In refusing even to give a rating to a new South African feature film, Of Good Report, that had been scheduled for its international premiere at the Durban International Film Festival on 18 July, South Africa’s Film and Publications Board has made it a criminal act to show the film, own a copy or even just sit quietly in the audience to watch it. Will South Africans feel much safer and secure in the wake of this courageous bureaucratic decision? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look.
Director Jahmil XT Qubeka’s Of Good Report – starring Petronella Tshuma, Mothusi Megano, Stevel Marc and Nomhle Ngobeni – tells the story of a South African high school teacher who develops a sexual obsession towards one of his students. In the telling of this story, the film has also tackled a growing South African social affliction – the so-called “sugar daddy” phenomenon of teenage girls participating in (or pressured into) transactional sex in return for material possessions and money from men old enough to be their parents – and sometimes even the teachers in their schools.
Before the film had been removed from the schedule by virtue of the FPB’s inaction, the DIFF website had described the film as telling “the sombre tale of a small-town high-school teacher with a penchant for young girls. The result is a hypnotically engaging journey into the soul of a mentally troubled man. The trouble for the protagonist, Parker Sithole begins when he meets the undeniably gorgeous Nolitha Ngubane at a local tavern. Captivated by her beauty, an illicit affair ensues. However, there’s just one problem: Nolitha is one of Parker’s pupils and is just sixteen years old. Parker quickly spirals into lethal obsession.”
But the Film and Publications Board, fresh from its triumph last year in giving Brett Murray’s painting of Jacob Zuma – in that very exposed pose and in wry homage to Vladimir Lenin – an “18 years of age or older” rating, and apparently ever mindful of the public’s sensibilities, has now struck again. Under its mandate to protect everyone from child pornography wherever it might be lurking, they steeled themselves for the potentially horrific images and sallied forth to watch this film – or at least 28 or so minutes of it. In fact, they stopped watching the moment they caught sight of the film’s lead characters apparently engaging in oral sex. Now, never mind the fact the actress portraying Nolitha is well into her twenties, rather than an actual child actress. Just the idea she was acting as a fictional (but apparently realistic) teenage character was enough to prod the Film and Provocations Board into action. They simply refused to give the film a rating, thereby making it a criminal offence to watch, possess or show this dangerous work. As a result, it will be shown in film festivals in Toronto, Dubai and Rotterdam (and perhaps elsewhere as well), but never at home, unless the festival’s pending appeal against this ruling ultimately is successful.
In explaining its decision, the Board had said, “A classification committee of the Film and Publication Board (FPB) on 17 July 2013 ruled on a refused classification for the film titled Of Good Report. Such a refused classification is based on Section 18 (3) of the Film and Publications Act as amended. Section 18 (3) of the above Act states that ‘the classification committee shall in a prescribed manner examine the film or game referred to it and shall (a) classify the film or game as refused classification if the film or game contain child pornography, propaganda for war or incites imminent violence. Unless judged within context, the film or game is, except with respect to child pornography, bona fide documentary, scientific, dramatic or artistic merit or is on a matter of public interest.’ We have since noted the media coverage relating to the scheduled screening of the film at the opening evening of the 34 the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF). The Film and Publication Board has over the years participated and supported the Durban International Film Festival. To this extent, films for screening at the festival have been exempted from classification in line with section 22 of the Film and Publications Act with the exception of seven (7) films classified. However, based on the synopsis received of the film Of Good Report the FPB felt it necessary to classify the content.”
Film and Provocations Board spokesman Prince Mlimandlela Ndamase then told the media this film had been banned because it contained “content that carries an illegal act in it. We need to emphasise that, ordinarily, we would not refuse the right of viewers to see the content, but in the interests of the protection of the child and our laws that exist in the country, child pornography is one of these things that are not legally permissible in the country.”
A close check of the FPB’s website goes into some fairly explicit detail about the nature of child pornography and how to combat it. Its FAQs ask, for example: “What is child pornography?” In response, the webpage explains, “Child pornography is not as difficult a concept as some have made it out to be, although there may be differences in the way it is defined in different countries. However, any differences that may exist relate to, mainly, two aspects: the definition of ‘child’, and the exclusion from the definition of the offence of child pornography any pictures created without using a real child and verbal descriptions.” Ah, if one is reading this correctly, misogynist anime of the most bloodthirsty, violent depiction would be perfectly fine for the guardians of our moral gates since it is not using a real child.
The FAQs go on to explain further, “Child pornography is, simply, evidence of the abuse of a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation and sexual gratification. It not only describes, in words or pictures, a serious crime against a child but constitutes, in and of itself, a criminal offence. In other words, the abuse or exploitation of a child for any sexual purpose is a criminal offence and any description or picture of such sexual abuse and exploitation is also a criminal offence. However, child pornography refers to descriptions or pictures of the sexual abuse and exploitation of a child and not to the actual act of abuse.”
