On censorship and film festivals

By Trevor Steele Taylor 3 August 2021

circa 1940: A document which has been marked returned to sender by the official censor in the interests of national security during World War II. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Trevor Steele Taylor explores how dealing with censorship structures in South Africa has changed through the years (or has it?).

Trevor Steele Taylor

I think as I please
and this gives me pleasure.
My conscience decrees
this right I must treasure. 

My thoughts will not cater
to duke or dictator.
No man can deny
die gedanken sind frei – Die Gedanken Sind Frei

At the recent online Artfluence Discussions held courtesy of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KZN, one of the sessions was entitled Gagged: Film Censorship as a Tool for Repression in Democratic Societies. This was certainly a welcome initiative concerning a subject that has seemed to slip out of public debate or, for that matter, from activist resistance, but more of that later. 

In this piece I will begin with a reminiscence of the Limits of Liberty Anti-Censorship Festival held at the Wits Theatre in July 1993, a time of considerable disruption as the Old Political Guard gave way to the New and, within the halls of the Old Censor Board, the wielders of power were struggling to come to terms with the changes from without. 

Limits of Liberty was an offshoot of the combative Weekly Mail & Guardian Film Festival (WM&G Film Festival), which, with a green light from the ANC in London were given the go-ahead to operate under the aegis of a Selective Cultural Boycott. This initiative was informed by meetings at a festival of activist arts held in Amsterdam called CASA – Culture and Arts in a New South Africa. I was part of the curation of Limits of Liberty as I had been on the WM&G Film Festival and both of the events were presented under the directorship of Liza Key. 

Graced with a terribly rude poster designed by cross-dressing Steven Cohen, the festival was designed to cause fur to fly and fly it did.

To quote at length as to the intention of the festival: “With the current pace of political negotiations, South Africa will see its first non-racial election in April next year. Policy relating to the governance of the country should have been formulated by the major parties for that election. And yet the issue of Censorship, so crucial during the years of political struggle, is being ignored at this vital juncture. The artistic and creative community has so far failed to articulate its views on what form, if any, censorship should take in a New South Africa. The goal of the Limits of Liberty conference and festival is to initiate public debate on censorship and to place the issue on the national political agenda.” 

The times were particularly ripe for such a festival. The modus operandi of the film screenings was to present films which contextualised notions of Pornography, Hate Speech, Political Interference, Blasphemy, Sexual Preference and Military Control of Marginalised Communities. 

Within this context we screened Pier Paolo Pasolini’s attack on Fascism, Salo, which was based on the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom; the hardcore version of the Penthouse epic Caligula; a focus on Noam Chomsky Manufacturing Consent; a programme of scurrilous early films by South African filmmaker in exile, Ian Kerkhof and Ireland: The Silent Voice about British media and the lack of it regarding the British presence in Northern Ireland. 

A team of experts from around the world attended, including Sally Sampson (from the British Board of Film Classification), Marjorie Heins (from the American Civil Liberties Union), Frank Panford (a British Human Rights Lawyer), Rod Stoneman (a Commissioning Editor from Channel 4 and expert on Ireland) and locally Media Lawyer Lauren Jacobson was intrinsic part of the discussion as was Dr Jane Bennett of UCT’s Gender Institute and journalist and playwright Don Mattera. 

Running alongside the film screenings and discussions was an exhibition in the Theatre foyer, curated by Robert Weinek and Caroline Cullinan. This included the sexually explicit homoerotic photographs of New Yorker Robert Mapplethorpe and locally Paul Stopworth’s Biko Drawings (which graphically depicted Steve Biko’s internal injuries sustained while in detention); as well as Steven Cohen’s Cardinal’s Cloak and assorted works by Brett Murray, Kevin Brand and CJ Morkel. 

Steven Hilton-Barber’s controversial photographs of a Sotho Initiation Ceremony were exhibited as well as Gideon Mendel’s photographs of the AWB, Ellen Elmendorp’s AIDS education photographs and Kevin Carter’s unsettling photographs from Sudan. 

