AN OPEN LETTER TO INTERESTED PARTIES IN AUSTRALIA AND ELSEWHERE CONCERNING THE CANCELLED QUEERDOC SCREENING OF DAMON AND HUNTER: DOING IT TOGETHER
My name is Tony Comstock. I am an American filmmaker, and the director of the documentary DAMON AND HUNTER: DOING IT TOGETHER, a film that explores a gay relationship with an unusual level of candor, sentiment, and sensuality.
Last July it was my privilege and honor to be invited to show DAMON AND HUNTER at Queer Screen’s 2006 queerDOC festival. Unfortunately, in mid-August, the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) denied Queer Screen’s request for a festival exemption to show the film.
Since the decision, there has been some speculation that the OFLC might grant an exemption to an altered version of DAMON AND HUNTER, and that this altered version might be screened at queerDOC. This is not to be. On August 31 I informed Queer Screen that I could not alter the film to meet the OFLC’s demands.
As there are already people who have purchased tickets to see DAMON AND HUNTER at queerDOC, I thought an explanation of my reasons was in order.
First, I would like to thank David Pearce, film programmer for Queer Screen for putting his professional reputation on the line by selecting DAMON AND HUNTER: DOING IT TOGETHER, and I would like to thank Lex Lindsay, Queer Screen’s manager, for putting his festival on the line to fight for his fellow Australians’ right to see this film. Making a film means nothing if people cannot see it, and I am ever grateful to David, Lex, and the Queer Screen organization for their efforts to try and put this film on a screen, in a cinema, so that it could be experienced by each viewer as a part of an audience. There is something magical about being in the dark, with a group of people you’ve never met before, responding to the film as one. It’s amplifying and affirming to your own emotions, and it’s a shame that people in Sydney have been denied the opportunity to experience DAMON AND HUNTER in this way.
Conversely, I am deeply disappointed by the OFLC’s refusal to grant an exemption for DAMON AND HUNTER: DOING IT TOGETHER to play at queerDOC, which is the world’s only film festival devoted to gay and lesbian documentary films. Through their actions, the OFLC has needlessly inflicted financial hardship on an already under-staffed and under-funded organization, and has almost certainly ensured that this film will never legally be seen in a legitimate venue in Australia.
The OFLC’s X-rating of DAMON AND HUNTER: DOING IT TOGETHER means the film cannot legally be screened publicly anywhere, save a video peep booth in Canberra. The OFLC’s X-rating means the DVD cannot legally be used by gay men’s health organizations (as is already being done here in the US). The OFLC’s X-rating means the DVD cannot legally be sold in Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, or New South Wales. And of course the OFLC’s denial of an exemption means a film festival cannot legally screen DAMON AND HUNTER. This is nothing short of a ban. For the OFLC to suggest that it is anything else is disingenuous at best.
By statute, the OFLC holds, and has exercised in the past, wide discretion in the ratings applied to sexually explicit material, and in the granting of festival exemptions. In this instance, for reasons known only to them, they’ve chosen to hide behind the letter of the law, rather than honor the legislative intent, which is their ultimate charter. I would offer that their decisions, in particular their refusal to grant a festival exemption to for the queerDOC screening is heavy-handed, serves no legitimate purpose in maintaining civil order, and is wildly disconnected with the wishes of the vast majority of Australian people.
Since the film’s release, I’ve been overwhelmed and delighted by the enthusiastic response Australians have given DAMON AND HUNTER: DOING IT TOGETHER. The film has received good reviews, festival laurels, and a warm audience response, all of which confirms my own experience and belief that Australians and Australian society are tolerant and progressive. I’d venture if you asked 100 Australians if an audience of adults, mostly gay men, should be denied the chance to watch a film that celebrates the very essence of what it means to be gay, the overwhelming majority of them would be horrified at the thought. They’d probably go on to say “Thank goodness we don’t do things like that here in Australia!” That’s the insidious thing about censorship; unless it’s done with a thick black marker, most people never realize it’s happened.
There has been some suggestion that an accommodation with the OFLC might have been reached, that the film could have been shown with the sexual content removed, while preserving the artistic and political intent of the film. Indeed, in the past weeks I have spent many hours and thousands of dollars in an attempt to re-cut the film in accordance with the OFLC’s instructions. But in the end I could not reconcile my reasons for making this film with the demands made by the OFLC.
I made this film because I believe depictions of truly joyous and wholesome sex, depictions that represent the overwhelmingly positive and important role that our sexuality plays in our humanity, are all but absent from the cinematic landscape. Moreover, in an age where it is easier than ever to see sexually explicit imagery, it is harder than ever to find imagery that reflects the common reality of sex: that sex is nice; that sex is normal; that sex is good. I made this film because even today, here in America, in Australia, and elsewhere, the state’s role in the most intimate aspects of the lives of its citizens remains an open question.
To show DAMON AND HUNTER as demanded by Australian censorship laws, with all of the sex obliterated would have been to cut out the very heart and soul of this film. It would be a disservice to every person who came to the screening in the hope of seeing a film that would acknowledge their sexuality as something wholesome and noble. To show this film with the sex obliterated is to lend weight to the still pervasive and profound belief that there is something shameful about the giving and receiving of sexual pleasure. To do so under government threat would be to capitulate to everything that I have struggled against, and would acknowledge that the state has ultimate dominion over our minds and our bodies. To do so would be to concede to values regarding freedom and human dignity I find alien and repugnant.
I have been a photographer my entire adult life. In the name of bearing witness to the human condition I’ve documented unspeakable suffering, violence, and death; and for that I’ve been praised as a courageous witness. When I review the scope of people, places and events that have passed before my lens, I am unable to comprehend the censor’s rational for “protecting” adults from photographic images of sexuality. Adults have the capacity and the right to choose for themselves what sort of images they wish to see. They do not need to be protected from images of sex, and least of all from a film like DAMON AND HUNTER. In the face of horrific images we are exposed to each and every day, the OFLC decision is not only unfair, it is perverse.
DAMON AND HUNTER is a film about the joy love and sex brings into our lives. DAMON AND HUNTER is about our manifest right as adults to experience that joy, regardless of whom or how we love. DAMON AND HUNTER is about the dignity we find when we are true to ourselves in the face of adversity and oppression. DAMON AND HUNTER: DOING IT TOGETHER is a film about what’s best in all of us.