It’s a complicated time to be a defender of free speech, as the revolution of social media collides with the global rise of some ugly political tendencies. As our society’s sense of common goals and shared values frays, mainstream liberals in particular have been increasingly seduced by the idea that Big Brother should be called into action to monitor and squash thought crime wherever it may emerge.
It’s the perfect time, then, for the nuanced and forceful takedown of censorship at the heart of the new horror film “Censor.” The debut feature by director Prano Bailey-Bond is first and foremost a brilliant and mind-altering film, a magnetic character study in the form of a nightmarish Lynchian hallucination. See it, regardless of your interest in censorship as a social issue.
But what elevates it from a fun horror film to a piece of art is its exploration of the dangerous dance between trauma and repression, for individuals and society as a whole. Those threads entwine through Enid, the film’s main character (though certainly not its hero), who works as a censor in the bleak, bureaucratic offices of the British Board of Film Classification. Niamh Algar brings an amazing and menacing subtlety to her depiction of Enid, projecting a schoolmarmish uprightness while showing, through tiny hints and hesitations, that it’s all a delicate facade.
The film is set in the mid-1980s, when the conservative Margaret Thatcher administration stoked a wave of paranoia over the danger of “video nasties”. These were mostly violent B-movies unleashed as the rise of video technology removed theaters’ gatekeeping powers – a striking parallel to the panic around social media today. In a bid to essentially fight the free flow of culture, the U.K. government imposed state film censorship in 1984.
The film exaggerates and personalizes the video nasty moral panic masterfully in one of its two plotlines. When a murderer appears to have mimicked a violent film that Enid chose not to censor, she becomes the target of a wave of misplaced harassment: The public blames her for the crime instead of the murderer. At the same time, we are shown the economic and social decline that beset the U.K. in the 1970s and 1980s, which the film suggests is the deeper cause of violence. Political commentators have argued that the Thatcherites were intentionally ginning up anti-video anger as a distraction from these material problems.
Parallel to those events, "Censor" reveals that not all is right with Enid herself. In a series of jittery, oblique (that is, very British) interactions with her aging parents, we learn that Enid’s sister went missing long ago while the pair were out wandering the woods. Enid has seemingly erased her own memories of that day, a kind of self-censorship that mirrors her work cutting violent scenes out of films.
And just as the ginned-up panic over video nasties misdirects anger from a bleak reality onto the media that reflects it, Enid’s disconnection from reality takes her to some very dark places. I won’t spoil anything, but this is a horror movie, and Chekhov’s axe will inevitably come into play.
The return of the (financially) repressed
"Censor" is a movie with a message, though one that’s messy and contradictory and ambiguous enough to avoid preachiness. The film wants you to walk away skeptical of the power of forgetting, censorship and other forms of denial to control the evil in the world and in ourselves.
Pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called this “the return of the repressed.” Freud believed that repression, a kind of internal censorship of trauma or unpleasantness, left negative experiences to fester and mutate in the shadows of our individual psyches, manifesting as uncontrollable tics or psychosomatic disorders. Freud’s development of psychoanalysis, the “talking cure,” was based on the idea that by bringing buried truths to light, people could be more integrated, confident, happy selves.
What if the same dynamics apply not just to the repression of memories or the censorship of videos, but to the control of money? The ills of financial censorship are at the very heart of the cryptocurrency project, from Satoshi’s emphasis on irreversibility in the Bitcoin white paper, to the beautifully simple observation by Coin Center’s Jerry Brito that “Without cryptocurrency, a cashless society is a surveillance society.”
We can clearly see these risks unfolding in real time through an idea that emerged in response to cryptocurrency – the central bank digital currency (CBDC), which has huge utility for financial monitoring and censorship. That’s why China has been most aggressive in pursuing the technology, but clearly it’s appealing even in nominally democratic societies. Look no further than recent statements from Agustin Carstens, head of the Bank for International Settlements, who seemed to praise CBDCs for the “absolute control” they would give central banks.
You can certainly understand the motives of these aspiring financial censors. It sounds very convenient to be able to simply flip a switch and take away all the ill-gotten gains of violent drug cartels or cut off every donation to a terrorist group. It would be even better if we could cut off the elaborate money-laundering schemes pursued by the world’s most powerful and supposedly respectable people, though you might suspect central banks controlled by elites aren’t the best tools for that job.
The killer is already in the house
But as with Enid’s censorious faith, the belief that centralized financial control will lead to a crime-free utopia is a self-defeating delusion. And we’re living through an experiment that proves it.
Following 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, new regulations were put into place that heightened scrutiny of everyday financial activity to fight money laundering. That pushed major banks in the developed world to drop a variety of relationships, particularly with international correspondent banks, international nonprofits and “money services businesses,” which include many fintechs.
In essence, they decided to take the same approach to anti-money-laundering (AML) measures that Enid’s boss tells her to take to film censorship: “If you have any doubts whatsoever, reject the film.” Or in this case, the customer.
In a 2015 report, the charitable organization Oxfam chronicled the widespread fallout from this “de-risking” in the global financial system. The report argues that the impacts have been in some ways the exact opposite of regulators’ intent. On the one hand, the developing world’s loss of access to global finance has worked against AML goals. De-risking has pushed greater portions of the global economy, including perfectly legitimate commerce, to smaller banks with less oversight, or even into the underground or “informal” realm. That makes it more difficult for law enforcement to spot genuine criminal activity.
At the same time, Oxfam found that banking censorship has created problems for economies reliant on international remittances, and made it increasingly difficult for international charitable organizations to maintain financial relationships in trouble zones. This is where the vicious cycle of financial censorship can be seen most clearly.
The primary goal of bank controls, after all, is to limit tax evasion, terrorist financing and illegal commerce in drugs and guns. The last two are the result of poverty and discontent, which as Oxfam shows, bank de-risking is making worse. Stricter AML measures surely have some impact on holding international crime in check, but by strangling remittances to countries like Syria and Sudan, bank de-risking has likely driven individuals towards drug-running, arms dealing and terrorism because of a lack of options in the legitimate economy.
In other words, efforts to reduce bank liability through tight AML controls may be increasing the risk of real crime on the ground. It is an act of repression and forgetting, not a solution to the real problems.
The dreamlike, blood-soaked climax of “Censor” shows the endgame of that sort of willful blindness. When Enid’s personal horror breaks through the repressive shields she relied on for sanity, the outcome is far worse than if she had simply confronted the truth. We as a society are flirting with the same violent, chaotic eruptions when we refuse to fully reckon with the human reality on the ground and instead simply try to push inconvenient truths further into the shadows.