It’s a film, not a hand grenade

Not since 1990 has Canada’s border service made itself look so stupid.

Of course there was that time in 1986 when it stopped The Joy of Gay Sex, a wholesome little tome that had been legally available in Canada for almost a decade.

But no, the lowest point was 1990, when it stopped Jane Rule’s The Young in One Another’s Arms, an award-winning book by a much-loved author that had been available in Canadian bookstores for more than a dozen years. That really made the literati sit up and take notice of the intellectual brutality at their borders.

Last month, however, customs outdid themselves and stopped Patrik, Age 1.5, a film so cuddly, sweet, and family-loving — I saw it last spring at Inside Out — that I’m sure it could screen during family hour, after Friends, and no one would even notice that it was a gay film.

Of the other two queer films detained, one, Clapham Junction, was commissioned by the BBC, and the other, I Can’t Think Straight, played at the Carlton a year ago. Two of the three previously played Inside Out Toronto and all three were on their way to the Ottawa version of same when they were detained, presumably (though it wasn’t stated), on suspicion of obscenity.

Customs tried to blame a courier company snafu but ultimately revealed only bureaucratic blindness. A small, non-profit film festival stood to lose up to $12,000 in ticket sales if it didn’t get its films in time, but, Oh, sorry, we’re closed this weekend and we could take up to 30 days to get back to you. This for films widely described on Google. (The films were finally released three days after the festival ended.)

What really gets me, though, is not the officiousness, the incompetence or the complete lack of a service ethic (you don’t work weekends?), but the arbitrary authoritarianism. If the police deem something obscene, they have to prove it in court. If customs thinks something might be obscene, they just stop it and review it in private.

You can appeal the decision, but only in writing, and then it comes down to your view versus theirs. Battling government assertions of obscenity is a little like contesting your parent’s rules. Ask “Why?” and the answer will be “Because I told you so.”

Should your goods be deemed obscene, you have the choice of shipping them back at your own expense or abandoning them, in which case they’ll be considered forfeit and destroyed, kind of like the Inquisition.

It’s all based in nice neat rules and regulations, of course, but ones so complex as to defeat all but the most devoted Kafka scholar. Customs takes its definition of obscenity from the Criminal Code but spins the implications into a nine-page memorandum called, in a scary emulation of other freedom-crunching legislation, D9-1-1.


Reading this is an exercise in head-scratching. One whole tangled paragraph is devoted to the self-evident (one would think) proposition that it’s unreasonable “to unreasonably detain and prohibit material that is not obscene.” No kidding. Other paragraphs talk of “tests” for obscenity that are no more than vague guesses about what Canadians as a whole think about representations of sex.

Even allowing for government’s penchant for turning the bone-crunchingly simple into the bureaucratically complex, this is absurd, not to mention dangerous. The more an authoritarian organization goes on about what is and isn’t obscene, the more room it leaves for “interpretation,” which is to say, misuse.

Most pernicious of all, though, is the idea — embedded in the D9-1-1 memorandum — that a book or a film might be so dangerous, so likely to cause “harm,” that it warrants preventive detention. That’s a practice more suitable to a war on terrorism than a tour of the arts. Under few other conditions do we allow security services to hold people, let alone images, without speedy trial.

Books and films aren’t violent thugs, massed at the border, ready to do “harm.” They’re intellectual artifacts. At best (or worse), they influence. Raising the spectre of harm is merely a busybody power play.

I doubt we’ll ever know what really motivated the Inside Out imbroglio. But whether it was bureaucratic incompetence, homophobia or simple censorship, one thing is for sure. Customs officials shouldn’t have the power to stop ideas, images or books — probably not at all, and certainly not without a great deal more accountability.

As much as I’d like to believe we are protecting somebody from harm by designating material obscene, mostly what we’re doing, I think, is interfering with the most basic freedom of all, the freedom to make up your own mind.

Brent Ledger appears in every other issue of Xtra.

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