‘A Serbian Film’ – The problem of ‘Torture Porn’

With the release of Srdjan Spasojevic’s feature A Serbian Film, investigates the stigma attached to violent cinema in the wake of Hollywood’s ‘torture porn’ obsession

It all begun with a man called James Wan, creator of the infamous Saw in 2004. Despite a comparatively long-standing tradition of ultraviolent film-making in Japan, heralded by cult director Takashi Miike, many would argue that this was the birth of one of Hollywood’s most recent obsessions: ‘torture porn’.

‘Torture Porn’ for those who don’t know, is a relatively new term used to describe a particular strand of cinema which fetishises sadistic violence and torture, and where plot and artistic value become a secondary, even tertiary concern. It is, to put it plainly, cinema which uses violence for the sake of violence, to arouse, and to shock. It is a genre of film which tests the limits of what we can call ‘art’ and which raises a host of ethical and sociological questions, such as: why has ‘torture porn’ become so profitable? Why do we want to spend our money on this kind of horror? And how should we differentiate between violence used for arousing ends, and violence used to artistic ends?

One of the most important questions for me, though, is: how does the label ‘torture porn’ affect violent films outside the genre, and how do we decide what falls outside this genre? The fact is,that what is generally recognised as ‘torture porn’ – films such as Hostel and Saw – are widely considered degraded forms and largely lacking in plot or artistic merit (just one of the reasons that endless sequels can be churned out). These are consumer products, which are self-indulgent in their capitalisation of violence. Not art-forms. However, as films such as Hostel and Saw have become popular, the label ‘torture porn’ has come to be applied to a wider range of film. Its meaning has become conflated with film outside of this narrow capitalist avenue of media production. Whilst ‘torture porn’ was originally a term which quite strictly applied to these consumer films, which are pornographic because of their rampant aestheticism, many other films which do have plot, are stylised, and have artistic goals, have been mindlessly and dangerously branded in this way.

A Serbian Film comes at the climax of six years of escalating horror and has, this week, stolen the title for being the most censored film in the past sixteen years. A Serbian Film threatens to reach further than comparatively tame movies such as Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, Roland Joffé’s Captivity and the genre’s newest success The Human Centipede. Even after censorship the film features scenes of necrophilia, paedophilic rape, incest, tooth-pulling, impalement, ‘skull-fucking’, infanticide, disembowelment, eye-gouging, decapitation, suicide, asphyxiation, and psychological torture, topped off with a hefty dose of misogyny, which begs the question, where do we draw the line?

Many violent films today, particularly the Saw franchise, market themselves almost exclusively on shock value, claiming that each and every re-make is ‘the goriest yet’. ‘Torture porn’ is a label which has seeped down from the world of Hollywood and infected the language with which we speak of films featuring high levels of violence in general. The trend in Hollywood of making movies ultraviolent for their own sake, has had destructive consequences for so many great works of art which require violent intensities for effect. However, whether the term is narrow-minded or not, A Serbian Film begs us to question how open-minded we can or should be in this situation. Is this film so violent that it is simply unacceptable?

Films such as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, and Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, though highly controversial, use graphic violence to achieve a clear and successful artistic goal, and have still been victims of the label ‘torture porn’. This is not to say that films falling outside of this American Hollywood framework cannot, or do not, ever end up indulging in the kind of pornographic violence which characterises ‘torture porn’; for even films with the best intentions can lose sight of artistic aims and focus too heavily on the surface of film, the aesthetics of gore. But very often violent films are branded ‘torture porn’ because they exhibit similar violent tendencies to those films which have made their name within the genre. What must be strongly considered in these situations is what the violence makes us feel. Is the violence used depthless, like conventional ‘torture porn’? Or is there a message lurking behind this violent facade? Directors utilising violence in film nowadays must exercise care, for if their intended artistic vision is not achieved, a project’s integrity can be entirely undermined. A film can all too easily slide away from art into pornography – the line between the two is often more blurred than we would like to believe.

Director Srdjan Spasojevic has already come under a significant amount of criticism for the violence exhibited in his movie, and has defended his work by stating that A Serbian Film “is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government… It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about.” Too often movies claim extreme violence as part of an artistic message which is never fully realised, and A Serbian Film, in this respect, is a prime example of a film which forces us to question the artistic effect of such violence. Is such an excess of violence shocking and functional or do we become so desensitised by it that any intended effect is nullified? And if this is the case, can films which are completely numbing, and cease to be shocking, be deemed ‘torture porn’ at all?

Spasojevic has argued that this excess of violence is what cinema needs today, in order to push art forward, and to launch it into new territories. He attributes his violent filmic representations to his disillusionment and betrayal by the former Yugoslavian government: “We’re turning metaphors into flesh… We feel violated and raped and we show that in the film”. Graphic violence is a way for Spasojevic to “tell [his] story in the most effective and exact way”, and it is essentially down to the individuals who dare to watch the film to decide for themselves whether this method of expression is justified.

