Censorship of The Trouble with Being Born (2020)

Criticism in one press article was all it took for Sandra Wollner’s THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN (2020) to be dropped by the Melbourne International Film Festival.

It went on to play at other Australian festivals before receiving an uncut R18+ rating.

The Trouble with Being Born

Directed by Sandra Wollner / 2020 / Austria – Germany / IMDb

In June 2020, THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN was programmed as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

June 30, 2020
MIFF 68 ½ – Synopses
The below listing sets out the titles being presented in our program we are seeking a classification exemption for.

Sandra Wollner, Germany, 2020, Runtime: 94
Requested capacity: REDACTED virtual capacity

A cyborg with the body of a 10-year-old girl lives with an adult man who she refers to as her father – he tends to her and it is inferred that he also uses her for sex. She is then reset after running away to be a young boy to be cared for by a lonely elderly woman who is still haunted by the death of her young brother sixty years earlier. The film features a tender but unnerving voiceover from the cyborg expressing thoughts and memories, though the viewer never knows her level of cognitive ability.

Classifiable Elements

Sex between an adult and a minor is inferred a number of times – though the minor is a cyborg/non-human, the character is played by a child actor with CGI elements.

An unnamed 10-year-old female child actor wearing a latex mask to make her appear less human plays the cyborg character. The actor poses clothed for suggestive/coy photos, and also appears naked with genitals replaced by a CGI machine-like ‘hole’. She appears twice nude in the presence of her father – who it is inferred is having sex with her (not shown on-screen), and there are uncomfortable lingering touches. He also appears nude in one scene. Extensive notes are available as to the safe and responsible production methods used on set when working with the underage actor in the production.

There is also violence caused by the cyborg (gender-flipped) in the second half of the film – he pushes an elderly woman over in her apartment and watches her die while her dog laps up blood on the carpet. The film was the recipient of an award at the Berlin Film Festival’s Encounters section, and had been selected for the prestigious New Directors/New Films screening series at the Lincoln Centre in New York before its cancellation this year.

Requesting an Unclassified 18+ exemption: content is consistent with an R18+ rating.

– Application for Exemption or Declaration
– To: Classification Board
– From: Melbourne International Film Festival

July 3, 2020
Audience age restrictions per screening
Decision: Only persons aged 18 years and over are present at the relevant showing.

– To: Melbourne International Film Festival
– From: Margaret Anderson, Director, Classification Board

Ready to screen

Due to COVID-19, the entire program would stream online as MIFF 68½. Their website alerted the public to the controversial nature of the film.

July 17, 2020
WARNING: This film contains high-impact sexual themes and medium-impact violence. Viewers are strongly cautioned, and viewer discretion is strongly advised.

In a near-future world where androids exist to serve humans, what distinguishes intimacy from indenture?

Elli is an android that resembles a 10-year-old girl. She lives with a man whom she refers to as her father; their closeness borders, uncomfortably, on too-close. When she later runs away and is taken in by an elderly woman grieving for her brother who died in childhood, it seems one type of exploitative relationship has merely been replaced with another.

Winner of the Berlinale’s Encounters Special Jury Award, THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN is a cerebral sci-fi drama that confirms Sandra Wollner as an uncompromising breakthrough talent. Visceral scenes and a formidable vision combine to make this film a confronting – and controversial – provocation on artificial intelligence, moral worth and what it means to be alive.

Streaming Australia-wide 6-23 August. Capacities are strictly limited.
Tickets on sale Fri 17 Jul, MIFF Member pre-sale now open.

Melbourne International Film Festival

MIFF gets cold feet

A week before the festival was due to begin, two forensic psychologists, Dr Karen Owen and Dr Georgina O’Donnell, criticised it in The Age.

This was all it would take for MIFF to drop the film from their program.

July 30, 2020
The Melbourne International Film Festival has dumped a movie in which an android child has sex with its human “father”, after a leading forensic psychologist warned it “normalises sexual interest in children”.