Moreover, in attempting to put this in a sociological and child protection context, the site adds, “Mostly child protection practitioners, including law enforcement agencies, who have to deal with child pornography, agree that the expression ‘child pornography’ does not adequately describe the nature of this despicable crime against children. It is a misleading term because child pornography is not about ‘pornography’ but, simply, the evidence of serious sexual assaults and abuse of children, including, as shocking as it sounds, the penetrative sexual assault of children as young as 6 months. Uninformed commentators on the subject, including members of the judiciary, have failed to grasp an essential truth about child pornography: that it cannot be produced without a child being sexually abused and that its creation and distribution leads to the sexual abuse of more children to satisfy the demand for such pictures. Child pornography is not pornography with child subjects and is an inappropriate term to describe the true nature and extent of sexually exploitive images of child victims. The correct term is “child abuse images” [italics added], which is a more accurate description of this plague in our society, as anyone who has had the misfortune to actually see such images would agree. There is no ‘pornography’ in ‘child pornography’ – there is only the sexual assault, torture, the maiming, brutalisation and even murder of young children.” If this is the legal, sociological and moral framework, it is hard to see how Of Good Report, or Lolita, Death in Venice or half a dozen other classics, for that matter, fit the FPB’s definition.
But there is a catch. The FPB’s website’s FAQs go on to specify that “In terms of South African law, ‘child pornography’ is any picture, regardless of how it was created, or any description, of a real or imaginary person who is under the age of 18 years, or is represented as being under the age of 18 years….” In that case, any film with traditional child brides in it, or Of Good Report or Lolita must necessarily be out of bounds. End of story. Welcome back the long arm of the 1960s from the grave.
In response to this decision, at the opening of the DIFF, rather than showing Of Good Report, organisers projected a slide that read, “This film has been refused classification by the Film and Publication Board, in terms of the Film and Publications Act of 1996, unfortunately we may not legally screen the film, Of Good Report, as doing so would constitute a criminal offence.”
Peter Machen, festival manager, then issued a statement saying, “Unfortunately, the film and publication board has refused to allow the release of Of Good Report. According to their communication to the festival, the film contains a scene which constitutes child pornography and we are unable to legally show the film. I am very sorry about this. Out of respect for the director of the film, we will not be showing an alternative film tonight. We chose the film because it was challenging, powerful and artistically successful, and particularly because it was such a strong expression of an individual voice. It presents a story of a very real and troubling social problem of rampant abuse of position in our country.”
Meanwhile, the film’s director stood in front of the audience with his mouth taped closed while his wife, Dr Lwazi Manzi, an emergency room physician in a government hospital in Cape Town, spoke passionately about what she deals with daily in coping with the actual (not cinematic) realities of teen pregnancy, the aftermath of predatory “sugar daddy” sex and the sexual abuse of young women by much older men more generally. Manzi said, “Just because they (the FPB) don’t want to see it, does not mean it does not happen. We shall not not talk about it. I am very proud of my husband, and the cast and crew. This is a pivotal day in the history of film in our country, one which will resonate in history.” After the non-showing, director Jahmil XT Qubeka told the media, “The child porn thing smacks of the greatest ignorance, incompetence and downright stupidity.”
Childline, a leading NGO dealing with these sexual issues, further commented to the media, saying that there needed have been more discussion – not less – before the FPB’s decision had been made. Childline Director Joan van Niekerk commented, “The opportunity should have been to expose some child protection people to those areas or pictures in the film they were unhappy about and they felt constituted child pornography, so that we could have discussion on that.”
Beyond the film festival itself, there were larger bureaucratic forces at play as well. The DIFF takes place under the auspices of the University of Kwa Zulu Natal’s Centre for the Creative Arts. When the non-showing happened, the university’s Deputy Vice Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities, Professor Cheryl Potgieter, told the press, “We chose to not show another film in deference to the filmmaker, and to ensure there was critical mass to carry this debate and discourse forward.” Yet another irony of the event, perhaps, was that it took place with officials from the Department of Arts and Culture in attendance for the non-opening. One wonders what they thought of all of this.
The Board then tried to make everything all better by explaining their non-actions by saying that “The Film and Publication Board has over the years participated and supported the Durban International Film Festival. To this extent, films for screening at the festival have been exempted from classification in line with section 22 of the Film and Publications Act with the exception of seven (7) films classified. However, based on the synopsis received of the film Of Good Report the FPB felt it necessary to classify the content. On 24 July 2013, the FPB will host a workshop on classification guidelines at the Festival. This is in line with our commitment to ensuring that local content is classified, promoted and supported.” Glad that is clear now.
