"Tin Drum": Porn Or Art?

Oklahoman Published: July 14, 1997
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Professor Misha Nedeljkovich, who teaches television and film history courses at the University of Oklahoma, thought the obscenity ruling on "The Tin Drum" was a joke.

Last year, Nedeljkovich included the Oscar-winning film among study choices for his "Masterpieces of Cinema" class.

He said many experts consider the film one of the 50 to 100 all-time best.

"What is it that makes it obscene?" he asked. "A child-like person involved in a sexual situation? Well, why choose 'The Tin Drum' and not 'Taxi Driver'?"

"Taxi Driver," Nedeljkovich explained, features a very young actress in various sexual situations.

"You can't tell me kids would rent 'The Tin Drum' before they would rent 'Taxi Driver.' "

Content questions aside, Nedeljkovich has had difficulty finding "The Tin Drum."

At least nine copies of the film existed in Oklahoma City until recently.

Police confiscated those nine after Oklahoma County District Judge Richard Freeman ruled the movie obscene because it depicted minors having sex.

The judge's ruling and police actions brought a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and nationwide attention.

Police asked the judge to rule after the film was turned over to officials by the anti-pornography group Oklahomans for Children and Families.

Nedeljkovich said he doesn't understand why "The Tin Drum" was targeted.

"The Tin Drum" was produced in 1979, winning the top award at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar for best foreign film. The movie is based on a popular anti-fascist novel by Gunter Grass released in 1959.

The assistant professor said the movie has historical and academic value because of its setting in Nazi-era Germany and its use of a young boy to provide a point of view from which to narrate the story.

"It brought something new to post-modern cinema that had not been in the mainstream of movies before," Nedeljkovich said. Location a Factor

"The Tin Drum" was added in 1993 to Oklahoma County's library system, where it was checked out more than 20 times a year.

However, Oklahomans for Children and Families did not protest the movie's availability in the library system until recently. The group used the movie's availability to continue its ongoing attack against the library's open access policy to materials.

Anti-pornography group members have battled the Metropolitan Library Commission, the library system's governing body, seeking a policy that would segregate adult-oriented materials.

The library commission has refused such a policy. Its legal staff predicts such a policy would bring lawsuits challenging its constitutionality.

Bob Anderson, executive director of Oklahomans for Children and Families, protested about the video's presence in the library.

After Judge Freeman ruled the video obscene, Anderson called for library system Executive Director Lee Brawner's firing and the removal of the commission's 19 members.

Anderson also was disappointed that prosecutors did not file charges against Brawner for making the video available. Obscenity Defined

Oklahoma's laws outlining obscenity follow U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The laws say published or computerized materials are obscene if they include acts that are patently offensive to contemporary community standards, if they have a dominant theme that appeals to prurient, or unusual sexual interests, and if a reasonable person would believe the materials have no serious literary, artistic, educational, political or scientific value.

Materials can be declared obscene independent of those other provisions if a participant or an observer in a sexual act depicted in the materials appears to be a prepubescent child younger than 18.

It is that provision that Judge Freeman said forced him to rule "The Tin Drum" obscene.

In the movie, a 12-year-old boy is placed into sexual situations with a 16-year-old girl. The youth also witnesses the girl and his father having sex.

The movie is about life in Germany before, during and after World War II as seen through the eyes of a young boy who was an entertainer. The boy had special powers with the help of a tin drum and a high-pitched scream, using both to control people.

With his powers, he decided to not grow up because he was disgusted with the behavior of adults around him. He faked an injury to provide an excuse to stay physically small and young.

After falling in love with a housemaid (the 16-year-old girl), however, he decides to grow up.

Freeman said his ruling was not a comment on the film's literary merit.

Anti-pornography leader Anderson said the literary merit doesn't matter.

Keeping movies with obscenity and child pornography from adults could result in less child abuse, he said.

"Certainly we want to protect our children," he said. "The main thing we've been asking all along is sexually explicit and sex education be segregated at libraries so children can't have access."

Although his group is concerned about segregating adult-oriented library materials, Anderson said he doesn't mind that the court decision affected adults' ability to watch the movie.

"The age of the viewer doesn't matter," he said.

Film experts, meanwhile, said the film is a classic that should not be banned.

The film was shown at a special screening last week in Norman.

Obscenity usually is judged by whether the work was produced to titillate sexual interests, said Heidi Karriker, an associate professor who directs the University of Oklahoma's Film and Video Studies department.

"This movie, on the other hand, is a work about events ... leading up to and during the second World War as seen through the eyes of a child," Karriker said. "It has historical, political, social and artistic significance.

"To take things out of context and call them obscene is very difficult when you have a work of art that certainly has redeeming social value."

However, University of Oklahoma law professor Kevin Saunders agrees with the judge's interpretation because the real issue is pornography, not obscenity.

Saunders is on sabbatical serving as acting director of the Constitutional Law Resource Center at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

He said Judge Freeman's ruling is appropriate given Oklahoma's obscenity laws as they relate to child pornography.

He cited a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court Case, New York vs. Ferber, in which court members decided that standard obscenity tests do not have to apply when child pornography is involved.

"The court said material doesn't have to be considered as a whole, that it doesn't have to appeal to prurient interests, and that it doesn't have to be patently offensive," Saunders said.

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