MPAA censors torture documentary, gleefully approves of fake torture

Robbo sez,
ThinkFilm is releasing Alex Gibney's documentary "Taxi To The Dark Side" and submitted a poster for MPAA approval which featured a photo of two soldiers leading away a handcuffed and hooded man. The MPAA rejected it as being "not suitable for audiences of all ages".

The hypocrisy of this, in the face of posters for horror/slasher flicks like "Saw" and "Hostel", is astounding. Censorship pure and simple.

The photo used in the proposed poster is derived from an actual photograph which the army also tried to censor. The MPAA has also rejected a one-sheet for Roadside Attractions "The Road To Guantanamo" which featured a hooded man hanging by his wrists from handcuffs.

MPAA message? Torture for entertainment is suitable for all ages. Torture examined in a documentary is not.

ThinkFilm is appealing.


See also:
This Film is Not Rated - must-see doc about MPAA ratings


  1. Agreed.

    A documentary depicts something that has happened in the past in a similar way in the real world. Showing reality could have more impact than brutality and blood from a fictional movie.

    One would consider that the correct display of reality should be more important. Obviously not when it could be to the disadvantage of people in power.

    regards, Meli

  2. I am consistently amazed at what American society tolerates. It seems that groups such as the MPAA have risen to quasi-cultural-police status, what with their nastygrams, lawsuits, and censorship…these powers that are specifically excluded from government are wielded with abandon by these “industry groups”. Guess it’s high time to brush up on some Lessig…

  3. It’s more complicated than what the submitter suggests. If you look at the MPAA-approved posters for *Hostel* or *Saw*, they’re abstract and suggestive, but don’t depict the actual torture in those films. However, a gruesome movie called *Captivity* used posters which *did* depict torture, and the MPAA also pulled their approval:


    You can object to the MPAA’s policy on other grounds, of course, but not necessarily for inconsistency.

  4. I’ve always found it incredibly nauseating that such powerful imagery is deemed unacceptable (for the chiiiiildren!!) and yet utter tripe like Captivity and Hostel * are readily allowed to have multiple, widely viewed billboards for movies which are all tortureporn with no discernable message.

    The MPAA needs its top blown off; an open, and accessible, layout of the guidelines and rules they use to determine what is and is not acceptable for each of the ratings. (No, the bible does not count.) This cloak and dagger schtick is getting old.

    The OFLC (Office of Film and Literature Classification in Australia) may make the occasional fucked up decision, but at least we know who makes the decisions, what the restrictions are for each rating, why the decisions are made, where we can get a copy of the guidelines, and that there is a possibility of getting the ruling overturned.

    And never once have we had a movie released with the warning: “Rated PG-13 for intense depiction of very bad weather.

    W. James Au: Where on the Taxi to the Dark Side poster does it depict torture? Could be 2 soldiers leading their buddy to a surprise bachelor party…

  5. The MPAA needs its top blown off; an open, and accessible, layout of the guidelines and rules they use to determine what is and is not acceptable for each of the ratings. (No, the bible does not count.) This cloak and dagger schtick is getting old.
    Or no rating at all. Let the parents do their work.

  6. I have a problem with the whole way movies are rated for violence. It has been demonstrated in studies that violence with no emotional impact is more mentally scarring than violence that you are made to care about.

    Movie violence is rated as if the opposite were true.

  7. W. James Au: very inconsistent indeed – and not just limited to posters. The only thing consistent about the MPAA’s decisions is their unflinching support of major studio releases and their determination to suppress independent voices in film.

    Remember the hue and cry about “Natural Born Killers” which was certainly intense and potentially “mentally scarring” where one of the shots the MPAA objected to was when the Robert Downey Jr. character got a hole blown through his hand. No one seemed to recall Gene Hackman blowing a hole through the head of Keith David in “The Quick and The Dead” – or Arnold Schwarzenegger flinging aside the shorn off arms of Michael Ironside in “Total Recall” with the glib line: “See you at the party.” And – one of my favourites – Paul Newman blasting a hole through Stacey Keach (as “Bad Bob”) with a shotgun, whereupon the director (John Huston) pulls a rapid zoom in to show us the beautiful desert landscape – through the hole.

    The approved posters for “Saw” depicted battered, splintered fingers – freshly pulled bloody teeth hanging from strings – a victim bound and masked, shackled to a metal chair – and the aforementioned body in a bag being dragged across the floor. The poster for “Hostel II” featured a head and shoulders shot of a woman – in obvious distress, weeping, hanging upside down.

    It is not the inconsistency of the MPAA, and other media “guardians”, which disturbs me – it is their smug hypocrisy. The patronizing attitude of “We know best – go sit in the corner.”

    There has to be some kind of cultural shakeup in the U.S. – and I suspect it is about to burst upon them – not just because it is long overdue but also because we have the means now (in forums like this and others) to join the voices of discontent and shout back at those who tell us to shut up and sit down.

    Sometimes all it takes is a poster – a single image – to break the top of the advancing wave and bring it all crashing down.

    Let us hope so.


