Following what transpired at the opening night of the 2013 Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s “Of Good Report” will go down in history as one of the most spectacular opening night films seen by almost no one. After the obligatory opening night speeches–many of them evoking Nelson Mandela on his birthday, the pre-1994 struggle against Apartheid, for freedom of expression, and DIFF’s role in that struggle–the lights were turned off for the film to start. Only that there was no film, just white text (supplied by the Film and Publications Board, the local censors) against a black background stating the film had been refused classification and that it would be a criminal offense to screen it. The local film community understandably is not amused.
Qubeka’s third feature tells the story of Parker Sithole (Mothusi Magano), a schoolteacher involved in a relationship with one of his students Nolitha Ngubane (played by 23-year old Petronella Tshuma). It is a story of unhealthy and illegal liaisons, power, abuse and obsession, which ultimately takes both the disturbed teacher and his beautiful student down a dark and extremely violent road.
Qubeka–his mouth taped shut–and his co-producers, cast and crew–as baffled as the audience–came onto the stage and then proceeded to burn what looked like a South African identity document (ID) book or a passport. He then threw his document on the floor and proceeded to hug his cast and crew. As the drama unfolded, the audience–some shell-shocked and silent, others whistling and shouting in disgust–tried to make sense of what was unfolding.
It turned that 28 minutes and 16 seconds into Qubeka’s third feature, the Film and Publication Board’s classification committee had stopped the classification process (which means that they interrupted the viewing of the film) after unanimously agreeing that a sex scene between Parker and Nolitha’s characters a couple of minutes before, constituted child pornography. In another scene following shortly after the sex scene, Nolitha’s character appears in a classroom dressed in the school-uniform of a ninth grader. Conclusion: the character of Nolitha is a child and a scene where she is engaged in sexual interaction is child pornography.
Instead of the screening, the audience was invited to a quick and confused discussion before the opening night party. Speaking on behalf of Qubeka, Dr Lwazi Manzi–the film’s executive producer, Qubeka’s wife and a medical doctor–delivered an emotional speech in which she recalled memories of pregnant 14 year-olds either asking to have an abortion at 3 o’clock in the morning or dying while miscarrying. She asked for the attention of those who attend fancy functions on Women’s Day, Youth Day, but shout foul and “child pornography” when the reality is put on the big screen. “We shall not not talk about it,” she said and dubbed the day a pivotal one in the history of South African film.
In the real world outside the festival, the news spread quickly on Twitter and Facebook before the end of the evening. The press conference on Friday morning, which was supposed to be about the festival in general, naturally came to focus on the drama of the night before. At the conference DIFF director Peter Machen reiterated his support for the film, and added that screening another movie or ask the director to cut the contentious scene out was never an option. Zama Mkosi, CEO of the National Film and Video Foundation, a government-supported body to fund and promote the local film industry, explained that the NFVF found the development unnecessary and that the NFVF is engaging in discussions with the Film and Publications Board on how the two institutions can work better together. The night before Mkosi had tweeted a photo of Qubeka with the caption “Eish my brother… I feel your pain” and another saying “We say we want the truth and then we can’t handle the truth #OfGoodReport”.
What matters now is not whether the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the festival will appeal the decision; Cheryl Potgieter announced to mad applause from the audience that they will. Similarly whether the festival could have submitted the application for exemption from classification earlier and appealed the decision well before the opening night, is not the issue either.
Rather that hundreds of film industry professionals and lovers of cinema felt cheated of the possibility to decide for themselves whether Qubeka had directed pornography, a poignant reflection on power abuse, or a thrilling portrait of a serial killer in the making. Filmmakers were all of the opinion that the FPB’s decision was an insult to the large group of film professionals: they are well placed to engage with film on a critical level and not just as entertainment. Their detailed comments are copied at the end of this post.
While many filmmakers asked that they should be given the opportunity to decide whether the film deserved to be banned or not, Jean-Pierre Bekolo who is experiencing the might of a strong and unforgiving state at home because of his new film ”The President,” said he believes decisions in these matters should be based on principle and not on individual circumstances. It is not because “Of Good Report” portrays reality that it should be protected, he says. It should be protected because it is a film and no film should ever be censored. Bekolo, who did not enjoy much support when “The President” (which is screening at DIFF) attracted attention and dislike in his native Cameroon earlier this year, was particularly encouraged and moved by the bravery and solidarity of everyone involved; the festival, the producers, the cast and the crew as well as the audience.
Though most seemed to agree that FPB’s decision was wrong, not everyone agreed on the method “It was too personal” said some, who wanted more balance and facts and less emotion. Had Machen informed the audience that the original opening film was pulled as it was deemed illegal, before screening another film, this episode would most likely not have made headline across the world, and certainly not with the same speed. In the words of Bekolo again: “The festival’s way of dealing with the situation was brave in addition to a beautiful mis-en-scène of censorship.” It is important to do so in order to make people see for themselves what is going on. Instead of suffering in silence and whispering in hallways, we must put a spotlight on what is happening.
Here are some of the reactions of the filmmakers, including by Qubeka.
Jahmil X.T. Qubeka (the day after):
Things have changed since last night. I scotch-taped my mouth closed, not because I wanted to be silent, but because I was afraid of what was going to come out of my mouth if I didn’t. What really moved me were all the women who stood up for me and defended this piece of “pornography”, including my wife. By doing so they showed their commitment and love for this project. I’m still dealing with this situation; the past 24 hours have been crazy, and what I’ve come to realize is that this is not about me, that I’m just the vehicle for a discussion that needs to be had in this country. All filmmakers should feel violated as it impacts on each and everyone of us. The stats speak for themselves in this particular issue, and to silence a voice that brings attention to it… wow, it feels a bit fascist don’t you think. It feels as if we are being steered in a particular way, and if you don’t believe me ask yourselves ‘Where are all the troublemakers, or the black troublemakers more specifically?’ I don’t see them in literature, fine arts or film. Instead it feels as if we are embracing mediocrity in order to suppress independent thought and creativity. I think the repercussions of what happened on Mandela’s birthday will ring in our ears for a while. It has nothing to do with me and my film, but with what country we have become.