Dr Karen Owen, a forensic pychologist and former manager of Corrections Victoria’s Sex Offender Programs, viewed part of the film but said she was so disturbed by it “I ceased watching the movie and have deleted the link”.

The film was “just wrong in so many ways,” Dr Owen said. “Notwithstanding the artistic intent of the movie, without question it would be used as a source of arousal for men interested in child abuse material.”

Dr Owen said the subject matter “normalises sexual interest in children” and would almost certainly lead to the movie being “used … for arousal and masturbatory purposes”. She added that images put to such use “do not have to be explicitly pornographic in nature”.

Dr Owen said the fact the film would be viewed via streaming, with viewers likely to be alone, exacerbated the risk.

Fellow forensic psychologist Dr Georgina O’Donnell, who has not seen the film but has considered detailed descriptions of it, said Australian Federal Police classifications of Child Exploitation Material included laws against depictions of real children, anime, cartoons, and the use of AI children for sexual gratification.

“It is illegal in Australia to use ‘simulated’ children for sexual gratification,” Dr O’Donnell said.

After The Age informed MIFF of the comments by Dr Owen and Dr O’Donnell, MIFF decided to withdraw the movie. Late on Thursday it informed Wollner of the move over Skype.

Director Sandra Wollner said in a statement she shared Dr Owen’s concerns, but defended her film from charges it endorsed the behaviour it depicts.

“The danger that someone uses a film for sexual arousal unfortunately exists with any and all films involving child actors,” Wollner said.

“The crucial difference is that our film actually speaks to the matter and shows, frankly, what kind of a psychologically dark place a deeply disturbed ‘relationship’ like the one being depicted can take you – in this case, the relationship between a man and an android, an artificial intelligence.

“The film addresses scenarios that an increasingly isolated lifestyle and the free reign of technology put us under. Beyond that, the film deals with themes of death, guilt and mechanisms of loneliness.

“We strongly believe there is room for this kind of dealing with the world and that art, by its very nature, has to arouse uncomfortable questions. The film is in no way endorsing or promoting child exploitation, but looking at a suggested dystopia, some elements of which are already discernible in our present reality.”

Wollner added that the film had been made “in full accordance with Austrian and German law, where the film is classified and viewed strictly as a work of art”. She has previously pointed to the great care taken to protect the identity and wellbeing of her young star, including having a silicon face mask applied fresh each day, wigs and a fake name.

Every aspect of the script was shared in advance with Lena’s parents, “the nicest family I’ve ever met”. A psychologist with expertise in childhood trauma guided Wollner through the language she should use in explaining situations to the 10-year-old. Nude scenes were filmed with Lena in a flesh-toned bathing suit, which was digitally removed in post-production.

Dr Owen, though, said this is was of no consequence and more important was the use to which the work could be put.

“I think the care of the child actor frankly completely misses the point,” Dr Owen said.

The producers have, she said, created images that may well “do the rounds of the internet for years, satisfying the masturbatory fantasy of many.”

– Melbourne International Film Festival dumps android child sex film
article @ theage.com.au

July 30, 2020
The safety and wellbeing of the MIFF community and broader Australian public is of paramount concern to the festival. With this in mind, we have made the decision to withdraw Sandra Wollner’s film THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN.

While the Australian Classification Board had cleared the film to screen in this year’s festival, after receiving specific, expert advice — in relation to both the content within the film and the online context of MIFF 68½ — we have made the decision to remove the film.

Anyone who has pre-purchased a ticket will be refunded in full.

– Al Cossar, Artistic director
– Melbourne International Film Festival

MIFF’s ‘craven response’

The Melbourne based film critic, Tom Ryan, was critical of MIFF’s decision in responding to a media ‘beat up’.

August 11, 2020
Let’s get this straight because it’s a truly shocking scenario: a film that was selected by the director’s team, approved by the programming committee and passed by the Australian censor was then withdrawn because of what two psychologists who either hadn’t seen the film or had only seen part of it had to say about it. Not that that is really the issue.

