Durban, South Africa: It was Nelson Mandela’s birthday, and the international day of service in his honor. The reports were that the man they call Madiba was recovering, according to upbeat accounts from his wife of 15 years and daughter Zindzi from his marriage to Winnie.
Happily, on that night, it was also a time of celebration as film fans packed into the annual opening of the film festival in Durban.
For 34 years, the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) has brought a world of cinema to the East coast of South Africa with an impressive range of films, filmmakers and related events. The screenings are often packed with over 150 films or more on display.
The Festival is organized by the Center for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, up on the big hill overlooking Durban. In recent years, its setting went from the academic to the commercial, from a mountain to a beach, with the opening this year, once again, based in cinemas at the Suncoast casino where it is attended by a multi-racial, and multi-generational crowd. (For details on this year’s program, visit their website at http://www.durbanfilmfest.co.za.)
There was a lot of buzz about the opening feature film, Of Good Report, made by black South African filmmaker Jahmil XT Qubeka, (X.T. in some publications). The Mail and Guardian called it a “powerful and perfect piece about an obsessive predator.”
It was scheduled for its world premiere at Durban. It is made in African languages—in Xhosa and Sotho with English subtitles. The festival catalogue calls it a “hypnotic journey inside the mind of a mentally troubled man” that falls in love with one of his students, sensational perhaps but also all too common in township schools.
“It’s a starkly gripping piece of work,” writes Shaun De Waal in the M&G. “Qubeka has a very punchy storytelling style.”
Neither the director nor the writers who praised it were aware of how the government’s Film and Publication Board would punch back.
The screening was set to follow one of those endless thank you rituals that precede events that have to hustle for funding like this one did from government, private companies and the university, among many others. The Festival enjoys government support at the local, provincial and national level. It is one of the country’s leading arts events.
When show time arrived, the audience settled in to watch the opening movie.
But, then, to everyone’s surprise, a statement instead of a film, flashed on the large screen.
It was an excerpt from a letter, just received that morning, from the government body that “classifies” films. (In the US, an industry organ, the Motion Picture Association (MPAA) handles movie ratings).
It 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.”
It was later explained that the movie could not be classified or shown because it had been found to feature child pornography, which is prohibited by law, along with movies glorifying war or promoting racism and hatred.
The manager of the film festival, Peter Machen, explained: “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.” (His remarks can be viewed on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgLb8dcSyVA)
“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,” adding, “it presents a story of a very real and troubling social problem of rampant abuse of position in our country.”
The Board demanded all copies be sent to them or the police to be destroyed. Their legalistic letter was read, in part, to the audience. (You can watch that here: http://youtu.be/JcSAmGpTqKs)
Moreover the officials issuing the threats based on a unanimous decision admitted the movie had not even been screened in its entirety. They stopped the screening, they said, after twenty-seven plus minutes and then issued their edict. (Somehow 27 seemed a symbolic number since that was also the number of years Mandela had been jailed.)
The movie had been banned!
The cast and crew didn’t know about this in advance and were as shocked as the audience. Many saw this as a replay of the Christian nationalist uber-moralism of the apartheid years.
The Festival then invited the audience to take part in a discussion.
“We decided to go ahead with this evening program, despite not being able to screen the film,“ said Professor Cheryl Potgieter, Vice-Chancellor of humanities and who teaches about sexuality in film, “as we felt the directors and producers had the right to be heard.”
Another representative of the festival, Kwazi Ngubane, called the ban an “injustice and an insult” because it deals with issues that the country faces.
Then, an angry reaction was heard, not about pornography, but the Board’s action. (Ironically, an executive of a prominent local film company told me that the movie could have been shown without a classification at a film festival because of an exemption in the law. But, he added, once you go to the Board, you give them power over the work’s exhibition.)
The director put tape on his mouth, and held up what was said to be a shredded passport, and didn’t say a word. His wife, Lwazi Manzi, an emergency room doctor, spoke instead, insisting the film was not pornographic in any way. She said it deals with issues that the public has to confront even if it makes the audience or board uncomfortable.
“Just because they (the FPB) don’t want to see it, does not mean it does not happen…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.”
She movingly described the cases of sexual abuse that she sees every day, many of under-age kids by older men.
She is right to be concerned: sexual violence and child abuse is pervasive in South Africa. Clinical Psychology Review examined 65 studies from 22 countries. Using the available data, the highest prevalence rate of child sexual abuse geographically was found in Africa (34.4%), primarily because of high rates in South Africa.
I was disappointed that there were not more films on the subject on the program.
