This Film Is Not Yet Rated (documentary)

Outside of the CIA, the Motion Picture Association of America is probably the most secretive body in the country. What other group ostensibly designed to serve the public good operates in such secrecy and anonymity? I can’t think of any.

The people interviewed in the MPAA exposé “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” can’t think of any, either, of course. People with positive things to say about the ratings board either weren’t approached, refused comment, or were left out of the final cut. This is an agenda film, pure and simple, not as diabolically one-sided as a Michael Moore screed, but certainly as passionate and entertaining.

The MPAA has a board of nine people who watch every movie submitted to them and assign a rating of G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17. Now, the crazy part is that the board is anonymous. The MPAA flatly refuses to give their names, except for the board chairperson (currently Joan Graves). All they’ll say is that all nine members are parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17. That is the only qualification to be on the ratings board, and it’s a full-time job.

The MPAA is also notoriously dodgy on giving specific guidelines. There are allegedly no hard-and-fast rules on what kind of content will get you a particular rating — a pre-published list would be tantamount to censorship, after all — yet you can see just from looking at films that there are obviously SOME rules. And yet even those apparent guidelines — no more than two F-words in a PG-13 film, for example — are often sidestepped. The board sometimes goes case-by-case, and then sometimes applies its rules strictly and without regard to context.

All of this makes it very frustrating for filmmakers who are aiming for a particular rating. You can choose any three films at random and find wild inconsistencies in the way ratings are given. And why all that blasted secrecy?

Kirby Dick, a clever and audacious filmmaker whose “Twist of Faith” and “Chain Camera” also make for enlightening viewing, takes the MPAA head-on in “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” He sets out to do two things: First, enumerate the board’s flaws for viewers to see. Second, find out who the board members are and “out” them. I am pleased, even giddy, to report that he accomplishes both goals.

Dick uses a pair of private investigators to identify the board members, and much of that footage is hilarious. Some interesting facts come to light, too. Remember how they all have children between the ages of 5 and 17? Yeah, not so much. One of them has no children, while several others have children who are much older than 17. Apparently you can make up whatever lies you want about your hiring practices when you don’t think anyone will ever find out who you’ve hired.

And the flaws in the system? Oh, where to begin.

One fantastic sequence has a side-by-side comparison of films, showing scenes that are nearly identical to each other in sexual content — often even with identical camera angles and lighting — but that got different ratings. Dick’s assertion is that it has little to do with what’s being shown and a lot to do with whether it’s gay or straight.

He also shows how violence is much, much more acceptable in movies than sex is. “Sin City,” for example, is rife with outrageous bloody violence and got an R. “The Cooler,” meanwhile, got an NC-17 solely because Maria Bello’s pubic hair is briefly visible in a sex scene — and yes, that’s the reason the MPAA gave the filmmaker.

There’s a clip of former MPAA head Jack Valenti, the founder of the ratings system, saying that more movies are given the NC-17 rating because of violence than because of sex. Then Dick gives the REAL statistics: It’s the other way around, by a margin of 4 to 1. Valenti is either lying or has no idea how his own system works.

Dick was curious about the appeals process, too, so he submitted a rough cut of “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” and (predictably) got an NC-17. (I would like to have been in the room when the ratings board watched a movie about themselves — a movie that discloses their identities and shows the hypocrisy of their organization. I’m surprised they didn’t make up a new, even stricter rating just for the occasion.) He appealed the rating and takes us along for the process.

The appeal goes to an entirely separate board, one that is also anonymous — EVEN THOUGH YOU’RE MEETING WITH THEM FACE-TO-FACE. That’s right: You sit in a room with them and discuss your movie with them, but you are not allowed to know their names. Everyone, the filmmaker included, wears a number.

(Dick unmasks the appeals board, too, by the way, and puts all their names on the screen along with their day jobs, mostly as heads of theater chains and other film-related corporations.)

And a curious thing about that appeal: You’re not allowed to cite precedent. You can’t say, “Film X included a scene that was exactly like mine and it was only rated R, so why is mine NC-17?” If you bring up other films, the MPAA lawyer will cut you off and make you stop talking. And it’s the MPAA’s lawyer himself who tells Dick that, in a phone call prior to the appeal meeting. (Amusingly, the lawyer wouldn’t give permission for his voice to be used in the film. So Dick recorded the conversation and had someone re-enact it, accompanied by an animation of the lawyer’s head.)

At times, I think Dick’s enthusiasm gets the best of him, leading to some sloppiness in the way facts are presented. For example, he cites the film “Gunner Palace,” a documentary about soldiers’ lives in Iraq that the filmmakers thought should be rated PG-13 even though it had a lot of profanity. They reasoned that since military recruiters come to high schools, high school students should be able to see a movie that shows what life might be like if they join. Dick leaves it at that — neglecting to mention that the MPAA wound up AGREEING with the filmmakers and granting the PG-13 rating. It’s a rare instance of the ratings board using some common sense, but Dick doesn’t tell the whole story.

He also wastes a few minutes on the MPAA’s war on piracy (which has little to do with the ratings system), and mystifyingly includes a scene in which the private detectives talk about their sexual orientation, which has NOTHING to do with what’s going on. A stronger focus on the matters at hand would make the film more persuasive.

Nonetheless, the overall facts that emerge are fascinating to anyone who has noticed the MPAA’s arbitrariness and illogic, their draconian and pharisaical approach. What’s particularly galling is that there is no alternative. You don’t HAVE to get your film rated … but many theater chains won’t carry unrated movies, so you kinda DO have to. One interviewee points out that while we hate to have the government involved in things like this, at least a government ratings board would be subject to judicial review and wouldn’t operate in secret. With the MPAA, filmmakers have no recourse, no way of changing the system, no one to complain to. The MPAA can do whatever it wants, however it wants, to whomever it wants.

B+ (1 hr., 40 min.; Not Rated, given an NC-17 for several clips of strong sexuality and some nudity, also some violence; IFC is releasing the film with no rating at all.)