During the 1960s and ’70s, festival directors Erwin Rado in Melbourne and David Stratton in Sydney, fought long, hard and heroically to free their beloved and widely-attended festivals from the yoke of censorship. And won the battle. MIFF might now say in its defence that it’s not being censored from outside, that it’s making a responsible decision in the interests of, as Cossar [Artistic director of MIFF] puts it, “the safety and wellbeing of the MIFF community and the broader Australian public”.

If this is the case, though, the entire MIFF team responsible for programming should resign, for they are collectively responsible for the selection of a film that Cossar now believes is a threat to us all. In fact, because of the course of action that MIFF681/2 has followed, a dangerous precedent has been set. The honourable Rado is probably turning in his grave at this appalling turn of events, and Stratton might well have begun digging his by way of escape.

– Tom Ryan takes exception to MIFF censoring its selection
article @ filmalert101.blogspot.com

The following day, the long-time anti-censorship campaigner, David Stratton, responded favourably to Tom Ryan’s opinion piece.

August 12, 2020
As Ryan says, the former director of MFF, Erwin Rado, and I fought a long and bitter battle between 1966 and 1971 to free the festivals from Government censorship. We had the full support of our respective Boards; in my case, the Board President for most of that period, Ross Tzannes, who was a lawyer, was of the utmost importance. It was a struggle and it was painful but in the end we were given freedom from censorship to the extent that we were able to screen Nagisa Oshima’s sexually frank IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (1976) without any cuts whatsoever.

It is therefore especially galling to me to witness MIFF’s apparently craven response to a film they themselves selected. If, in the future, the Government wants to censor a festival film, the festival will no longer be in a position to protest; they’ve done it to themselves.

I haven’t seen the film and nor, I gather, has at least one of the ‘experts’ who commented on it for what seems to be a beat-up in The Age (I would have expected more from this newspaper and from the journalist who wrote the story. Back then The Age’s film critic Colin Bennett was a staunch supporter of all of our anti-censorship battles.)

But the point is, as Ryan makes clear, that someone from MIFF must have seen the film, probably in Berlin, and decided that it should be shown. For the film then to be banned by the festival itself is shameful and unforgivable.

I think we need to know who saw the film in Berlin (if, indeed, anyone did) and recommended it to the festival for inclusion and also whose decision it was to ban the film.

Incidentally, I emailed Festival Director Al Cossar on July 31 to express my concern in this matter. A fortnight later I have not received a response. I realise he’s busy, but still…

– David Stratton has some thoughts about MIFF’s decision
article @ filmalert101.blogspot.com

Classification Board comments

Karl Quinn was back with a follow-up that looked at the fallout from his original article.

He references Tom Ryan’s opinion piece, but not the accusation he had written a media ‘beat-up’.

August 18, 2020
Melbourne film critic Peter Krausz has written in protest to the International Federation of Film Critics.

Absolutely disgusting case of censorship. This decision should be overturned immediately,” Krausz wrote. “Someone selected the film in the first place and deemed it suitable, so why this ridiculous decision, which flies in the face of freedom from censorship of film festivals and the history of MIFF?”

Film festivals are generally granted a blanket exemption from classification, and are permitted to screen films to an audience aged 18 and older.

That means they can avoid submitting individual titles for classification, a costly and time-consuming process that is usually paid for by the local distributor of movies deemed to have commercial potential beyond the limited life of a festival. However, festivals are not permitted to screen any film that would likely be classified X18+ or RC (refused classification). It is also a requirement that festivals provide details of any scenes that would likely be classified as M or above.

In a written response to questions from this masthead, MIFF said a general description of THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN was provided to the classification board, alongside notes “describing the impact elements of the film” and the fact that a child actor was used in its production.

