Trap of censorship

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Film industry insiders lament that the criteria by which films are judged are too vague and say the process is plagued by bureaucracy


Scenes from Bay Cap 3 (literally Level-3 trap) by Vietnamese-American director Le Van Kiet, which has been banned in Vietnam

The teen horror film Bay Cap 3 (literally Level-3 trap) by Vietnamese-American director Le Van Kiet is the third and the latest film to be banned in Vietnam this year.

Vietnamese-made films are seldom banned, as Vietnam actively promotes its film industry.

Bay Cap 3 was banned for "its inappropriate content to Vietnamese culture and tradition," raising questions about the process of censoring films and the criteria which is used to determine what is inappropriate.

According to the Vietnam Cinema Department's May 7 decision issued to leading local film distributor Megastar, nine members of the National Movie Censorship Council disapproved of the film which tells the story of an ignored, disregarded high school student.

On a field trip to Da Lat with his friends, he kills them with a series of unexpected traps.

"On one hand," the statement continues, "the film highlights sexual lust among the teenagers, on the other hand, because the student hates to such an extent that he does not hesitate to consciously kill people, it describes and incites violence.

"The film's content is inappropriate for Vietnamese culture and tradition, especially for high school students. Therefore, the Vietnam Cinema Department does not approve the release of Bay Cap 3 in any way, and makes this announcement to Megastar in order to keep the film from spreading around the local market."

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The film's content violated article 9 of decree 54/2010/ND-CP, which details the type of content prohibited by Vietnam's Cinema Law.

Accordingly, a film will be banned if it violates one of six following regulations:

1. Images, sound, dialogue, written language libel and offensive to the coat of arms, national flag, song, or symbols of the country; denigrates particular peoples or religions of Vietnam.

2. Images, sound, dialogue, written language includes scenes which contain beatings, torture, murder; and incite crime, unless such scenes aim to criticize and condemn said crimes.

3. Images, sound, dialogue, written language are erotic, depraved, incestuous, and (therefore) inappropriate for Vietnamese culture and tradition.

4. Images, sound, dialogue, written language are excuses for, or invite a sympathetic view of social evils; cause a state of panic, illusion toward supernatural powers and evil spirits.

5. The film's title is offensive or vulgar.

6. Images, sound, dialogue, written language violate other local laws.

Bay Cap 3's producer Tran Trong Dan, deputy director of the Vietnam Film Festival in the US since 2009, told Thanh Nien that he does not think that his film, produced by Coco Paris for over VND7 billion (US$350,000), is gratuitously violent.

"The film is just for fun, consisting of entertaining and thrilling elements," Dan said,

"I think I know what I am doing and my boundaries; I didn't waste my money making overly-taboo, trashy scenes."

"However, I don't know based on what criteria a certain film is allowed or not here. The department's job is to preserve culture, therefore, they have their own opinion and regulation [to ban my film]. Their decision, however, is still considered a bad example by film investors and film makers, especially those involved with foreign film projects. In such cases, audiences are affected as well."

Many local film producers agree, saying that the regulations are not specific enough for them to determine what is permissible. According to a local film director, "Only when the film censoring criteria are made clear and in detail, will we be confident in making films."

One film, two councils

At present, excepting film projects initiated by private companies or individuals, before being judged by the National Movie Censorship Council, film scripts by state-owned companies must be presented to the Script Censorship Council. Only those approved are granted budgets and allowed advance into the production phase.

The two councils have approved many films considered to be low in quality, especially ones made-in-Vietnam.

Director Dang Nhat Minh, a former member of the council, in an interview with the newswire VnExpress last week, said many films though are considered "dull, bland and trashy," but because their content did not violate any regulation, they are released. "As a result, many directors, as long as their films don't break the rules, are free to make lewd, trashy films."

Movie critic Doan Minh Tuan argued that because two councils with different members work independently, nobody takes responsibility in monitoring films as they go from the scriptwriting stage into production. "As a result, quality of script and the film sometimes do not match each other," said Tuan.

Regardless of the film's quality, the fact that two councils work independently brings cases where a certain film which has been approved by the Script Censorship Council cannot get a screening license from the National Movie Censorship Council, added Tuan.

Director Bui Dinh Hac, president of the National Movie Censorship Council, told Thanh Nien that the two councils should work together. "In case the script council is not sure about a certain script, they can consult with my council," Hac said.

Hac's council works as an adviser to the Vietnam Cinema Department, and normally films which receive approval from the council are sure to be licensed by the department. However, in reality, many licensed films remain on the shelf.

Director Ha Son's Trung Uy (Lieutenant) is one of them. It has been screened in local film festivals since 2010, yet it has not been released in public, though some local distributors and individuals want to screen it at their theaters.

According to the director, the related agency who blocked his film from such screenings explained by saying, "It is not the right time [to release the film]."

Son worries in the future if more agencies will be involved with the distribution of Trung Uy.

Son suggests that only the National Movie Censorship Council should have full authority to censor and approve films.

Regarding the council's members, Son, requested that an urgent change in the council's "components" should take place.

The council presently mostly consists of cinema experts, therefore, the director suggested that in order to objectively judge a particular film, the council should invite specialists from a variety of fields, including education and law, to better assess if the film's content is appropriate within the current social environment, if it should be screened, and to which audiences.

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