Also, as if to add insult to injury, video monitors were set up on opposite sides of the foyer – the one screening struggle footage, clandestinely shot in the turbulent townships and the other monitor screening hardcore sexual encounters. 

The times indeed appeared to be changing, especially as the right to present Limits of Liberty had not only been cleared with the ANC in exile but also with the Directorate of Publications and the Publications Appeal Board, who were definitely not in exile, albeit feeling less comfortable in their chairs than those they once had occupied with impunity.

Obviously not everybody was as delighted as we were. A small band of feminists set up a silent vigil on the lawn outside the theatre, burning candles in protest at the screening of pornography. 

Their vigil was however disturbed from unexpected quarters, when armed, and partially horse-backed representatives of the AWB marched on the theatre in protest to a screening of De Voortrekkers, a 10-minute lampoon of the historical epic of the same name from 1916. Made by the anarchic team of Andrew Worsdale, Jeremy Nathan, Matthew Krouse and Giulio Biccari, the film showed a group of Voortekkers engaged in carnal activity both hetero and homosexual, including a spot of blasphemy with a fallen Bible. 

For audiences, staffers, the young filmmakers and the protesting feminists alike, it became a strange reversal of fortune as a troop of police arrived and surrounded the theatre to protect the participants from the enraged Weerstandsbeweging. 

Director Liza Key had been warned at the WM&G Film Festival, by a representative of the Security Police when screening films in Alexandra township that he was “not having anybody conscientising his blacks”, but that had been a few years before and things were moving fast.

We felt we had a lot to be proud of. I stood at the back of the Wits Theatre watching Caligula in all its priapic glory and we were doing it legally.

One major hitch though, which we didn’t win was the proposed screening of the infamous Nazi anti-Semitic epic Jud Süss. Our contention, of course, was that the best way to confront hate speech was to present it for all to see. The Jewish Board of Deputies thought otherwise. They pulled out all their armoury, complained to the German Embassy and the distributors of all films produced during the Nazi Era, the Friedrich Murnau Stiftung and that, I am afraid, was that. We didn’t win that one.

A bizarre incident took place near the end of the festival. I was urgently called to the theatre to find a group of young constables roaming around the exhibition looking as if they had wandered into Sodom. Their commanding officer, a sergeant, I remember – but I don’t remember his name – was ensconced in the theatre office and he was not happy. Being informed that I was the party responsible, he was ready to arrest everybody within sight but some of the audience were, in fact, members of the Censor Board, and again, in one of those reversals of fortune, they were on my side. 

They informed the sergeant that everything was in fact legal and told me to phone Professor van Rooyen of the Publications Appeal Board. This I did and thankfully he was at home. I explained the situation and Van Rooyen very calmly told me to put the sergeant on the line. What followed was the sergeant becoming very respectful and saying Ja Professor and Goed Professor a great deal. He then handed the phone back to me and Van Rooyen told me not to worry, that everything was sorted. 

The sergeant then became terribly friendly and shared with me how he had been relaxing at home after a hard day at the office, having a beer, when he was summoned to come to the Wits Theatre because “there is Pornography happening there.” Well now he was satisfied that there was a paradigm shift, he admitted that once upon time “if your saw a woman’s ****” (I will leave you to fill that in), “you knew you had pornography going on. However in the new dispensations one woman’s **** was pornography but another woman’s **** was not pornography.” I sympathised and he took his constables and departed. 

To put a cap on the whole event, a scheduled screening of The Last Temptation of Christ was delayed by several hours due to an occupation of the venue by a group of self-designated Christians of uncertain validity, led by right-wing, anti-communist Pastor Peter Hammond, whose analyses of Christ’s teaching would certainly surprise Christ himself. The thinking behind the occupation, besides causing a commotion, was to delay the screening so that it would, of necessity, have to continue after midnight. The exemption granted by the Appeal Board was specifically for a particular day. Going past midnight would, by default, be illegal. 