Had the board found anything troubling in this, it could have granted the festival a general exemption while deciding “to not provide exemption to individual films within the provided submission”

But the board did not ask to see the film before granting the festival a blanket exemption.

“Unclassified films do not need to be watched by the classification board prior to them being screened as part of an approved film festival,” a board spokesperson said.

“In regards to …THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN, the applicant recommended an R18+ age restriction be applied as per the application process. This was accepted by the former director [Margaret Anderson, whose term expired on July 24].”

In a statement issued on Monday, MIFF responded to the criticisms by saying its decision to drop the film was “taken not in censorship but in sensitivity to the specific environment where there is an online delivery, within the landscape of lockdown, where screening conditions cannot be controlled to the same degree as they are during an on-site festival – a context where we have control over location, timing, physical security and access to the film, which can also be further contextualised with the director’s in-person attendance.”

MIFF said it “has not shied away from presenting confronting work in the recent past, and will continue to champion cinema which exists far from the mainstream and the multiplex.

“We are disappointed to not present this work within this year’s MIFF, however, during a time like this, we believe it is imperative to listen to the perspective of health experts.”

– Film critics slam festival for dumping controversial Austrian robosex movie
article @ theage.com.au

Answering the critics

On August 20, Karl Quinn finally addressed Tom Ryan’s media ‘beat-up’ accusation.

August 20, 2020
Here Quinn defends his reporting, and offers some background on what unfolded between filing the original story below and the story that eventually did run, some days later [July 30, 2020].

Karl Quinn writes:
This story begins a couple of weeks before MIFF opened, when Jake Wilson filed a short review for Spectrum, The Age’s weekend culture section, in which he described THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN as a “detached yet outrageous … provocation” whose subject matter “is exploitation and specifically paedophilia”. Wilson added that the film was “almost enough to make you glad MIFF isn’t running as usual this year. Under any circumstances it’s a uniquely uncomfortable experience, but it would be even tougher to get through in a crowded cinema.”

Given that, it was almost inevitable the news desk would want a story, and I was asked to provide one. So I watched the film, found it unsettling and fascinating in equal measure, interviewed director Sandra Wollner over Skype, and wrote – for the news pages, with the likelihood of some controversy clearly flagged – the story you see below.

But that story didn’t run. After I filed it an editor asked me to seek and add to it the views of someone expert in the area of sex offences against children. Given the subject matter and the images in the film, that hardly seemed an unreasonable request.

I received responses from three forensic psychologists, two of whom I quoted. All three had serious issues with the film. I fed these responses into the original story, while retaining as much as possible of Wollner’s explanation of her intentions. But given the strength of the psychologists’ responses, I thought it only fair to share them with MIFF before publication, in case the festival wished to respond.

A few hours later MIFF did respond – by pulling the film.

At that point the story became something else entirely, which is what I reported and what we ultimately published.

Far from a “beat-up”, the story arose because I sought multiple viewpoints, and gave MIFF the right of reply. I stand unreservedly behind that, as I do my subsequent report of the criticisms of MIFF by Ryan and Stratton. I concede I did not report their criticisms of my initial report in this second report because it simply seemed too solipsistic to do so.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of MIFF pulling the film, the fact the festival was online this year was deemed a critical factor, both in the issues identified by the psychologists and the decision made by MIFF. But that point could easily be missed in the responses of Ryan and Stratton published on this site.

Also missed in some of the responses – though not in my reporting – is that while MIFF dumped a film that had been “approved” by the censor, that approval was granted in the form of a general exemption, not a specific assessment of the film in question. MIFF insists that detailed descriptions OF THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN were provided to the Classification Board, as required, and one might argue that those descriptions should have been enough to suggest that this particular film ought to be assessed on its own merits.

One psychologist – responding to my detailed but neutral descriptions of scenes in the film (which she declined to view) – asserted that they likely constituted Child Exploitation Material.

Personally, I think this is unlikely, but I’m no expert. But if she is correct, screening that material – let alone distributing it over the internet – would be a criminal offence in this country.

