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A Serbian Film: Kiddie Porn? Historical Satire? Both?

Many movies have aimed to portray the darkest recesses of the human imagination, but few have gone as far as A Serbian Film. Incorporating all manner of taboo from pedophilia to necrophilia into a wildly over-the-top political parable, this Film is definitely extreme. But is it illegal?

A prosecutor in Barcelona has filed charges against Ángel Sala, the head of the nearby Sitges Fantasy and Horror Film Festival, which takes place every October and is among the world's most prestigious showcases for extreme cinema.

Pursuing the foreign director and producer of A Serbian Film would be difficult logistically, so instead the prosecutor charged Sala — who programmed an adults-only screening in 2010 — with exhibiting "child pornography."

Director Srdjan Spasojevic described the pitch for the film by email: In order to secure wealth for his family, a retired porn star plunges back into the depths of hard-core film production, "only this time, his diabolical employer has unthinkable terrors in store for him."

The key words are "unthinkable terrors." (Beware of spoilers on the film's litany of horrors.)

The opening scene sets a morality-free tone: A couple is merely having sex ... until it becomes clear that the sex is being viewed on television ... by a child ... who is the son of the male porn star on screen. A subsequent drug-fueled hacking murder during intercourse seems almost conventional compared to a scene involving suffocation via oral sex; in another, a guy is screwed to death through an empty eye socket.

Film offers up an astoundingly over-the-top metaphor for modern Serbian history that is both central to the justification for its absurdly graphic vision and entirely irrelevant to most of its viewers. Students of the Balkans are far less likely to see the film than fans of truly extreme cinematic experiences.

A Serbian Film's most outrageous scene exemplifies the extent to which Spasojevic merges national political commentary with obscenity: An infant is born and promptly fucked. Yes, self-destructive Serbians screwed their nation's future, perhaps irreparably; the metaphors make incredibly graphic sense. But there is no getting past the unprecedented imagery.

That likely is why a Catholic family organization in Spain filed a legal complaint that spurred the Barcelona prosecutor to watch the film. Under Article 189.7 of the Spanish Penal Code, the head of the Sitges festival could face three months to one year in prison and/or a fine for exhibiting "pornography in which minors" are used, whether directly or indirectly via altered or modified voices or images. (Sala declined to comment to the Weekly.)

Spasojevic notes that the nonexplicit child-rape scenes are mere portrayals, not reality, and no children were exploited in their making. In one scene, an actor pretends to have sex with a doll, while in another he pretends to copulate with false legs. The latter scene includes an insert shot of a child's face, filmed on another set.

In the film festival world, the charge is seen largely as a misguided legal attack, not on actual child pornography, but on the mere idea of fictional portrayals of the rape of children. "The same criteria used to go after this film could be used to go after many others," José Luis Rebordinos, the director of the San Sebastian Film Festival, wrote by email. Such content has been crucial to films ranging from Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education to Barbra Streisand's The Prince of Tides. "If it were child pornography, it would have been denounced by hundreds of programmers, dozens of juries and the spectators who have seen it and awarded it."

Rebordinos had planned to screen the film at his own festival, but a last-minute judicial order prevented that. Since Spain's restoration of democracy, this is believed to be the first case of a fiction film spurring a criminal case over fictional sexual content.

A Serbian Film has played without incident at film festivals around the world, and has won various jury prizes. An edited form of the film is slated for U.S. release on May 13; flixfling.com promises to offer an "unrated" version online.

Prominent advocates include Eli Roth, the force behind the Hostel franchise, who jokingly tweeted that A Serbian Film is his litmus test for dates: "If she can make it through, she's a keeper!" He later posted a more serious tweet: "Whatever you think of @SerbianFilm, a film festival director should not spend a year in jail for exhibiting a filmmaker's work."

"Festival programmers need to stay on the cutting edge, need to program transgressive material and support fringe filmmaking," emailed Tim League, co-founder of Austin's Fantastic Fest. League, who showed A Serbian Film in 2010 as part of the program he curates at SXSW, readily acknowledges that it went "further than Hostel or The Human Centipede ... [and it is] one of the most extreme movies I've ever seen." But he notes that Spasojevic's film is far from pure provocation, describing it as "incredibly artistic" and "loaded with sociopolitical commentary."

The film's Serbian director, perhaps not surprisingly, offered a starker analysis. "I hope that this is only an isolated incident showing a temporal insanity of the prosecutors," Spasojevic wrote. "If it's not, then freedom of speech and creative freedom everywhere is in even deeper trouble than I thought."


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