The excessive violence of A Serbian Film immediately relegates it to the genre of ‘torture porn’, but its politically engaged message seeks to redeem it from this damning classification. Any judgement as to its character will be based around whether this excess of violence is necessary for its greater meaning to shine through. ‘Torture porn’ is called ‘torture porn’ explicitly because there is nothing deeper to it than the bare aesthetics of violence, but similarly an artistic vision requiring violence which does not achieve its end goal, opens itself up to interpretation through this classification.

Of course it is a difficult to draw a line between what can be considered art, and what can be considered pornography , but needless to say, whether A Serbian Film is deemed ‘torture porn’ or not, one should exercise care when using the label, for it is dogmatic in its nature. It is a term which can have a potentially slanderous and defamatory effect on works of cinema with a genuine artistic goal. It is also a dangerous term which has often become liberally imposed upon any movie which demonstrates a use of violence which is deemed ‘above average’. It is a term which is narrow-minded and too frequently used without thought, by those who would condemn graphic violence without analysing what it signifies. And it is a term whose influence and libellous effect is grossly understated, as it threatens to limit any artistic expression through violent representation to pornography; to blindly judge and degrade films before they are analysed. So I ask you, next time you see a movie labelled ‘torture porn’, see it for yourself, and think about whether it is a fair categorisation. Only time will tell which camp A Serbian Film falls into, whether it will be considered an endeavouring work of art, or a self-indulgently pornographic consumer item.

10 comments

  1. Idiot
    Quote ‘Is such an excess of violence shocking and functional or do we become so desensitised by it that any intended effect is nullified’
    Have you ever had your head beaten in by a stranger, a mugger, a rapist, your father and say ”STOP’ I no longer get your point you’ve hit me too hard and for too long I just don’t understand anymore why you are hitting me, plus, when you were beating my brother you stoped after 10 mins?
    This just is not fair!
    Get real! Find yourself in a genocide and then comment anything but humble you arrogant sod!

    Reply Report

  2. 17 Dec ’10 at 1:23 pm

    Gareth Davies

    Well. . . Have you?
    I’m talking about film here, not real life. There is always a certain amount of abstraction in filmic representation that will seperate any in-film experience from any ‘real’ experience. I am speaking from personal experience here. Violence can be used to effect, but its effect is obviously heightened when it is contrasted with scenes of non-violence. 90 minutes of pure violence is clearly far less effective than a film like irreversible which makes this violence a focal point in the film, but not to a saturating excess. What is the point in showing violence if there is no contrast to make it effective. I know for a fact that to watch a serbian film is to watch a film which is saturated by violence. But of course seeing as you’ve been beaten within an inch of your life (on more than one occassion?) AND lived through a genocide, you’d know better.

    Reply Report

  3. Good article. Do you think perhaps this ‘genre’ has arisen due to the fact that everything else is so damn sanitized. I mean, we have a Die Hard film where John McClain can’t say fuck and apparently people don’t bleed from gunshots anymore.
    I LOVE movie violence. It’s an art-form in and of itself, but for it to matter the story needs to be there or it is just (PAY ATTENTION ‘ANON’.) special effects. It needs to be organic. Not just “oh time for some violence.”
    If I watch Shogun Assassin, sure, I wanna see a bad motherfucking Ronin decapitating the Shogunate spies . . . but only because they destroyed his peaceful existence (and the real star of those films is little Tizuro.)

    Reply Report

  4. I actually think that perhaps its the opposite. It seems to me that recent years there’s been a kind of arms-race esque escalation in violence in movies. Each violent film seems to attempt to trump the next. I think that maybe A Serbian Film, comes at the peak. What more can be done in film, that A Serbian Film doesn’t?

    So in that respect I’d be inclined to say that A Serbian Film, and the rise of this genre isn’t so much a reaction against contemporary cinema, but a capitalisation on the success of violent artforms stretching back to the 70s and 80s, in the form of the horror movies of people like Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato, and the culture of the ultraviolent b-movie. I think that ‘torture porn’ could be seen as a more stern and pathological development of these roots.

    I agree with you that there is a time and place for violence, and of course when you see something like Shogun Assassin the plot gives reason for that violence. But when you hear Srdjan Spasojevic saying that the film is about his experiences in Serbia, you’ve got to wonder whether violent representation is really the filter through which we’d expect that to be portrayed, or whether it is really the right or appropriate way to express that sense of betrayal. Of course I don’t have the authority to say whether that’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but it certainly raises questions about the need for and use of this kind of violence.