Once again, the South African Police Service came to the festival’s rescue and the protesting “Christians” were carried out bodily by the constables. The film screening then began and Peter Hammond and his followers made their way down to the police station to charge the festival with conducting an illegal screening. Bizarrely, and these were bizarre times, the police ignored them. 

The Last Temptation of Christ’s scriptwriter, Paul Schrader, had been a guest of the WM&G Film Festival the year before when the Directorate of Publications, being less sure of themselves, prohibited a screening of the film at the last moment. Schrader then, in a form of religious ecstasy (he had trained for the clergy in his youth) provoked the jubilant “Christians” in the Market Theatre concourse by assuming crucifixion poses at the window of the Gramadoelas restaurant for the edification of those outside. 


Having managed to upset the South African status quo with certain success, another Limits of Liberty was on the cards for the following year. Manufacturing Consent guru Noam Chomsky was invited but the dates coincided with another engagement. I went off to New York, and with the assistance of Marjorie Heins of the American Civil Liberties Union had meetings with Annie Sprinkle, the Post-Porn Modernist, the feminist pornographer Candida Royalle and was invited for a wonderful supper by Robert Mapplethorpe’s friend Veronica Vera, who besides being a porn performer in her own right, ran an educational organisation for cross-dressers called Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys who Want to be Girls.

Although all three ladies were keen, the requisite funding for their visit was never apparent. I also visited an ailing Allen Ginsberg, who unfortunately was at that stage too ailing to travel, and also unfortunately too ailing to see me but sweetly left a present of his then recent collaboration with Philip Glass, Hydrogen Jukebox. His friend, Bob Rosenthal, presented me with the gift and I spent an hour or so with him. 

The star of the next Limits of Liberty was Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Ôshima, who was funded by the Japan Foundation. A retrospective of his work was presented, including the controversial In the Realm of the Senses

In the Times of Spring, can Winter be far Behind? 

1994 came and went and the Directorate of Publications found themselves between a rock and a hard place. They still had a job to do, and probably did not want to contemplate unemployment, but at the same time they wanted to appear amenable to all things artistic and/or adult. 

As a film distributor, it was a golden opportunity to catch up and take the audiences with one. At little Art Houses (the 7 Arts in Norwood in Johannesburg and the Labia in Cape Town) suddenly one was screening The Story of O, Caligula, Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast and a Hong Kong hoot called Sex and Zen. One even was able to have an outing distributing the thoroughly nasty I Spit on your Grave starring Buster Keaton’s daughter on VHS. 

And then as a special bonus one had luminaries like Nagisa Ôshima visiting for a retrospective and showing his masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses. A lovely, urbane man, who had a special liking for whisky, and a total distaste for diplomats – “functionaries”, as he called them. He did not suffer fools gladly. 

After a screening of In the Realm of the Senses at the 7 Arts in Norwood, a very ruffled lady shouted at him from the audience “Mr Ôshima! What is the difference between your film and pornography?” Ôshima’s gaze at her could not have been more withering. “Nothing at all,” he said, “And now an intelligent question please.” 

This didn’t exactly last and as with so many springs, winter was not far behind, but before I get onto that sad tale, I will reminisce further down memory lane. 


I first encountered the Censor Board, of the old South Africa, at close quarters in 1976 when I was one of the programmers at Cape Town’s Labia Theatre, and this relationship became ever more intimate when I joined the Director of the Cape Town International Film Festival, the flamboyant James Polley, as his Number 2 at the festival. 

Polley had turned South Africa’s film scene on its ear when he managed to convince directors such as John Boorman, Lindsay Anderson, Nicolas Roeg, Bertrand Tavernier, John Schlesinger and Fons Rademakers to come to Cape Town for retrospectives of their work. These were not minor filmmakers. They were the cream of ’70s directors and the censors were well aware of it. 

