R21 rating stays for documentary on alleged Marxist plot detainees as filmmaker's appeal is dismissed

A cinema still from 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy showing ex-detainee Vincent Cheng in 1987.
A cinema still from 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy showing ex-detainee Vincent Cheng in 1987.PHOTO: JASON SOO

SINGAPORE - The Films Appeal Committee (FAC), an independent panel, has dismissed filmmaker Jason Soo's appeal for a PG13 rating for his documentary on detainees arrested in 1987 over an alleged Marxist plot.

The documentary, 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy, had been given an R21 rating by the Media Development Authority (MDA).

The FAC, in upholding the R21 rating, told Mr Soo in a letter dated June 8 that the film was a one-sided account of the events that transpired.

"The selective use of excerpts from newspaper reports and television programmes featured in the film did not provide a balanced account of history. Instead, they appeared to reinforce the one-sided narrative of the former detainees," it said.

"As maturity was needed to understand the context within which the information was being presented, the FAC felt that the film would be more appropriate for mature viewers above 21 years old."

Mr Soo's film features interviews with former detainees of Operation Spectrum, which saw 22 people rounded up in 1987 under the Internal Security Act over an alleged Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government.

In giving the R21 rating, the MDA had said in its advisory that "maturity will be required to understand the historical and socio-political circumstances surrounding the incident, and to discern that the film presents a perspective by the detainees".

Mr Soo met the FAC last month to ask for a PG13 rating instead.

His film, he said, presents "the established narrative of Operation Spectrum, as well as alternative stories of what happened". It features not just interviews with former detainees, but archival material from the mainstream media for balance as well, he added.

In his appeal letter, he pointed to the extensive coverage of the events by local newspapers in 1987, and TV during the period.

"If these television programmes were accessible to everyone and (were) not rated R21 in 1987, there is no reason that a R21 rating is needed now," he said.

Mr Soo, 40, told The Straits Times on Thursday (June 9) that he was disappointed that the FAC had found the film to be a one-sided account that failed to provide balance: "The film is precisely a balance to the official narrative".

He added that what happened should be critically discussed in the public sphere - which includes those below the age of 21 as well. Mr Soo is currently working on turning the 54-minute film into a full-length feature.

Mr Soo said: "I won't consider editing and resubmitting as I would rather focus on the full-length version. That should be completed by the end of this year."

He has currently raised over half his $65,000 target for the full-length film through crowd-funding.

The documentary was first given an R21 rating for a one-time screening during the Freedom Film Festival here in November last year. He had made a fresh application for a rating last December for future screenings, and the MDA in April gave it an R21 rating.

The film has since had five sold-out screenings at independent cinema The Projector, which has over 200 seats.

In 2014, the FAC turned down filmmaker Tan Pin Pin's appeal to let her documentary To Singapore, With Love be screened in public in Singapore after it received a "Not Allowed for All Ratings" (NAR) classification.

The FAC, in upholding the classification, said at the time that the film gave a one-sided account that could lead people who are not in the know to see the acts of violence and subversion as justified for achieving political ends in Singapore.

The last time an MDA decision was overturned was in 2013, when Mr Ken Kwek's film Sex.Violence.FamilyValues received an NAR rating. After his appeal, the film was given an R21 rating and screened in cinemas with edits.