When I was at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) last month, I was perusing the program, and for one reason or another, Jahmil X. T. Qubeka’s feature “Of Good Report“ caught my eye. Perhaps I was pleased to see an isiXhosa-language film so heavily promoted, but my friend shot down my selection. “Seriously?” she asked. “He named the underage girl ‘Nolitha’? That’s too corny to see.” Instead we regrettably opted for “Durban Poison,” a great film when you bracket its implicit race politics, a decent film after you learn that it took a quarter century to make, and a straightforwardly awful film once you’ve listened to the director run through a coke-addled bout of misogyny during the post-screening Q&A.
Two days later, we heard about the banning of “Of Good Report”–we couldn’t have seen it anyway. As previously covered on this blog, South Africa’s Film and Publication Board defined the film as child pornography, a classification absolutely incomprehensible to anyone who has seen the film. Less than half an hour in, the protagonist Parker Sithole (Mothusi Magano) is drunkenly seduced at a local bar by Nolitha Ngubane (Petronella Tshuma), and they return to Sithole’s rented room for sex. Of course at this point in the film, it remains unresolved whether Sithole recognizes Ngubane as a pupil at the rural school where he’s just accepted a teaching job, or conversely, whether she realizes he’s a teacher at her school. During this initial encounter, Ngubane rejects a hypermasculine larger man, who immediately suggests sex after he buys her a drink, and opts for the lanky man in a sweater vest and glasses sitting by himself at a table. Is the appeal the transgression of the taboo on intimate relations between teachers and students, adults and children, or something else entirely? I couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to be one of those films where the victim initiates all contact with the rapist/murderer, where he just sits back and lets himself become passively obsessed with his object of fixation. (It is.)
The sex scene is relatively tame as far as these sorts of things go. To be honest, I was more shocked by the discourse about the film than the film itself. There’s actually quite limited nudity in the movie – especially for one primarily about sex – and while Ngubane wears a 9th grader’s school uniform, the actress who plays her character is nearly a decade older than that. That would be like banning episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 for suggesting sex between minors, even though Luke Perry was in his 30s for much of the filming. In short, the decision to ban the film was lazy, ill informed, and above all, the inexplicable work of people who have no business controlling film releases.
All of that said, I was pretty taken aback at the post-banning discourse that dominated discussion in the mainstream South African press and blogosphere. Qubeka himself called the censorship “a bit fascist” and an attempt to “silence a voice.” For Riaan Hendricks, director of the brilliant new documentary The Devil’s Lair, “It was a difficult experience seeing a film being met with political power in that way.” In short, the post-banning commentary enacted a well-rehearsed script, in which we as citizens must take a stand against arbitrary censorship, defend freedom of speech, and reject state oversight of all artistic endeavors.
First, even if the Film and Publication Board is inconceivably incompetent, the fact remains that the film was never censored due to its narrative or political content. It was prevented from being shown because the FPB was under the impression that the sex scene in the film constituted underage sex. Sure, we don’t learn Nolitha is underage until a subsequent scene – there’s no way the FPB could’ve actually known she was a minor at this point in the film–but incompetence aside, the film was banned because it was alleged to contain underage sex. End of story. Actually, not end of story: once the FPB was challenged, they revisited the case and quickly unbanned the film. Again, I’m not apologizing for the FPB’s ineptitude, and they certainly shouldn’t be let anywhere near a film festival again. But the hand wringing over a “fascist” state engaging in political censorship is hard to take seriously.
Meanwhile, one film screened at the DIFF actually was banned on strictly political grounds. Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s “Le President,” a mockumentary about the disappearance of a figure obviously intended to be the authoritarian Paul Biya, is now illegal to screen in that country. (See Megan Eardley’s interview with Bekolo on this blog.) I actually found the film itself to be a bit tedious and repetitive, but Bekolo immediately won me over during the Q&A. It is a deliberate work of political propaganda, and he’s currently working on facilitating its free online distribution–in short, bootlegging his own film–for a Cameroonian audience. The story of Le President’s banning, however, has barely made the South African press, and when it has, only as an afterthought to Qubeka’s own banning, part of a narrative of “the trend of censorship creeping into Pan-African film-making.”
Second, for all of the discussion around the film being banned on political grounds, there has been no discussion whatsoever about the film’s politics. Certainly this is a psychological study of one man’s descent into deranged pedophilia and murder. But far from a simple narrative of unrequited love, his anger at Ngubane is refracted through his hatred for his ailing mother. After a scene in which she calls out to him repeatedly – Boyboy! – so that he comes to the outdoor toilet, wipes her, and carries her inside, his hatred for her deepens to the point of obsession. Unable to eradicate her memory when he forcefully smothers her with a pillow, he hears her call–”Boyboy!”–and sees her likeness in the mirror immediately before beating Ngubane to death with a cricket bat. All of this is to say that this is clearly a film about pathological misogyny, not one about a corruptible good guy whose only foible is his libido. As if the juxtaposition of the mother and Ngubane’s visages weren’t enough, he also bloodies the only other woman in his path, this time a cop. Her dislodged teeth wind up buried in his scalp, and his plucking them out, one-by-one, constitutes the revolting opening scene of the film.
The film’s only hackneyed dimension–and funnily enough, its only explicit political point–is its conclusion showing an escaped Sithole being employed in a Zimbabwean secondary school. The woman who employs him tells him he’s come “of good report” and will obviously be hired by the school. The point, of course, is that coming of good report is absolutely meaningless; Sithole has actually come as a wanted statutory rapist and murderer.
The message then, if there is one at all, is that bad apples aren’t always immediately apparent, and that we’re doomed to repeat what we just witnessed. There’s no attempt to represent the systematic violence and asymmetry structuring gender relations in South Africa and abroad – even, if not especially, those as mundane as teacher-student relations. This is quite clearly a film made from man’s-eye-view: a woman – no, a girl – apparently seduces an innocent man, disappears on him, and then provokes his wrath when she returns. He’s rendered in such passive mode that he doesn’t utter a single line in the entire film.
Rather than actually engage the content of rape culture and child pornography in a meaningful way, commentators have feigned outrage over this instance of “political” censorship. Meanwhile, the film was released after all, the only casualty being Qubeka’s obscurity. Less than a month after its initial Durban screening, Of Good Report is being shown regularly in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and the South African press has transformed Qubeka into an overnight celebrity. This isn’t a bad thing: technically, creatively, and aesthetically, this is easily the best South African feature film I’ve seen this year. I eagerly await his follow-up, though I hope next time people take the film itself seriously, rather than focusing exclusively on the discourse about the film. Maybe that’s why despite all the hype, there were only four other viewers at a weekend after-dinner showing at the V&A Waterfront.