In the recently released, eye-opening documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, director Kirby Dick delves into dangerous territory for a Hollywood director. Dick is willing to rail against the MPAA, the organization that determines how films are rated. His exposé of the MPAA ratings board has the makings of a great detective story, with MPAA founder Jack Valenti portrayed as the charismatic villain and lesbian private eye Becky Altringer as the detective who ferrets out the truth.
The MPAA's rating system, which was founded in 1968 after Americans objected to the increase in explicit sexual content and graphic violence in the movies, aimed to present “parent friendly” ratings. But the rating process is so secretive that even the identities of the MPAA raters are kept under wraps. Dick hired Altringer, who owns Ariel Investigations with her partner, Cheryl, to uncover the identities of the raters. The MPAA building is so guarded that Cheryl says of the investigation: “This is like saying go to Fort Knox and try to bring out a few bricks.”
Cheryl's daughter, Lindsey, is Altringer's junior PI, and Lindsey is the perfect ruse. She looks like any ordinary teenager out with her mom — who just happens to have a hidden camera tucked into her scarf. Becky is endearing and astonishingly calm as she digs through garbage cans and stalks the MPAA board members with Lindsey at her side.
strong>While Altringer and Lindsey hunt down the board members, Dick interviews filmmakers whose films have been given an unwanted NC-17 (the kiss of death for films seeking U.S. distribution) or R rating, including Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) and Jamie Babbit (But I'm a Cheerleader).
Dick shows us — with painfully hilarious comparative clips — that queer sex will get a much harsher rating than straight sex, and that sex in general gets a much stricter rating than violence.
According to This Film Is Not Yet Rated, many filmmakers feel that studio-backed films are “miraculously” able to change their R or NC-17 ratings by editing out objectionable scenes. But independent filmmakers are often told that it is “overall content” that prevents changing an R or NC-17 rating.
Kimberly Peirce, director and writer of the critically acclaimed Boys Don't Cry, was shocked to find out that with an NC-17 rating, the studio would not release her film. She was forced to edit down a sex scene in the film — but was not asked to edit down any of the violence — in order to have the rating changed to R.
Jamie Babbit, writer and director of But I'm a Cheerleader, created her film with a teenage audience in mind. But her film, which had no violence and little sexuality, had to fight an NC-17 rating as well. Babbit told Dick that she “felt discriminated against for making a film about gay teenagers.”
One of the most frightening points made is the lack of any media experts or child psychologists on the ratings board. Valenti claims that the ratings board members are “average American parents,” but these “average” parents have free rein to ignore violence that does not disturb them as adults, even though many studies show that exposure to violence in the media is harmful to children.
The documentary shows — a bit excessively — how violence, toward women in particular, seems to fly by the ratings decisions.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated cracks open an important case that has been hidden from the public until now, revealing that the MPAA has in effect been exercising a unique form of censorship. Dick inserted enough humor to keep this weighty subject light, and watching Altringer on her wild goose chase is one of the most amusing and entertaining aspects of the film. But there is a lack of opposing viewpoints in the documentary, and at times it feels one-sided and repetitive.
Dick is clearly unafraid controversy; he previously directed the Oscar-nominated 2004 documentary Twist of Faith, which takes on the Catholic Church. Few in the film industry would have had the courage to go after a board that is considered omnipotent in Hollywood . According to This Film's production notes, “The challenge was getting filmmakers to speak on camera. Many, even directors … whose films had been rated harshly, refused to talk because they were afraid their future projects would be penalized.”
Whether or not This Film is Not Yet Rated will lead to a more open ratings system remains to be seen. The shocking conclusion of the documentary, however, reveals why there is so much fear of the MPAA ratings appeals board, and this alone makes the documentary worth seeing.
As Dick says, “If you want to keep the ratings system free from influence, keep it open, for all to see. That's essential in a democracy.”