James, a Methodist minister with a Masters degree in Theology from Yale, had confronted the polite Christian discourse in South Africa with the firm belief that the policy of Apartheid was an enormous heresy. James was a great admirer of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had defied the Nazis and died in a concentration camp in 1945. He also much admired the idea of liberation theology practised by left-wing Roman Catholic priests in Latin America.

When on his honeymoon with a young actress, Karien Scheepers, they spent time at the Cork Film Festival where he met John Boorman. It was there that the Cape Town International Film Festival was born. 

This proved to be James’ last international travelling for a very long time. He was arrested along with NUSAS head Karel Tip and UCT Law professor Raymond Suttner in 1985. Thereafter he was a heavily surveilled member of the clergy. He was arrested for his marijuana garden while in Grahamstown, and although this was a minor charge, the police confiscated his passport. He had another high profile brush with arrest, when Albino Terrorist Breyten Breytenbach clandestinely entered the country about nefarious business and was arrested in James’ company. 

The Directorate of Publications at that time was headed by the academic and gentlemanly Prof Reginald Lighton. His Number 2 was the flamboyant (almost as much so as James Polley) Marie van der Westhuizen and some very scary types such as Prof Andrew Murray (a self-styled expert on Communism) and Etienne Malan, a one-time United Party politician who had crossed the floor and joined the Nationalist Party. 

Marie, with a certain élan, would constitute viewing committees based on the type of film she was dealing with. Unlike today, where viewing members of the board are hidden behind a curtain of anonymity, we knew those with whom we were dealing. Marie had some special members who were her arty types, one of whom, Len Kruskal, was the father of actress Megan Kruskal, who established herself in off-off-Long Street theatre with doyen of experimentalism, Chris Pretorius, before acting in Andrew Worsdale’s seminal film Shot Down

The letter of the Act under which the Directorate of Publications operated was fairly intractable but with the coming of South Africa’s first Film Festival in Cape Town and then with Film Festivals appearing in Durban and Johannesburg, Prof Lighton and Marie did their utmost to bend the rules in manners that would not compromise them too ruinously with their superiors. They bent the rules, I cannot remember the reasons stated, by allowing the terrifying female nipple to be uncut in John Boorman’s film Zardoz, Marie was particularly excited to meet Nicolas Roeg (she was a bit of a groupie), but however much she admired him, she still prohibited his film Performance

Hardliners never tired of accusing James Polley (and myself) of breaking the cultural boycott, but to be quite honest we were sincerely convinced that to open people’s eyes through culture was far more valuable than taking a narrow cultural perspective, often under orders from elsewhere. 

The filmmakers who visited the Cape Town International Film Festival were not politically ignorant – quite the opposite – and besides the ones already mentioned there were the politically left and heavyweight directors from Germany – Helma Sanders-Brahms (Germany Pale Mother), Reinhard Hauff (Stammheim) and Margarethe von Trotta (The German Sisters) – who did not take kindly to being told what to do. 

Admittedly, the Directorate of Publications was well aware that, within their reckoning, promoting film exchange internationally was to the country’s benefit in terms of prestige. I am well aware that James Polley was offered funding for the festivals from the government, but being a man of unshakable principles, he turned all such approaches down and the festivals limped along with funding mainly coming from the United Church of Canada.


It took a few years, as these things do, for forces within the State to become uncomfortable with a society in which too much freedom of choice was being practised. The State Censorship system, as it was practised by the apartheid regime, could not be duplicated to the letter but this did not mean that freedom of choice was going to be tolerated without brakes being applied. 

Within the structures of the board, more liberal influences began to take their leave and a stronger bureaucracy, keeping a distance, heading towards anonymity began to be apparent. What also began to rear its head was an increasing right-wing Christian influence; especially apparent within the rank and file of the board were ZCC caps and stars. 

Meetings were sometimes called between the Film & Publications Board (their new definition) and stakeholders (that old chestnut). Some of these meetings were truly alarming. 