Jean-Pierre Bekolo, filmmaker from Cameroon:
I have the feeling that Africa’s steps into modernity happens in a rather incoherent way. Look at cinema for example. It is not just entertainment, but started out as political in that it impacted on the dynamics of social and political life. Those in power look at cinema as Hollywood-style entertainment, and all other dimensions are lost to them. This way of looking at cinema translates into how filmmakers are viewed and films financed. In Cameroon there is a climate of cowardice and fear. People no longer know their rights and have lost their ability to distinguish what is normal from what is not. They might argue that a film, which is censored, might have deserved it or that if they haven’t seen it, they can’t say anything. In South Africa on Thursday, people said that this is unacceptable.
The reason why cinema has become a commodity is to steer it away from politics. We have forgotten that cinema is a tool for liberation. Filmmakers behave as we have already solved all Africa’s problems and that there is nothing more to say. If Africa were faring better, economically, politically and on other levels, I’d understand, but it’s bizarre that as we’re almost experiencing a regression and life is harder, people are silenced, filmmakers are opting for silence. African film critics only talk about film, though ignoring the context when talking about cinema is incomprehensible. African cinema has forgotten where it came from and has become increasingly bourgeois and less relevant in the eyes of the public as we are traveling to Cannes to collect Western awards and forgetting to talk about ourselves with our peoples and our youth.
Riaan Hendricks (South African filmmaker):
We make cinema because there are stories we need to tell, yet we don’t understand the importance of these stories. It was a difficult experience seeing a film being met with political power in that way. It was devastating. There should be no limitations in what stories we’re allowed to tell. I’d like to know what I’m allowed to say and I would love to hear it upfront.
David Kau (South African standup-comedian and filmmaker):
The important question for me is “How do people qualify to sit on certain boards and councils etc, especially in arts and culture. Are they artists or comrades?” We should look at that rather than just why this film was banned. More films are going to be banned or not classified. It’s really just a matter of expertise and knowledge, and how people qualify for these positions. You never ever want to feel that you can’t say what you want. We all have boundaries, but there’s going to be a time when you start thinking about what you can or can’t say and that’s uncomfortable.
Lodi Matsetela (South African filmmaker):
The opening night made me think of that documentary about Thabo Mbeki that just disappeared and how quickly that was muffled. That was years ago, what are we going to do now? It’s a little frightening frankly. Freedom of expression is imperative, it’s the only way we’re going to create dialogue and that’s the point of film. We have to see this film, there’s no doubt about it.
Vincent Moloi (South African filmmaker):
It’s very scary and very, very sad. It’s a realization of what can happen, what is happening and what should not happen. We need to get together and think of ways of countering this, create a platform for diverse voices and issues. I don’t know the details and the reasons at the moment, but whatever they are, it’s very scary to know that there’s someone who can pressure you with a piece of paper not to express your viewpoint or show certain things. That’s a cause for engagement.
Pascal Schmitz (South African producer):
My personal philosophy is that people should censor themselves and their children. A group of people in a room shouldn’t decide if people can watch a film at a festival. It’s ludicrous and shocking, and I think that if they wanted to warn people about it, it should still be the choice of the audience. It’s reasonable and rational to understand that this is a feature film and a festival film. I don’t think Jahmeel was trying to excite people sexually with child pornography, and I think anybody who would apply rational thought to it would understand that. I also believe they stopped watching it once they got to that part, so they don’t know the context of the scene in the whole movie.
It seems very draconian and bizarre for South Africa with its model constitution in 2013. I’m sure there’s another side to the story. I’m sure they had their reasons for what they did, and it would be good to know both sides of the story. Personally I’m disappointed. I think if anything this is going to put a spotlight on the FPB and censorship per se in South Africa, and if anything I think the spin-offs will be positive. The feeling of that night was very negative, but the spin-offs are very positive. Jahmil couldn’t have asked for better publicity and he’ll probably have his film in every festival of the world outside of South Africa. The other positive is that people will look very critically at the FPB and the censorship process, which is a good thing. I think films in the future will benefit from this. This is between the film community – or the public really; every South African is a victim of censorship.
Pat van Heerden (South African producer):
What is scary is that there’s probably not a very articulated agenda, but an interpretation of bureaucracy and a clamping down on authorship in the national interest. And that’s scary; what is in the national interest? Sometimes when the country isn’t portrayed in the best light it’s deemed to not serve the national interest so films get shot down because they articulate something difficult. I think that there is an agenda as to how they interpret scripts that might be part of their national agenda. We all need to be careful about what we want to see in a film and where we think our country should be going. An example would be a commissioning editor, who might tell a filmmaker making a documentary about breast cancer that she must get the opinion of a sangoma. The point is to not tell a citizen or an author what to do in their films, but to curate your slates to make sure that you have different citizens’ voices even those who don’t correspond to the commissioning editor or the national agenda. It’s a kind of political correctness that becomes facist. We should actually compare the notes of Stasi on the scripts of independent filmmakers with those in a democracy. I’ve seen the film and I didn’t see child pornography. I think it’s a very broad interpretation and that it’s offensive for people working in government bureaucracy because they think that it’s not in the national interest to portray society and some of its darkness. I think there’s more sensitivity around a black director doing a story about black man, who is a serial killer.
Photo Credit: DIFF.