Prano Bailey-Bond on ‘Censor’, Metafiction, and Cathartic Cinema

Photo by Mark Chapman

With her debut feature Censor, British filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond tells the story of Enid (Niamh Algar), a renowned censor in the 1980s – also known as the ‘video nasty’ era – who, as a custodian of high morals, decides which horror films make the cut and be seen. It’s only after she, unexpectedly, succumbs to the influence of banned films, that her inner world begins to unravel in front of the spectator’s hungry eyes. The style of Censor plays with the mingling of boundaries between fiction and reality, and in it, there’s a strong psychological (and political) stake – about formative experiences and repression, about the detriments of sanitising art, and film as a life-altering experience. A perfect Halloween watch, Censor is now available to stream on Hulu.

Savina Petkova: I must admit, I’ve been thinking about Censor ever since I first saw it, about how it captures the quintessence of cinema. Let’s start with the boundaries between fiction and reality, which can be summarised as the essence of cinema in a way. Do you remember any films that prompted you as a viewer to ask yourself about this dichotomy early one? In the horror genre, or just in general?

Prano Bailey-Bond: Yeah, I think there are, there are a couple of films that explore it, one does it very subtly, or, you know, in small details, and the other, in a much more obvious way. They were both films I went back to and looked at when I was writing Censor, and one of them is [David Lynch’s] Blue Velvet. In that film, we’re talking about the dark underbelly of society, and this repressed shadow self trapped in society. The only place in Lumberton, which is the squeaky clean themed town, the only place where any darkness can exist is on the television in these film noir, qua prime dramas. And I always loved that detail. But, you know, the darkness is acceptable when it’s on screen. And then also there’s, you know, [Robert Altman’s] The Player and its kind of meta-weave, where we’re weaving between fiction and reality… Those two films are really fun to go back to and rewatch and think about. But more so thinking about those themes, I was thinking about real life and the video nasty era. And the conversations that were going on. In terms of the tabloid press, you know, that people really believed that elements of these films, were going to somehow come out of the screen and infect our minds and make us do terrible things. And I don’t believe that happens, I don’t believe in that [kind of] relationship between fiction and reality. But I do believe in another slightly more interesting, more varied conversation that goes on between fiction and reality. In, for example, you know, times in my own life where I’ve made a film, and through the fiction, I’ve been creating, learnt something else about myself or my own life. And I would never have known that, if I hadn’t have been creating that fiction. So I think it can be quite a positive thing. I don’t think it has to be a negative conversation.

SP: What you said also prompted me to think about the ways film can change reality. But at the same time, reality also affects the way that films are made, the way films look, and all these two fold in a relationship that Censor also alludes to. And that brings me to the idea that cinema is cathartic. And I wanted to pick your brain on that. Do you think that cinema and providers should provide a cathartic outlet? Since Censor works in a more subtle way, is that an idea that you had in mind to explore?

PBB: Yeah, I think that was the thing that ultimately did it for me, I came to as my answer through making the film, a desire to explore our relationship with horror and our relationship with violent material. And I often ask myself, “Why am I so interested in horror? Why do I want to create this? Why do I want to watch this? What is it that draws me to this? And this person can’t watch it and doesn’t want to go there? What does that say about me? What does that say about that person?”And ultimately, I think that exactly what you’re saying there’s a catharsis in experiencing and making the losses in storytelling as well. And that’s why it’s important to humans. But you know, we work through things when we tell a story and the audience, while listening to the story, is able to experience something and perhaps exorcise something. You know, for example, when I watched The Elephant Man (1980), a few months ago, towards the end of one of the lockdowns here in the UK, I, I just had the most amazing cry, like this amazing, cathartic sob that I didn’t even know I needed, but it was just brilliant. It felt like I was being guided through therapy, just having this big cry. And I thought, “Wow, that’s so healthy. There’s something really purifying about that.” And you could say the same thing about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but in a really different way. But that’s pure terror and pure dread.

SP: Yeah, just the vague idea that, Oh, I’m exiting the cinema or I’m pausing this video, and I’m relieved because this horror has not happened to me, it can’t happen to me. So we’re a bit sheltered in that sense. But the spectator is always very much implicated in the way that the Censor’s film’s aesthetic is built. For example, the ratio changes [between wide – 2.39 : 1 – and full frame – 1.33 : 1], and then the fact that the audience knows more than the protagonist, and especially, I’m thinking about the idea of passive versus active spectator. Do you believe that there’s an activity or passivity in the spectator? And it’s obviously related to the question of video nasties in the morale of it all?