I remember one where it was made very clear that the Film & Publications Board had to make a profit to pay for a vastly increased staff (at present at an all-time high), thus placing within the hands of film distributors and exhibitors the responsibility to pay through the nose for the pleasure of being censored. 

The mainstream distributors, among those aforementioned stakeholders, were not as concerned about censorship fees as they could afford to pay them. Smaller, niche distributors were in a far more ignominious and potentially financially damaging position. This was playing firmly into the hands of the mainstream distributors as it could limit the operations of independents, operating without solid financial backing. The neo-liberal free market was alive and well. 

I became the Curator/Director for Film at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 1999 and the censors definitely had not gone away – in fact, as year succeeded to year, the scrutiny became more refined. As more of the old guard disappeared – one of whom it was actually possible to discuss Sergei Eisenstein with – and were replaced with, to use Nagisa Ôshima’s contemptuous label “functionaries”, one found oneself involved in a game of ducking and diving – certainly not a game of glass beads, but one essentially of thinly veiled disrespect. 

The Film & Publications Board (FPB), as they were now known, had clearly brought brand managers on board to elevate themselves out of the public perception of being a puritanical interfering nuisance into being a friendly multifaceted brand, whose primary aim was to protect children. They had acquired a friendly multicoloured letterhead under which one was informed that their remit was “We Inform You Choose”. Not much of a choice I fear, in a system where all films were required to be watched by anonymous committees before being disseminated and then bound by all manner of “compliance” requirements such as having to be screened in “licensed” venues. 

I was contacted by the new multicoloured FPB sometime around 10 years ago, requesting a platform in the film programme at the National Arts Festival to “inform” the film community on all the guidelines which were increasing on a daily basis and to “inform” filmmakers on compliance to this “information” so that they could be “informed” prior to embarking on the making of a film with areas which they should avoid if they were seeking to release their films. 

This appeared totally and utterly unacceptable, the tactics of bullies and nowhere was there any suggestion that their team of “informants” should be in any way challenged by a panel of “informed” anti-censorship experts. I refused, stating (and here I have to resort to memory as the original document is in storage) that it was entirely unacceptable to provide a platform at an arts event to a state entity whose position was to limit the freedom of expression of artists. I shared my feeling with the festival’s artistic director, Ismail Mahomed, who supported me in my decision. 


Back to Gagged: Film Censorship as a Tool for Repression in Democratic Societies as presented in virtual discussion as part of Artfluence Human Rights Festival, presented by the Centre of Creative Arts at the University of KZN.

Under the chairmanship of Russel Hlongwane, a panel consisting of producer Cait Pansegrouw, Durban Film Festival director Chipo Zhou and Dutch/Bosnian filmmaker Ena Sendijarevic, the discussion was a sadly lacklustre affair which nowhere got its teeth into the stated topic with words such as Gagged, Tool for Repression or, for that matter Democratic Societies.

A few interesting moments though came from Cait Pansegrouw, whose film Inxeba (The Wound), had been given the full treatment on its release, first given a 16 age limit, then banned for “pornography”, then unbanned, while Pansegrouw and her team were threatened with loss of life and limb and theatres were threatened with violence.

Certainly an interesting case study. Let us first look at the charge of “pornography”. This is a term which can never be defined. For Nagisa Ôshima there is no sleight in being accused of “pornography”, in fact it is a bit of a recommendation. For the confused sergeant from the Vice Squad, who was called in to close down Limits of Liberty, it was a matter of some confusion. Seemingly defined as “designed to inspire lustful thoughts”, the definition is rather quaint. I have known people to have lustful thoughts at depictions of the Repentant Mary Magdalene, or others who become starry-eyed considering female knees. The definition does not bear much consideration without banning everything from patent leather boots to sailor suits. 

