I have to admit I never gave much thought to the film rating process. As long as I’ve been alive there has been a system for warning parents about movie content, and although it’s been amended twice within my lifetime (adding both the PG-13 and NC-17 ratings) I never considered who was making the decisions. According to Jack Valenti, recently retired president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the ratings are selected by a board of raters who represent the average parent, with children between the ages of five and seventeen. Yet the actual people responsible for applying ratings to movies remain shrouded in mystery; their identities kept secret in order to “protect them from external pressures.” Meanwhile, critics, including famed film critic Roger Ebert, suggest the MPAA has shown biases and inconsistencies. So what are the policies given and who are these people who determining a movie’s ratings? That’s what This Film Is Not Yet Rated sets out to unmask.
The film balances testimonials from directors and filmmakers with an ongoing investigation with a private detective hired by director Kirby Dick to uncover the identities of the mysterious raters. Although bigger names like John Waters and Kevin Smith offer some stories about the ratings battles they fought over movies, especially poignant are comments made by Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce and fellow documentarian Michael Tucker who created Gunner Palace one of the most honest, straightforward documentaries I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. Both movies received harder ratings than they should have for elements that were pivotal to their respective stories. Peirce ended up having to cut footage from her film while Tucker was able to appeal the decision about his movie and actually won. All the directors express concerns that the ratings board constrains them and censors them, especially hitting them hard in areas of sexuality and realistic violence with consequences, while unrealistic violence is allowed lesser ratings for more of the public to see.
Tucker’s appeal leads to an interesting conversation about that process with the ratings board. Apparently the MPAA doesn’t follow any sort of continuity when it comes to doling out a film’s ratings. As such, filmmakers are not allowed to cite precedence during their appeals. As is pointed out by Dick, all a filmmaker has to use in order to learn what they can and can’t do in their craft is the history of what people have done before. If that means nothing to the MPAA, how is a director to know when he crosses the line?
The investigation into the raters’ identities is quite interesting and makes up the real “plot” of the documentary. Private detective Becky Altringer shows what detective work is really like as she tracks down license plate numbers, spies on the comings and goings of the MPAA gates, and digs through trash. She also reveals how she sympathizes a bit with filmmakers like Kimberly Peirce who want better representation of the homosexual lifestyle for their own families – something the MPAA has shown a precedence of being particularly biased against according to This Film. While the techniques used to determine who the raters are aren’t exactly spectacular or intense, it gets the job done and helps keep the pace of the film consistent throughout.
It should be noted that This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a documentary with a specific agenda. It delivers the concerns and problems of filmmakers and film critics, but doesn’t address the side of movie ratings from the parental point of view, with the exception of an especially profound comment from Matt Stone (“South Park”) of all people. Instead of addressing both sides of the argument or debating the need for a consistent ratings system, the film only builds a case against the current system. However, it puts together a hell of a case. Without manipulating the facts, Kirby Dick shows what is wrong with the current system and pulls back the veil from some of the mysteries of the MPAA. The true test will be whether the movie will cause the organization to take a look at its own mission and policies, recognize there are problems, and revise how things are done. Until then, This Film Is Not Yet Rated lets those who aren’t currently involved in the system know why we need changes made.