Had the Classification Board asked to view the film, that matter could have been definitively settled. The fact that no one at the Board did so ultimately left MIFF in the unenviable position of having to play censor to its own programming.

– Karl Quinn responds to Tom Ryan and David Stratton
article @ filmalert101.blogspot.com

Karl Quinn includes an unpublished quote from the person who was ultimately responsible for dropping the film.

Before the controversy, he was ‘unapologetic about its inclusion in the festival’s line-up’.

August 20, 2020
“The content is certainly confronting, however we do not see it as an empty provocation, but a film that transcends troubling subject matter with substance, craft and voice,”

“We also hope that any response to the film from audiences – positive or negative – comes from a place that is informed, that people respond to what the film actually is, rather than an idea of what they have in their minds, which may not be reflective of the reality of it.”

– Al Cossar, Artistic director
article @ filmalert101.blogspot.com

Festival screenings

Instead of MIFF, it had its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival on 17 October.

This was followed by Sydney’s Fantastic Film Festival on 23 October.

October 31, 2020
Adelaide Film Festival director Mat Kesting of his decision to schedule the movie said THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN confronts “in the most startling and stark terms the growing relationship between humans and machines, and the development of ‘post-human’ selves”.

“I believe one of the fundamental roles of a Film Festival is to provide a platform for critical debate about issues confronting our society,” he said.

Hudson Sowada, artistic director of the Fantastic Film Festival, had tried to secure the film before MIFF programmed it, and picked it up for his festival’s October 23 screening last month.

“To be clear, this is not some kind of declaration that MIFF wasn’t brave enough to screen this,” he said. “The online film festival is a new model and I can see how the MIFF team didn’t anticipate some of the new quirks.

“I don’t blame them at all for not taking that risk this year. I think if the event was physical there might have been a different decision.

“That’s a view shared by Kesting. “Seeing the film in the cinema is the appropriate forum for it,” he said.

Had Adelaide been similarly forced into a digital-only event this year, “I think that’s a different proposition”, he added, and one in which the film would “probably not” have been screened.

– The Trouble With Being Born, again: controversial film gets second life
article @ smh.com.au

Uncut R18+ with no issues

On November 26, a 94-minute version of THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN was passed with an R18+ (High impact themes) rating.

The classification matrix described,
High impact: themes
Moderate impact: violence, language, nudity, sex
None: drug use

November 26, 2020
THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN is a German/Austrian science-fiction film which focuses on a child-sized android and its relationships with two separate human owners. In the film’s first half, the android is modelled as a young female named Elli, with the section following the relationship the android has with ‘Papa’, a man who was the father of the real child that Elli resembles. In the film’s second half, Elli leaves Papa and begins a new life as a companion to an elderly woman called Anna, remodelled after Anna’s younger brother Emil, who died when they were children. The film is in German with English subtitles.

The first half of the film depicts a relationship between a man and a child-sized android, with several references to an implied physical relationship which has pseudo-incestuous overtones.

An elderly woman is pushed to the ground, hitting her head on a table. Discreet blood detail is shown beneath her head.

A sexual relationship between a man and an android is occasionally implied. No actual sexual activity is depicted.

The film contains a single use of the word ‘f**k’.

The android’s buttocks are viewed, and in a single frontal shot the android is viewed with its chest visible and genital-area removed. The film also contains brief male buttock nudity.

– More information about the content of this film
– Classification Board

The applicant was Potential Films.

It went on to play on December 10, 11 and 13 at the 23rd Revelation Perth International Film Festival.

Freedom of Information (FOI)

Some information above comes from FOI 21-036, which released documents related to getting the film approved for MIFF.

The 31-page PDF was made available in October 2020 by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. The eight documents have minor redactions and include the application for exemption and correspondence from the Classification Board.

See our ‘Protest’ page for information on how you can make an FOI request.