The Melbourne International Film Festival has dropped a controversial and deeply unsettling indie film that depicts an android child who is used to satisfy the pedophilia of her human “father” after experts warned that the film “normalises sexual interest in children.”
The Trouble With Being Born, directed by Austrian filmmaker Sandra Wollner, was due to screen at the online-only MIFF 68½ festival in August, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
As we reported earlier this year, the film had been screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February, winning a special jury prize while also prompting audience walkouts.
While the film does not show any explicit scenes of abuse of the android child—played by a 10-year-old actress using a pseudonym, wigs, and silicone masks to obscure her identity—several scenes leave nothing to the imagination.
A review by Slant retells one especially disturbing scene that implicitly reveals what the “Papa” character is using the synthetic girl for:
Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement.
After being hailed by European and American critics as a “hidden gem” depicting “underage robotic provocation,” the film was only scrapped from the MIFF festival after Dr. Karen Owen, a forensic psychologist and former manager of Corrections Victoria’s Sex Offender Programs, said she was so disturbed after previewing a segment of the movie that she had to turn it off.
The film was “just wrong in so many ways,” Dr. Owen said, according to the Morning Herald. “Notwithstanding the artistic intent of the movie, without question it would be used as a source of arousal for men interested in child abuse material.”
Dr. Owen warned that the film “normalizes sexual interest in children” and that, since streaming viewers are more likely to watch it in seclusion, it will very likely be “used … for arousal and masturbatory purposes.”
Dr. Georgina O’Donnell, a fellow forensic psychologist who has not seen the film but has considered detailed descriptions of it, even warned that the film could be illegal under Australian law.
“It is illegal in Australia to use ‘simulated’ children for sexual gratification,” Dr. O’Donnell said.
After Australian news site The Age informed MIFF of the comments by Dr. Owen and Dr. O’Donnell, MIFF decided to withdraw the movie, informing Wollner shortly thereafter.
Wollner reportedly stated that she understood the concerns surrounding the film, but defended its integrity.
“The danger that someone uses a film for sexual arousal unfortunately exists with any and all films involving child actors,” Wollner said. “The crucial difference is that our film actually speaks to the matter and shows, frankly, what kind of a psychologically dark place a deeply disturbed ‘relationship’ like the one being depicted can take you – in this case, the relationship between a man and an android, an artificial intelligence.”
“The film addresses scenarios that an increasingly isolated lifestyle and the free reign of technology put us under. Beyond that, the film deals with themes of death, guilt and mechanisms of loneliness,” Wollner went on. “We strongly believe there is room for this kind of dealing with the world and that art, by its very nature, has to arouse uncomfortable questions. The film is in no way endorsing or promoting child exploitation, but looking at a suggested dystopia, some elements of which are already discernible in our present reality.”
Wollner touted the lengths to which the film went in preserving the child actress’s anonymity, including sharing the entire script with her parents well in advance. Nude scenes were filmed with the child in a flesh-toned bathing suit, which was digitally edited in post-production. A psychologist with expertise in childhood trauma was even hired to guide Wollner through the language she should use in explaining situations to the 10-year-old.
Dr. Owen, however, said that none of the care taken by the filmmakers to protect the actress has any bearing on what the images in the film will ultimately be used for and the crimes against children they will normalize.
“I think the care of the child actor frankly completely misses the point,” Dr. Owen said, concluding that the images in the film will likely “do the rounds of the internet for years, satisfying the masturbatory fantasy of many.”
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