    Reply Report

  5. 18 Dec ’10 at 1:03 am

    That zombie in Zombi gallantly fighting a bloody shark

    While I agree with your main contention, that ‘torture porn’ (I would actually exclude the first Saw film from that category*, but none of the others in the series) films are entirely artless and redundant, to wholly dismiss the trend towards greater violence in cinema is potentially dangerous. In general I find all censorship abhorrent (one must be careful not to always conflate censorship with classification, although of the course the intersection of the two is the key battleground here), but one must be careful not to fall into Mary Whitehouse style calls for censorship. Whilst one can continually bemoan the greater and greater marketisation of cinema (or was it ever thus?) one can’t help but feel that in this regard cinema-goers/DVD-buyers will vote with their feet/wallets and there is little else earnest cinephiles such as yourself can do.

    On a similar topic, Martin Baker’s book on the ‘video nasty’ era of censorship is highly rec (it’s very short and in the uni library…). It’s very informative on the role that violence plays in cinema, but also on why the need to dichotomise ‘art’ and the ‘artless’ is pretty redundant.

    * The original is actually a decently constructed horror-thriller, largely devoid of graphic ‘torture-porn’ sequences that are seemingly the main appeal of the rest of the series (I’ve seen maybe II-V, I’m not sure – but they were all dire). The original film has more in common with ‘Cube’ than say ‘Saw 3D’.

    Reply Report

  6. The movie is a commentary on the current social and political state of affairs in Serbia and not about the balkan wars .

    I don’t understand why the horror genre was chosen to make these political messages though . It attracts the wrong people . I mean , who in the west , that wants to watch this , is watching it for its artistic value ? Let’s be honest , there is a lot of weird and scary people out there who think this is just fun .

    Reply Report

  7. Thanks for your comment ‘That zombie . . . ‘
    The book sounds great, and I’ll be sure to check it out.
    I think you misread me though,
    quote: “to wholly dismiss the trend towards greater violence in cinema is potentially dangerous”.
    I’m not trying to dismiss all violence in films at all. That would be puritanic, and narrow minded. If anything, this is what I was trying to argue against. If I were dismissing any ‘trend towards greater violence in cinema’ I would be practicing the same kind of dogmatism that I criticise the umbrella term ‘torture porn’ for, rendering my argument obsolete.

    But maybe it is I who have misinterpreted you. What do you mean when you use the word ‘dismiss’.

    Reply Report

  8. 21 Dec ’10 at 4:49 pm

    That zombie in Zombi gallantly fighting a bloody shark

    Maybe I wasn’t entirely clear – I was pointing out how the (wholly justified) critical revulsion at basically artless violence can be conflated with the argument that cinema is too violent and that we should stamp it out (i.e. censorship which I broadly oppose).

    I was stating that it’s a fine line between decrying essentially crap cinema and becoming part of the latter brigade (it is this distinction which certain chapters of Baker’s book makes – including a strong defence of some of the films on the banned list, not because they were any good (quite the opposite infact) but on the grounds that filmmakers should be allowed to indulge in such on-screen violence).

    Reply Report

  9. I think its a fantastic movie. I think, unfortunately, people won’t be able to see beyond their initial outrage at the film to discover this, however, because they have read too many reviews, where the author lists the vile acts depicted, without contextualising them whatsoever.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s a horrible film. It depicts vile acts, and is thoroughly shocking. But the point is, the point which so, so many are failing to see, and the point which sets it apart from ‘torture porn’ trash, is that it doesn’t glorify in the violence. Not once. It shows the acts it portrays as despicable, disgusting and vomit-inducing, just as they are in real life. In Hostel, or the Saw franchise, we’re encouraged to be entertained by flesh being ripped, and people being killed in intriguing ways. This is something entirely different. The masterful unease which the movie instigates, the feeling of despair it creates, clearly, CLEARLY, wants you to be disgusted with what you’re seeing, not entertained. Because a political allegory for a conflict in which thousands died, and things just as bad as in this film actually occurred, should NOT be entertaining.

    This film is not for everyone. It’s probably not for many people, sadly, because it’s well made – incredibly well acted, and, I believe, is a genuinely important film. If it weren’t so brutal, it would be a classic. Unfortunately, dumbing down it’s brutality, dumbs down it’s many messages.

    Reply Report

  10. I think Glenn might feel a bit silly now: “but for it to matter the story needs to be there or it is just (PAY ATTENTION ‘ANON’.) special effects.”
    I think you need to dig a little deeper and at the very least read what people post I suppose I should say (PAY ATTENTION ‘GLENN’).

    Reply Report

Leave a comment



Please note our disclaimer relating to comments submitted. Please do not post pretending to be another person. Nouse is not responsible for user-submitted content.