS TEAM now shields him from most censoring tasks, but Hastings must still rule on borderline decisions. Personal taste and morals are supposedly irrelevant, although he freely admits that there is wriggle room when interpreting the law.

“Judging by my track record of decisions being appealed, I’m usually right.”

Critics disagree. They say Hastings is desensitised after years of porn-watching, and the role needs a fresh pair of eyes. Some have even said he has taken a liberal view of the law to push a pro-gay agenda of putting as much smut into the public domain as possible.

“Give us someone with some family values” – even though Hastings has a family – is the cry from conservative lobby group the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards and New Zealand First deputy leader Peter Brown, who are his strongest critics.

The society’s executive director, David Lane, believes all hardcore pornography should be banned under the act’s provision against “degrading, dehumanising or demeaning” content.

“Let’s take an example of oral sex, where males penetrate a woman right to the depths of her throat … where the woman chokes with the guy’s private part right [there],” Lane says.

“Is that degrading or demeaning? We’re not talking about a nice, gentle caress, we’re talking about a woman so penetrated, orally, that she’s gagged. We say that hardcore pornography should be off-limits in a decent society.

“There are other videos that Hastings regularly passes which involve multiple sexual penetration. There might be two men going at it flat out anally with a woman, and one from the front entry and another from the oral entry and away you go. They just pass by the censor’s office with hardly a blink.”

Lane is unashamedly critical of how Hastings’ sexuality affects his judgment.

“He makes it very clear that being gay is a very significant part of his being, of how he addresses and perceives the world,” says Lane. “Clearly, it does influence the way he assesses what’s in the public good … When it comes to watching videos with scenes of gay sex, he would have to be looking at that in perhaps a different way to a person who holds to a heterosexual understanding of marriage or fidelity to their spouse.”

Lane says the society would appeal dozens of Hastings’ decisions if it had the money. Instead, they have to pick their fights – with limited success. For example, they wanted controversial movie Baise-moi banned for its scenes of rape but their appeal led to the board easing the restriction. The society had to trudge through the courts to get the original rating restored.

Brown shares some of Lane’s concerns and made a splash in 2003 when he told Parliament: “Is it acceptable to have two homosexuals in charge of censorship in this country; if not, will the Minister consider replacing one or both of them in order to better reflect New Zealand society?”

Although still concerned, Brown says now he is less vocal because publicity only ends up filling cinemas.

“The family unit is the backbone of this country,” Brown told Canvas, “and we should be encouraging it as much as we can in all areas, not just in film censorship.”

Brown’s main beef is that shocking films and DVDs affect the audience, which leads to a rise in violence and general unpleasantness in society. Like Lane, he believes the office’s threshold for gratuitous sex and violence on the big screen is far too low.

“Where’s the proof?” retorts Hastings. Appeal statistics show his predecessor Kathryn Paterson was far more liberal. During Hastings’ tenure to the end of 2006, 57 decisions were reviewed; the office’s classification was upheld 47 times, lowered eight times and raised twice. Under Paterson, 44 decisions were reviewed from 1994 to 1998; 16 were upheld, 16 lowered and 12 raised.

And the decisions where Hastings was judged too liberal? The only one in the past six years is Me, Myself and Irene (raised from R13 to R15).

Hastings says it’s wrong to dismiss all pornography as objectionable.

In fact, amendments to the act in 2005 made it clear that offensive scenes – “sex involving ugly people, multiple penetrations, amputees, fat people …” – could not be banned just because they weren’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Hastings says banning everything with explicit content is against the principle of freedom of expression, which is a foundation of democracy.

“Nobody has any right not to be offended. This is where the freedom of expression becomes important. You don’t need freedom of expression to say, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ You need it to say things that offend people to have good robust debate.”

He concedes that exposure to too many violent films can influence attitudes, but says many other factors determine whether someone acts on those impulses.

“I’m not a moral guardian. I just apply the law. The criteria are very clear. The use of urine in association with sexual conduct – it’s either there or it isn’t. Other things are more subjective, like whether something is degrading, dehumanising and demeaning’, and that’s where the body of precedent is important.

“I couldn’t do my job if I was on some pro-gay crusade. Those claims were always based on really hurtful stereotypes, which are totally ridiculous and false. A gay agenda to get as much pornography out there as possible, I mean, you know, where does this come from?”

CENSORSHIP is always evolving and has come a long way since the subtitle “harlot” was cut from the silent film Venus in 1929, or the word “lousy” from High Voltage in the same year. The following year, a trailer for Applause had to be cut because the censors took exception to a scene of a “girl shaking breasts”.

By 1960, there was more tolerance for dodgy words, but a blanket intolerance remained for naked flesh: a scene in Oceans 11 showing a naked back was still ordered to be cut.

When Canvas pays a visit, Hastings is considering allowing the release of a CD and video from American death metal band Cannibal Corpse, which had two discs banned a decade ago because their songs described sexual exploitation and extreme violence. Is their new CD objectionable, in this day and age?

Barely, says Hastings, who does his laugh-snort when watching the video. They’re not so much a band, he says, but more of a “synchronised hair-swirling group”. As the music – if you can call it that – rumbles on, the frontman growls a death snarl fit to summon the devil. It doesn’t bother Hastings because “you can’t hear a word he’s saying”.

Later, the censors watch Reno 911! Miami, an unrestricted comedy with adult references that was pulled from the box office after complaints. A censor records all the scenes that may be borderline: sex and masturbation scenes, a man eaten by an alligator, another blown up by a grenade. Restriction is the consensus, either R16 or R13.

Despite being tempted, Hastings has never banned anything because he didn’t like it.

“Reno was pretty damn lame, but that’s no reason to ban it. Being lame doesn’t injure the public good. Sometimes people need to veg out in front of lame things to empty the mind, just like sometimes people need to be shocked and disturbed.”

He sees a future career away from censorship eventually, but is unsure what that would be at this stage. So for now, it’s more of the same.

“We ban 200 publications a year, the majority child pornography. We have censors who have kids. We make sure either they don’t get assigned it if it’s too much and it gets reassigned to someone without kids. But someone has to watch it. We have to watch everything that’s submitted – not even on fast forward – we have to watch it like a member of the public would.”

Better them than us.

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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