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1937 Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act

Legislation banning deliberate animal cruelty from cinema films

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The 1937 Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act makes it an offence to distribute or exhibit a film whose creation involved actual cruelty to an animal.

Unlike more draconian legislation such as the 1978 Protection of Children Act, exemptions are granted for film-makers who can demonstrate that they were unaware that distress was being caused, and to filming events such as butchery or ritual sacrifice that would have occurred regardless of the camera's presence. This latter point largely applies to documentary producers, though scenes such as the climactic sacrifice in Apocalypse Now (US, d. Francis Coppola, 1979) have also benefited.

Films that have caused problems under the Act include Tom Jones (d. Tony Richardson, 1963), whose stag hunt was modified after discussions with the RSPCA; various Italian cannibal films such as Cannibal Ferox (Italy, d. Umberto Lenzi, 1980), which were cut for unsimulated animal cruelty; and The Abyss (US, d. James Cameron, 1989) lost a shot of a rat appearing to breathe underwater.

On the other hand, films that appear to feature considerable animal cruelty can be passed without cuts if the film-maker can prove that all the potentially contentious material was simulated. A good example is the Mexican dog-fighting film Amores Perros (2000, d. Alejandro González Iñárritu), whose producers consulted the BBFC and RSPCA, explaining precisely how all the problematic sequences were assembled. That same year, though, the acclaimed Before Night Falls (US, d. Julian Schnabel) was cut to eliminate a shot of a bird clearly in distress.

Many other countries have similar attitudes towards animal cruelty in films, even if they are not enshrined in law. In general, most recent mainstream productions, particularly in the US, are supervised by organisations such as the American Humane Association to ensure that the welfare of animals is paramount during the film-making process.

Michael Brooke

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