Cait Pansegrouw does fall into a bit of a trap here. In denying the “pornography” charge she states that there were no shots of genitalia in the film. By this statement, she admits that, for her, genitalia, either in repose or tumescent, can be defined as “pornography”. No they aren’t Cait; it is your perception, or possibly a socially defined perception that requires naked genitalia to be “pornographic”. 

That Cait should have been placed in such a situation by a censorship system, not fit for purpose, is totally unacceptable, as are the life-threatening messages received telephonically and otherwise. 

Japanese artist and musician Yoko Ono (centre) with her second husband, American film producer and art promoter Anthony Cox (right) at a protest outside the offices of the British Board of Film Censors, London, 10th March 1967. Photo by Larry Ellis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There is so much history here. The Nazis, as they were on their rise, managed to limit screenings in America of the films All Quiet on the Western Front and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator by threatening boycotts of American films in Germany (a lucrative market) and threats to the theatres in America that showed the films. This is the spirit of fascism, which cuddles up to the work of the censor. 

Sometimes these threats become very real. At the WM&G Film festival, we screened a Canadian film called How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. In certain circles this was deemed to be a red rag to a bull. The festival received threats. The threats were ignored and late one night at the Avalon Cinema in Fordsburg, where the film was being screened, a bomb went off. The bombers were kind enough to time their device for the middle of the night, although they clearly were not aware that the projectionist resided in a room next to the projection booth. The explosion threw him from his bed but, thankfully, he was not injured. I am sure Cait received threats which were of a similar brand. 

The only other interesting issue as discussed in the hour was Durban Film Festival Director, Chipo Zhou, noting that the choices by festival directors were resultant on compliance to the rulings of certain entities, ie the FPB. 

I was immensely disturbed to observe that in the last three years, the Durban International Film Festival had formed a relationship with the FPB, whereby the board achieved a credit as “partners” with the festival and were granted the right to present their travelling road show as part of the festival’s events. The very cosy relationship I had resisted at the National Arts Festival. According to the latest poster for the upcoming 2021 Durban International Film Festival, the FPB are still ‘partners’. 

I attended a few of these unpleasant presentations which were clearly publicity events for the FPB and without any attempt on the part of the festival to take these events of spin into another realm by challenging the existence of censorship with an opposing view. 

The Durban Film Festival (like the Cape Town Film Festival) was a bulwark against censorship from their very inception and every year would require confrontation with the Censor Board. 

One of the high points of confrontation at the Durban Film Festival came in 2016 where the film Of Good Report, which was due to open the festival, was denied clearance by the FPB on the day of the festival’s opening. The grounds were, of course, “pornography”. Remember the brand – “We Inform You Choose”. The film’s director, Jahmil XT Qubeka, was no slouch. He gave the FPB hell from the stage and threw a few Sieg Heils! in their direction as an afterthought. 

The next day, the FPB road show arrived, lawyers and all, seeking to do damage control and, in an event organised overnight, tried to explain their position to the incensed press and audiences. They were absolutely ludicrous and then festival director Peter Machen, in a fit of despair, burst into tears at this display of the approach of fascism. My respect for Peter Machen was confirmed. His response to this bureaucratic nightmare of censorial control came from the heart. DM/ ML


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  • What an interesting story.

    Control of information and fear has been part of the social control toolbox by the power-elite in whichever regime humans have existed under since we started living in groups. From my schema this has been tied to the economic dispensations over history and the examples of societal sensitivies over explicit sex and all its alternative narratives are
    widows and orphans from the hegemony of the Catholic Church. We know how bloody and torturous those Clergy and Noble elite were in their quests to maintain censorships. Surprising is that these ideas still exist in the hearts and minds of so many in 2021, 500 years on. If one wants to know what is important to investigate further, to better understand how we are being controlled, look to what is being censored. When governments and institutions make information illegal, its about social control. And when institutions follow those “rules”, they are intentionally or unwittingly part of the system that controls and manipulates society for those hidden agendas. And history tells us very clearly, its always about the power and money.


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