  8. Some great comments and some fine examples of the MPAA’s hypocrisy regarding violent movie marketing. But I think it’s important to understand that the real issue is not specifically about the implied violence of the image. I very strongly suspect that the image of soldiers taking a man away in handcuffs would be perfectly acceptable to the MPAA–were it not attached to the American flag. And I’d be very curious to see whether the poster would be approved if, as an experiment, the designers removed that aspect (an aspect that I would agree is essential to the message of the film, from what I understand of it, of course).

    To my eyes, this is a “private” agency doing the government’s (illegal) dirty work. What’s truly sad about it is that a) they’re doing it voluntarily, and b) unless the mass-mainstream media gets involved (hello, Entertainment Weekly?), most people who would care will never know.

  9. @Devoinregress-

    I believe the trouble isn’t legal authority, but the fact that most theaters wouldn’t dare show a poster that isn’t MPAA-approved, just like they wouldn’t show a film or trailer that isn’t MPAA-rated.

  10. @ #12

    “Can’t they just print it anyway.”

    Sure, they just can’t hang the posters in movie theaters. It’s a contractual thing. Movie theaters have agreements with distribution companies that prevent them from showing content that is unrated or rated NC-17. Effectively, the MPAA has total control over what appears in movies.

  11. #14:

    Hold on though…before the movie starts, you get trailers and promo’s. I often see “this movie is not yet rated”… I agree that they wouldn’t show a film that hadn’t been rated…but the trailers?

    Unless of course I may have stumbled onto a loop-hole…the “film” isn’t rated…but the trailer is…

  12. @ 14

    There’s no loophole. The trailer and the poster have to be rated suitable for all audiences, while the actual film does not. (That is, trailer has to be G even if the film is PG or R.) So of course they are rated separately.

  13. The MPAA is full of crap. They have no real set of guidelines for how they rate stuff – it’s all whim and whimsy. It’s crap. Or “crrrrap” if you’re Scottish. Either way, smells like dook.

  14. There’s some misleading facts in the comments I wanted to set straight-

    The MPAA doesn’t “technically” have any power. Theaters are not bound by national laws to enforce the ratings (some states and counties pass local ordinances saying otherwise). But what they do is use an interesting system of rules and very smart deals to give them a power they shouldn’t have.

    For example- you don’t have to get your movie rated. But if you don’t, many major theater chains won’t play your film (an individual policy they set), Blockbuster won’t buy your DVD, and a lot of newspapers and TV stations won’t play your ads. So ok, you give in and get your film rated. But as part of the deal to get a rating, you now have to send ALL your marketing materials to the MPAA for approval, and there is no real appeal process in place there.

    As far as why posters for some of these horror films get approval while others don’t- keep in mind who the MPAA is. Namely, it’s Fox, Universal, Disney- the major studios. So when a little guy like THINKFilm comes along, they’re in a weird situation where they’re asking permission for materials that, if successful, will compete with the majors.

    It’s a disastrous system, kept in place only to ensure survival of the top guys at the expense of the guy on the bottom.

  15. Legally the MPAA has no power to restrict speech. But in practice they control so many of the distribution systems that they can decide what will or won’t be seen by the majority of the American public.

    It’s like having all the disadvantages of a bureaucratic government censor but without any kind of democratic appeals process.

  16. Welcome to America! There are plenty of movies depicting horrific violence, sometimes coupled with bad humor (i.e. any Schwarzenegger movie) and people shrug. But show a boob? The fury of a nation rains down upon you!

  17. Legally the MPAA has no power to restrict speech. But in practice they control so many of the distribution systems that they can decide what will or won’t be seen by the majority of the American public.

    Except they don’t control the Internet, which is why they refuse to embrace Internet distribution despite losing so much money every year by not migrating to this marketplace. For them it’s not about money, as much as it’s about control.

    It’s like having all the disadvantages of a bureaucratic government censor but without any kind of democratic appeals process.

    Ah, corporatism! Just like telecommunications, airtravel, schooling, medicine, and any of the other commanding heights which have been quasi-“deregulated”.

    p.s. This film already aired in November as part of the BBC Why Democracy? series. Thus, it’s already been made available online.

  18. The only logic I can see here, barring political motivation, is that the fact that “reality” hits harder than “fantasy.” When “Blair Witch Project” came out one of my friends was unimpressed: “I already KNOW it’s fake, how am I going to get scared?” Of course, according to that logic NO scary movie should actually produce fear because we all know it’s just a movie, right?

    Is the problem in the words “all ages”? Is this poster more sinister than other G-rated film posters? Perhaps.

    But I think all this is moot– there is nothing about that poster that is in the least bit threatening-looking, EXCEPT on a purely political level.

  19. Did any of you stop to look up the posters for hostel or saw? They show decapitated heads and severed limbs, but no actual people being tortured. The MPAA didn’t say the movie can’t be released, it just said the poster that would be put on theater walls and billboards and on internet sites, the one depicting torture, couldn’t (shouldn’t) be shown.

