February 28, 2006

War May Be Hell... ...But Fighting the MPAA Over an 'R' Rating is F*@#in' Lethal


From Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Gunner Palace

When I arrived in Baghdad in 2003 to document the day-to-day lives of the soldiers in my film Gunner Palace, all they asked was that I "tell it like it is." In the months that followed, both in Baghdad and in the edit room, that request became the mantra of the film. It was about them--their experience, their story--in their words. Little did I know that the soldier's words--spoken and sometimes sung in a combat zone--would be individually counted and weighed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

Shortly after Gunner Palace was acquired by Palm Pictures in September 2004, Palm informed us that if we wanted to have a wide release, we would have to submit the film to the MPAA's Rating Board. Only 15 percent of exhibitors will book films without ratings and in the home video market, a rating is essential to get shelf space with retailers like Wal-Mart (which has a 60 percent market share). While the ratings system is voluntary, participation is mandatory if you want to have a mainstream commercial release, so we somewhat begrudgingly sent off a print to the MPAA.

I didn't know much about the Ratings Board at the time, so I read up on its rules and recent rulings. What I found surprised me: The Ratings Board is made up of parents and community leaders from just one community supposedly representative of American mores and values--Simi Valley, just outside of Los Angeles. The membership is secret, and details about demographics of the board are sketchy at best. A submitted film is screened before eight to 12 members of the board, who then make a decision that is supposed to reflect the "majority opinion of American parents." The board refers to a manual that offers guidelines for ratings--from the number of permitted sexual thrusts to the number of times expletives can be uttered. In our case, I was told by numerous people who had submitted films for ratings that the issue would the language in the film and that more than two uses of the word "fuck" would mean an automatic "R" rating. If that was indeed their yardstick, then Gunner Palace would receive an "R" two minutes into the first reel.

Our hope was that the Rating Board would consider the context and use of the language, understanding that the soldiers in the film are emotionally reacting to the violence and intensity they live in. Moreover, we hoped that the board members would separate reality from fiction. This wasn't a sophomoric comedy or a teen slasher flick; it was a documentary about young soldiers living in a combat zone where four of them had been killed and 60 wounded.

Six weeks later, we received word that the film had been rated "R" for language. The judgment was clinical, void of any explanation. We were told that our only recourse would be to appeal. I was angry. This wasn't simply a bureaucratic procedure anymore; it was about how we perceive reality. Context was completely lost.

We decided to appeal based on the fact that the "R" would effectively restrict young adults from seeing a film that is especially relevant to their generation. It was a position I felt strongly about. Like many of the soldiers in the film, I walked into an Army recruitment station when I was 16 and was wearing a uniform at 17. If young Americans can make decisions like that--and if they can actively be recruited by the military when they are 14--then surely they are mature enough to see a film about their peers at war.

As we prepared for our appeal, we were reminded that Michael Moore and his consortium of distributors, with the advice and support of a legal team that included Mario Cuomo, had appealed Fahrenheit 9/11's original "R" rating with a similar defense and had lost. In a phone conference we were told by Joan Graves, the head of the MPAA's Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), that we were "wasting everyone's time" when we suggested that perhaps it was time to address the popularity of theatrical documentaries by developing a rating specifically for nonfiction content. She said that the rules were the rules and the MPAA wouldn't budge.

The more we looked at the system, the more we saw that it was flawed. In many cases, it didn't even make consistent sense. The best example we found was Go Tigers!, a theatrical doc about high school football that was rated "R for language and a scene of teen drinking" while a fiction feature about the same subject, Friday Night Lights, was rated "PG-13 for thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action."

To support our argument, we found a precedent: In November 2004, dozens of ABC affiliates refused to show an uncut version of Saving Private Ryan for fear of being fined for the FCC for obscenity. The film aired with a taped statement from Senator John McCain that said, "Saving Private Ryan is a powerful and important depiction of the sacrifices made for our country. While it contains violence and profanity, these are not shown in a gratuitous manner."

Also in support of the broadcast of the film, former MPAA chief Jack Valenti wrote an op-ed for Variety entitled "Moral Values in Times of War." He writes, "Yes, there is some language in the movie that may cause dismay to some. But this is not just another movie...It cries out to be seen by every young boy and girl in the land so they can understand what sacrifice, duty, honor, service and valor truly mean ..."

In the days before our appeal, PBS faced a similar problem with the Frontline documentary A Company of Soldiers, which also featured hard language from soldiers. Fearing FCC fines, PBS made two versions of the film available--one with expletives bleeped--and let individual stations make their own decisions. Ironically, viewers didn't complain to the FCC; they complained to PBS about censoring the soldiers' speech.

On February 24, 2005 we made our appeal to the 12 members (and one priest/observer) of the CARA appeal board. They screened the film and then Palm Pictures' Andy Robbins and I presented our argument, in which we maintained, "To restrict access to the film via an 'R' rating is essentially censoring an experience." We asked CARA "to constructively work with us to bring the soldiers' story to an audience that will include teens who are mature enough to see this film. As a young soldier says in the film, 'No need to like this, but please respect it. This is life.'"

After our appeal, which was rebutted by Graves, we withdrew to a waiting room for the decision. Graves consoled us with, "Nice try, guys, but this isn't the venue to change the system." Three minutes later, one of the MPAA's moderators came in and told us that the decision was 9 to 3 in favor overturning the "R." I swear I heard an obscenity uttered before Graves said, "What will Michael Moore say?"

Our appeal of Gunner Palace made the cover of Variety under the headline "F-Bombs Catch a Break," and the film was cited as the most profane PG-13 movie ever. But more than half a year later, after a three-month theatrical run and two months on DVD, I have yet to receive one complaint about the language in the film, and I hear from students and teachers every day who feel that the film uniquely enables young people to connect with the war.

I wish I could say that we set a precedent in the world of the MPAA, but based on their rules, we haven't. Producers can't refer to previous rulings in appeals, so our rating means nothing. However, I believe it's a start, and I encourage the IDA to defend the rights of filmmakers to present reality uncensored.

 

Michael Tucker is one of the principals of Nomados Films. Currently he is producing a film about a prisoner who was seized during a raid shown in Gunner Palace.

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