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SARFT 101: The Rules of the Censorship Game

Writing for his blog chinafilmbiz, producer Robert Cain provides an insider’s guide to censorship rules and regulations according to SARFT (State Authority on Radio, Film, and Television). Addressing the sometimes absurd guidelines and loopholes for passing the SARFT censors, Cain discusses the alleged rationale for such rigid criteria in the do’s and don’t’s of Chinese industry filmmaking:

Censorship is a hard reality of the movie business in China. If you want to shoot or distribute films in the People’s Republic – the fastest growing and soon to be the largest film territory in the world – you’ll have to deal with censorship, and you’d better know the rules. Censorship [in China] is designed not only to protect the innocent, but even more to protect the status quo of authoritarian rule. No distinction is made between children and adults; the government holds the ultimate right to decide what content is ‘appropriate’ and therefore available for viewing, irrespective of the viewer’s age.

Detailing the often-lengthy process by which filmmakers submit their screenplays and/or completed films for review by the Censorship Board, Cain lists some of the guiding principles to live by—if your aim is to produce and distribute a state-sanctioned mainstream film.

According to SARFT:

Films containing any of the following content must be cut or altered: (1) Distorting Chinese civilization and history, seriously departing from historical truth; distorting the history of other countries, disrespecting other civilizations and customs; disparaging the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes and important historical figures; tampering with Chinese or foreign classics and distorting the image of the important figures portrayed therein; 2) Disparaging the image of the people’s army, armed police, public security organ or judiciary; (3) Showing obscene and vulgar content, exposing scenes of promiscuity, rape, prostitution, sexual acts, perversion, homosexuality, masturbation and private body parts including the male or female genitalia; containing dirty and vulgar dialogues, songs, background music and sound effects; etc.

SARFT also takes particular care to discourage portrayals of unpunished breaches of morality, gestures towards the supernatural, and any work “distorting value judgment between truth and lies, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, righteous and unrighteous.” Rounding out an incredible roster of such regulations, SARFT ends the list of forbidden content with this doozy of a violation:

(9) Opposing the spirit of law.

Cain goes on to address some shifting attitudes towards censorship, though the general tide doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon:

My Chinese filmmaker friends don’t like censorship any more than my Hollywood filmmaker friends do. Some in China speak out boldly against it; prominent directors like Jia Zhangke and Feng Xiaogang have stated publicly that the censorship system is a form of “cultural naivete” that “does great damage to film production.” But the truth remains that no matter who you are, if you want to play in China, you’re going to have to play by China’s rules. For now and the foreseeable future that means subordinating your creative freedoms to the political and social imperatives of China’s government. If you can pull off the trick of telling stories that adhere to censorship strictures while still entertaining the mainstream Chinese audience, the financiers, the distributors, and even the government officials, will beat a path to your door.

While most of dGenerate’s filmmakers eschew SARFT approval entirely, dismissing these restrictive, ill-defined rules in favor of free content and free filmmaking practices, the censorship plot still looms large over the Industry: from development of characters and plots to the highly-regulated treatment of audiences. As Cain writes, independent ventures notwithstanding, when it comes to SARFT, you’ve got to know the rules to play the game.

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