Holocaust Doc Loses Appeal on ‘R’ Rating

Oscilloscope and director of “Unfinished” — which includes newly discovered Warsaw Ghetto footage shot by Nazis — say educational efforts will be hurt by MPAA rating

Last Updated: August 5, 2010 @ 3:08 PM

“A Film Unfinished,” the award-winning Holocaust documentary, has lost its appeal to get the Motion Picture Association of America to revise its "R" rating.

The MPAA's appeals board, a group of representatives from film studios and exhibition companies, on Thursday voted 12 to 3 to uphold the initial rating after an appeal from the film’s director, Yael Hersonski, and from Oscilloscope Laboratories, which will release it on Aug.18 in New York and Aug. 20 in Los Angeles.A Film Unfinished

"In a world where young people are bombarded with meaningless entertainment, it's unfortunate that a film with real educational and historic value would be denied to them by an organization that is supposed to be working to help them,” said Oscilloscope co-founder Adam Yauch in a statement.

The film is centered around footage shot by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, and later found to have been staged for propaganda purposes. It contains images of corpses lying on the street, and two scenes of full frontal male and female nudity that were staged in a public bath.

In its rating, the MPAA stated that the "R" was given for "disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities including graphic nudity."A Film Unfinished poster

The appeal, Oscilloscope co-founder David Fenkel told TheWrap, was based largely on community standards for viewing images from the Holocaust.

“This is all about community standards for non-fiction material, and the context in which the footage is shown,” he said. “The federall -funded Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., has images that are much worse than what’s in this film, and they have a sign saying, ‘Not recommended for anyone under 11.’

“They’ve had 30 million people visiting, and more than 8 million students, and you know how many letters of complaint they’ve gotten? Seven.”

The key issue, he said, is that the "R" rating will hurt the film’s chances of being shown in schools or purchased by libraries.

“A lot of schools wouldn’t show it, because they have a rule against the 'R' rating,” he said. “And it’d be much harder to get into libraries. This film is going to be used for educational purposes, and an 'R' rating would completely limit that.”

A the hearing, Hersonski presented a letter from a Holocaust survivor who is interviewed in the film.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, also released a statement in support of the film's importance as a teaching tool.

“I understand that this is a difficult film to watch,” Hersonski, whose grandmother is a Holocaust survivor and onetime resident of the Warsaw Ghetto, told theWrap before the appeal took place. “But I think the crucial thing is to allow schools to decide whether they want to show it or not, not to prevent people from the ability to decide.”

The filmmakers had one precedent on their side: In 2004, the Iraq-set documentary “Gunner Palace” was originally rated "R" for the language used by American troops. That rating was reduced to a "PG-13" on appeal – which, said director Michael Tucker, immediately opened new markets for the film.

“Right after we won the appeal, we were on the cover of Library Video magazine, and a lot of libraries bought the film,” he said. “With an 'R,' many of them wouldn’t have done that.”

Tucker said that the key to the “Gunner Palace” appeal – which was one of the precedents cited in the arguments made on behalf of “A Film Unfinished” – was that documentaries should be held to a different standard than narrative fiction.

“In non-fiction film, context is everything,” he said. “You have to ask, what is the purpose of the film? Who is the audience? How will the film be used?"

The appeals process itself is dramatically different from the original rating process. Whereas ratings are made by a group of San Fernando Valley parents, the names of most of which are kept secret, the appeals board is made up of industry executives whose identities are known to many in the film business.

The major studios – who collectively fund the MPAA – all have representatives on the appeals board, as do many theater chains and exhibitors.

A studio executive who sits on the appeals board, and who attended Thursday’s session, said that membership varies slightly from one appeal to the next, but that a core group remains steady, and that at least a dozen members are present at each session. (If a major studio is appealing on behalf of one of its films, that studio’s reps on the board are not allowed to participate.)

At least one clergyman is also present for the screening and discussion, although that person does not vote. 

The process begins with a screening of the film in question, after which the filmmakers are allowed to present arguments as to why the initial rating should be overturned. A representative for the MPAA then explains why the film received the rating it did, and why the rating should stand. The filmmakers can offer a rebuttal, and board members are allowed to ask questions.

After a private discussion between board members, a vote is taken; it requires a two-thirds majority to overturn the initial rating.

“Most of the time, I think we find the right answer, and ignore outside influences,” said the board member. “We’re told to look at it from the perspective of a parent, and that’s what I try to do.”

Major studios, he added, generally don’t use the appeals process. “Let’s face it, the people making movies at the studios have the ability to know how to get the rating they want. If you don’t want an R rating, you don’t appeal it – you deal with the director while you’re shooting or cutting the movie.”

But Michael Tucker thinks that’s a problem with how the system is used.

“I don’t think filmmakers appeal often enough, and that’s held back progress,” he said. “I think TV has totally moved on to a different space, where more things are allowed, while the film world is trapped in the past. And until more filmmakers take advantage of the appeals process, it could stay that way.”

The appeal for “A Film Unfinished” is the first to be heard by the appeals board in many months, though another appeal on behalf of an undisclosed film will take place shortly. 

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