A few days later, the director broke his silence on the front page of the Sunday Times, the country’s newspaper with the highest circulation. He described his movie as the Little Red Riding Hood story “from the wolf’s perspective.”
He also railed at the ban, asking, “in this day and age, seriously? The child porn thing smacks of the greatest ignorance, incompetence and downright stupidity. How do you come up with that kind of charge from viewing this film.” (A more recent interview appears in Variety http://variety.com/2013/film/news/south-africa-banned-film-director-jahmil-qubeka-speaks-out-1200566361/)
Others in the cast and crew, including its young stars, spoke eloquently about their disappointment and dismay over the decision. The 23 year old actress who plays the female student insisted there was “no graphic sex.” She was almost in tears, and still shaken when I spoke to her at a festival event later in the evening.
Many members of the audience were outraged, calling for a petition, and protest. They also asked on local politicians at the event to speak out. The decision touched off a storm of critical media attention throughout South Africa.
The film has also been accepted for screening at prominent film festivals worldwide, including the prestigious Toronto Film Festival. The furor over the banning has already become news worldwide. South Africa’s The Independent reports, “artists and filmmakers around the world are calling for the unbanning.”
South African filmmakers were meeting at the film festival to organize a united response which may include picketing the board.
These protests are likely to continue.
In one sense, this has become the most provocative film never shown, the first film to be banned since South Africa won its freedom in 1994. Director Qubeka told the Sunday Times, “overnight, this has changed my life…the support I am getting overseas is ridiculous.
The Festival and the producers are appealing a decision that seemed to be premised on a law built around the idea that if you show or even hint at some behavior, you are encouraging it.
One woman in the audience said the government agency mistook “a victim of sexual abuse with a subject of sexual attraction.”
The Mercury newspaper reported that the “Film and Publication Board has a special project focusing on what it considers to be child pornography.” Its website (http://fpb.org.za/) seeks the public, rather vaguely, to report “what they might consider child pornography.”
Writing in Variety, my colleague on the film project I am working on, South Africa’s top film publicist, Dezi Rorich, reported the board’s response: “The fact that the committee refused classification does not mean that it does not have artistic merit. It is implementing legislation,”
Yoliswa Makhasi, CEO of the Film and Publication Board, said. “The decision of the classification committee is informed by the Film and Publications Act, and the committee is required by law to refuse classification (if the film contravenes that law). It is merely implementing the legislation.”
Makhasi added, ”The minute there is any element of child pornography, as defined in the Act, the committee has to stop viewing.” It was around 28 minutes into the film when the committee made its decision.”
This prompted producer Mike Mills to retort, “this is a problem because it means they did not bother to see the rest of the film. You cannot take a feature film and sum it up in one scene. The overall narrative must be taken into account.”
The film’s producer, Mike Auret, a lawyer, said he would take the issue to the Constitutional Court. “It is not the function of state to moralize…if the committee was acting within a law of South Africa, that law is unconstitutional,” he insisted angrily.
Violations of the Film Board’s codes are subject to penalties of up to ten years in jail. The Board did say they would not recommend prosecution Of Good Report until all appeals are decided. They issued a statement Monday warning than anyone with copies of the film will be arrested.
Antoinette Engel wrote on Africaisacountry.com:
“I was disappointed, to say the least, because the festival sent the film to the Film and Publication Board on 10 July and when it wasn’t cleared they tried to bring an urgent application to the board earlier that day (18 July) but this didn’t work. With so short a time for the red tape that must involve such classifications, DIFF could have done more.
At festivals like the Berlinale pre-screenings are commonplace a day or two before the official opening for press.”
Another problem, say the producers, is the Film Board is not part of the Arts & Culture Ministry that might have been more supportive, but anchored in Home Affairs department that polices immigration and is primarily focused on law enforcement.
In the apartheid days, the regime prohibited many films like “Black Beauty,” Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and “Cry Freedom.”
Some years back, my documentary Plunder on the financial crisis was shown at the last minute at a Johannesburg conference at Witwatersrand University on investigative reporting.
The response was very positive—but a year later, when I recounted my experience at a movie industry reception in South Africa, a member of the classification board who was there, overheard me and demanded to know if I had submitted the film in advance to their board.
Frankly, I didn’t know that you needed government permission for non-commercial screenings in a university. I was told you most certainly do, and that I was in violation of some code.
I dismissed her comment at the time as bizarre bureaucratic overreach, but after the banning at the festival I can see how much power this Orwellian body wields.
News Dissector Danny Schechter is in South Africa producing a series of documentaries tied to the forthcoming movie based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom. He edits Mediachannel.org and blogs at News Dissector.net. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.