    There’s nothing political going on here. In my opinion, movies like saw and hostel are terrible, both in general and for society, and shouldn’t be made. A documentary like Taxi to the Darkside I guess serves a purpose, but I still won’t want to see it.

  20. #25

    The poster for Taxi to the Dark Side does not depict anyone being tortured either. . . it’s just three guys walking off. How is that image more disturbing than images of decapitation? “They show decapitated heads and severed limbs, but no actual people being tortured.” Uhhhh. . . .so the aftermath of torture is OK, but not the lead-up to torture (as in soldiers leading a hooded man off)?

    I don’t follow your logic. If the MPAA allows graphic images for horror films, it should allow this clearly UN-graphic shot of soldiers leading a hooded prisoner away.

    Does anyone have evidence of prior documentary film posters that show similar images that are not as politically charged? If so then we have our smoking gun, and the MPAA is acting out of political ideals and not morals. I wonder if the producers of the film resubmitted the poster WITHOUT the American flag below, would the MPAA allow it? If so, it’s more proof of the MPAA acting political and not moral.

  21. “The only thing consistent about the MPAA’s decisions is their unflinching support of major studio releases and their determination to suppress independent voices in film”

    Uh, no: *Hostel* and *Saw* were put out by the indy distributor Lionsgate, not one of the big studios. And yet their posters got a pass from the MPAA. Also, indy filmmaker writer/director Eli Roth says *Hostel* is meant as an allegory about American imperialism, which may be bullshit twice over, but does at least reflect a stated belief to be political.

    The MPAA does itself no favors by its lack of transparency, but creating conspiracy theories like the above doesn’t help, either. Ultimately, however, this is an irrelevant issue: rare exceptions like *Fahrenheit 911* aside, there’s a very small market for politically charged indy documentaries, and the few theaters which do show them usually show unrated movies anyway. ThinkFilm put out *The Aristocrats* unrated, which screened in those theaters, and it actually did quite well for an indy movie. So frankly, this all smells like a publicity stunt on ThinkFilm’s part, trying to drum up buzz around a movie that would otherwise bomb as bad as *Redacted*. (And probably still will.)

  22. Not to take the wind out of everyones anti-MPAA sails, but the article on ThinkProgress is incorrect (but I’m sure it fits their narrative).
    Variety issued a correction saying they had rejected the TRAILER not the poster.

    From Variety via

    UPDATE: The Daily Variety story was incorrect; the MPAA actually rejected a trailer for Taxi to the Darkside, and not the poster. Here’s the Variety clarification: “The MPAA did not approve a theatrical trailer for Alex Gibney’s documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side” that contained scenes with nudity and images that the org deemed inappropriate for all audiences. ThinkFilm has not yet officially submitted the one-sheet art referenced in a Dec. 19 story, but Daily Variety failed to indicate that it was the trailer that was rejected and not the one-sheet artwork.”

  23. Thnks fr th fnd, rcsn.

    Hr’s th lnk t th crrctn frm Vrty:

    thght t ws fshy tht thy wld sppsdly rfs pstr tht hd n pprnt bd mgs n t. thght prhps t ws smthng n th wrdng n th pstr nd ws lkng fr lrgr vrsn s cld s wht t sd. ddn’t blv fr mmnt tht t ws bcs f th hd, whch mks m wndr whr tht prt f th rmr cm frm.

    Rmr blds n rmr whch blds n msqt.

    T mny ppl rnd hr r slw t cst dbt n smthng tht flls wthn thr wrld vw, hwvr nlkly t sms t b. cld prbbly crt prss rls syng, “MP KCKS PPPS” nd t wld b ll vr th ntrnt n flsh, nd w’d ll tlk bt hw mch w lk ppps nd hw mn t s fr th MP t kck thm.

    f sm f ths skptcsm twrds th gvrnmnt, plc, rlgn nd mltry cld smhw b ltrd t ncld prss rlss frm plcs lk Vrty, thnk w cld nly bnft.

  24. You know what would REALLY suck for the MPAA?

    If a bunch of people throughout the nation started printing these posters out themselves and began sticking them up outside of theatres anyway.

    Hmmm, and I do have a laminator…

    [evil laugh]

  25. ntrstng sggstn, Cwcd.

    Nw tht w knw th rgnl hdln ws wrng, wndr f th whl thng wsn’t ntntnlly dn by Vrty r smn ssctd wth th flm s mthd f fr pblcty. “h ns! Th MP s cnsrng mh flm! Qck! Th th ntrwbs!”

    Hk, ln nd snkr.

  26. RealCatholicMen, thanks for the head’s up. I didn’t notice your posts showing that Variety had issued a correction.

    The strange thing is, if you read the original article, you can clearly see that ThinkFilm staff is responding to an issue with a poster and not a trailer. So, it would seem the miscommunication wasn’t just with the Variety writer, but also between the MPAA and ThinkFilm?

  27. While I’ve had three glasses of wine too many to think this all the way through, I’m reminded of the Zenger trial in the 1700’s, the basis for the American principle that Truth is perfect defense against claim of libel. I think there may be an analogous principle lurking in potentia here… conservative SCOTUS notwithstanding.

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