Asked for his reaction to all this, novelist/actor/satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, no stranger to the threats and pressures of censorship in an earlier age, told the writer, “Déjà vu! The old regime said the same about The Rocky Horror Show in the 1980s. A film festival is surely above such ratings? I’m all for children being protected against those perverts in the public domain, but at a festival these things can be discussed. Let it be shown and let the people speak! If we are not prepared to prove that adults in a democracy can discuss and decide, we deserve what the banal leadership imposes on us. Is anyone at the festival prepared to go to jail to protect their right to decide? (been there; wearing the t-shirt that was also banned once: F**k c*nsorsh*p!).” And he also made a particularly useful suggestion by asking whether or not it is “too late to get a panel of censors to join the audience in a showing and then discuss the issue? Reading the reaction to the ‘banning’ in the press – it all reeks of pathetic victimisation. Tears? Devastated? Crap. It’s a movie; it’s not corrective rape or murder. Shout back!”
And film historian and critic Trevor Steele Taylor commented on Facebook, “The distributor/ producer of a film should also be able to exercise the option of releasing a film WITHOUT CLASSIFICATION [all caps in original] which inevitably closes doors for the films to be marketed at mainstream movie houses, sales houses, but does allow for the freedom of an informed public to obtain and view the film without the interference of a nest of functionaries.”
National Arts Festival Artistic Director Ismail Mohamed (speaking in his personal capacity) added, “The censorship of Jahmil Qubheka’s film is about depriving and stifling any kind of public engagement about how Qubheka’s artistic endeavours can highlight the scourge of ‘sugar daddyism’ which is destroying so many of our communities. The Film and Publications Board has demonstrated that it has no understanding of how the arts can give agency to the plight and the voice of young schoolgirls who are represented in Qubheka’s film. There is a widening gulf opening in our society between artists who want to reflect and critique our society and those agencies which believe that they have the right to deprive an audience from making up its own mind.”
Meanwhile, the film’s producer, Michael Auret, told the media the DIFF would certainly appeal the FPB’s decision not to classify the film, thereby effectively preventing Of Good Report from being shown anywhere in South Africa. Auret said he was shocked and saddened. “What has become of our constitutional rights as citizens in South Africa? This is like the censorship of the old National Christian fascists of Apartheid. We will fight to give South Africans the right to see the film.”
Then on Sunday, a second shoe seemed to have dropped at – or on – the DIFF, in addition to the fracas over Of Good Report and continuing complaints about breakdowns as a result of their use of new, high-tech projection equipment. Another film seemed to been caught in the FPB maw as well, unable to get a classification in time. Although it wasn’t rejected or unclassified, per se, Michael Winterbottom’s newly released film, The Look of Love, about British sex trade baron Paul Raymond and his heyday in Soho in the 1950s and 60s, did not receive a mandatory rating in time and therefore also could not be shown. Festival organisers apologetically had to announce late on Sunday, “The Durban International Film Festival would like to point out that Michael Winterbottom’s film Look of Love was not screened today as we were unable to send a screener in time to the Film and Publication Board as per their request. As the film has not been exempted from classification, we were unable to screen it. The film has not been classified by the Board. We apologise for any inconvenience caused. Tickets can be refunded at the box-office. We will put a notice at the venue and on Facebook and on our website, should we have to cancel the remaining screening next Sunday.” Perhaps the damage was already done. Commenting on initial reports a second film had been banned, the head of the Cape Film Board, Denis Lillie, told media that while such restrictions can raise the profile of a film, “now being sourced by festival across the world, it puts us in an embarrassing situation because the films can’t be screened locally and it may have long-term impact on the festival itself.”
But by seeming to bow to political pressures in banning the image of a painting for anyone under the age of 18, after it was already widely published on the Internet, and now banning at least one film at one of the country’s most prestigious film festivals, this previously little-noticed government body seems intent on precluding uncomfortable discussions via the arts of some of the country’s most pressing social and political issues. This is a loss for the country’s national conversation.
The FPB insists its primary task is to create a “credible and visible content-classification authority” through classification of content “maintaining relevance to the values and norms of South African society through scientific research; balancing the right to freedom of expression with an obligation to protect children from exposure to potentially disturbing, harmful and inappropriate materials; and [to] protect children from sexual exploitation in media content, in order to educate the broader South African society to make informed choices” [italics added]. Given how this mandate to educate towards informed choices is now being exercised, a question that needs be asked is whether the actual result is what so many people tried so hard to achieve a generation ago in rejecting the restrictions of the pre-1994 era. DM
Photo by Nishat Nguyen.
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