PBB: Well, when I was talking to film censors, about their role and their work and how they watch these films, they said they needed to watch the films, both objectively and subjectively. As a censor, you’re watching it, and you’re trying to be aware of your own experience watching this film, and how is it making you feel and why and if that’s okay. But also you’re watching it with an objective viewpoint of how might it make this person feel and how might it make this person behave. And one film censor jokingly described that to me as almost like an out of body experience, because you’re trying to watch yourself watch a film. So in some ways, there was a lot of that kind of thinking, while making the film because you’re telling the story of somebody who’s a spectator, she’s watching this, this work. Enid is trying to be objective. At the beginning of the film, she’s detached, you know, from what she’s watching, even when her colleagues says, “You know what, that didn’t affect you?” and, and she says, “I’m just trying to do my job.” because she’s censoring her own feelings. And she’s not allowing that subjective experience to happen with the films that she’s watching. But that was also so that then we see what does get her when she watches “Don’t Go Into the Church” [one of the videotapes in the film]  and that’s when there’s no way out of this experience because now we’re going into like the true heart of events subjective viewing of this film, so it’s quite a funny you know, you end up in this sort of meta-loophole when he’s done start talking about the audience watching Enid experiencing watching her watching a film.

SP: So when you were writing the script, did you envision that would happen eventually, this meta-fiction wormhole?

PBB: Not so much with the audience, but definitely I thought about it with film censors. And I thought it’s going to be interesting that there’s going to be some film censors who have to watch this to rate the film. They actually told me that it was one of the most meta experiences they’ve ever had, because they’re watching people watch a film and discuss it and then they’re watching the film and then they’re discussing it so they said it was a very surreal experience. But I’m never going to be able to experience Censor in the same way as the audience who come in fresh watching it, so I’m interested to know what people’s experiences are, definitely in terms of watching people watching things.

SP: Okay, so even though we as critics encourage people to see Censor in the cinema right and to go and watch it as many times as they can. In the cinema it’s another type of spectatorship, than, when you have for example, the DVD or the Hulu VOD release, and a major difference is that you have the controls. So in the film, for example, Enid uses these controllers to to judge the film properly, it’s part of her job to pause and rewind, and fast forward, and confirm these images again and again. And I was thinking about the future viewers when when the film is out, just at the tip of your fingertips, how would that change the experience for them? And this leads me to ask you about the final sequence which features the splicing between two worlds together – a happy and a terrifying one.

PBB: Yeah, it’s funny, because that’s why there was a very conscious decision of why Enid would watch “Don’t Go In the Church” in a projector room, and not on a TV screen where she’d have control of, you know, when she could stop. It was important that she couldn’t stop that film. So the other ones, like you say, she’s able to rewind and re-watch. And a lot of that was also because video was a new form of technology and one of the things that people were scared of was that people will have control over this in their own home, and they can rewind, rewatch things and study things over and over and over again. And I like taking that back in terms of like, in its backstory as well, in this idea that she’s been trying to rewind and re-watch this day that she can’t access, you know, this part of her videotape that’s been sort of scrubbed out. She’s trying to find through the fuzzy images, and what actually happened to her sister. I guess I was thinking a lot about format and texture in all of that. And in the experience of watching things on video and the way things degrade on video when you rewind and re-watch it over and over again. And then in that last sequence, you’re really playing with the idea of imagine, you know, somebody taped over a video and you get those little cracks where you see what was there underneath. So it was taking that idea and, and then fusing that with the narrative and the characters.

SP: That makes a palimpsest out of the last sequence, these contradictory images that were superposed and coexist together. So what was the process of putting together this scene in particular? You worked with editor Mike Townes (Saint Maud) on this one, as well as cinematographer Annika Summerson (Mogul Mowgli)?

PBB: In terms of the process of those particular shots, it was very interesting. We recently did a Blu-ray commentary, where Annika [Summerson] was describing that scene, when we shot it as the moment where she felt every department came to the, because it’s not just the edit, you know, it was also when we locked off the frame. So you have your shot of, for example, the parents, and they’re really happy. And then we lock the camera, and we had to change costumes. So there then in a kind of more grey tone, we changed all the background, we removed all the flowers, even though it’s just for a few frames. So you have the costume and art department, cinematography, you know, the DOP is changing the filters and the lighting, and then obviously, the edit and sound. So every single department is working together. I mean, obviously, all the way through the film, every departments working together, but in those few frames, you see everybody’s work come together to make that happen on screen, which I liked the idea that it was, yeah, this kind of grand finale for all the departments like we’re also seeing harmony at that point. And obviously, the performances are so crucial, and they were really trusting. Because they’re doing big performances and it’s all very over the top. And some actors might be scared of going there because they might think it’s bad. And there they were, all of them, really trusting of me on set and just threw themselves into it – they were amazing.

Interviewed by Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian London-based freelance critic. In her spare time, she is a PhD candidate with a project on animal metamorphoses in contemporary European films. She lives from one film festival to the other, always on the hunt for animality, otherness, and visceral filmmaking. Savina admires bold story-telling as much as feeling-telling and defines her approach to criticism as sharp and ethically challenging. She is a regular MUBI Notebook contributor and writes for Electric Ghost Magazine, photogenie, and Girls On Tops. You can find her on Twitter @SavinaPetkova

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