South Africa: to censor or not to censor

Regulation & Policy

The first South African film to be banned since 1994, Of Good Report, ignited the 2013 Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) into an explosive start, writes Professor Keyan Tomaselli, director of The Centre for Communication, Media and Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In an exclusive article for Screen Africa, Tomaselli discusses what happened and why.

At DIFF’s opening night a disbelieving audience and shocked actors from the film, Of Good Report, took a while to realise that the announcement from the podium that the film had been banned and deemed child pornography was not farce. All copies of the film were to be destroyed, instructed the Film and Publication Board (FPB).

The government, cabinet ministers, the president and FPB were berated by the filmmakers for their head-in-the sand attitudes. The director of the film, Jahmil XT Qubeka, took to the stage placing a piece of cellophane on his mouth and symbolically cut up what appeared to be his ID book. The anger and dismay was spectacle in itself. This was real theatre in the cinema.

Film organisations met the next day. A flash mob screening of the film on the beachfront was one suggestion, but producer Mike Auret called for cool heads. The FPB had got it wrong, he argued. But the debate raged on at the DIFF session where the FPB was scheduled to talk about its function. Where were the DIFF film makers in previous years when the FPB had explained their criteria, they asked.

Auret was, however, correct. The ban was reversed a few days later on appeal.
A number of heavyweights also commented about the travesty of the banning. Both Kobus van Rooyen, who led the drafting of the 1996 Films and Publications Act, and Pierre de Vos, a constitutional law scholar, explained that aesthetic considerations would always overrule technical ones.

Industry organisations wanted to know who the FPB board members were. Why were they not consulting filmmakers about their decisions? Their website, which posted press reports on the banning, contains little on its members.

Whatever the merits or demerits of the banning, the outcome has been positive. The film obtained global exposure and the issue of sugar daddies is now firmly on the national agenda. The question of public accountability of state regulatory bodies is back in the limelight, as is the role of a critical citizenry in the public sphere.

Can and should that sphere be compromised by a classification committee that would appear to have little expertise in any of these domains or grasp on the enormity of the banning?

There is no way that the dysfunctional characters in the film, all of whom suffer grievously as a consequence of their behaviour, can be considered to be depicting child porn.

Yes, some of the very fleeting sex scenes are tantalisingly erotic, but the function here is to shift viewer identification between the underage Lolita character and the teacher, a loner beset with his own demons.

This strategy initially unsettles the viewer and prepares him or her for the lack of narrative closure. At root, the film is a critical metaphor on what post-apartheid South Africa has become.

In contrast, pornography does not develop characters, it lacks in-depth plot lines, it does not pit ‘good’ against ‘evil’; pornography has no closure. There are no personalities, sensible dialogue or social or personal consequences in pornography. There are just sterile sexual gymnastics.

Watching Of Good Report, in fact, takes an act of will. It is uncompromising in its criticism of disintegrating personas, all of whom stand for larger social roles in conflict with each other.

Of Good Report is one of the few South African films that consciously draws on historical aesthetic movements such as Italian Neorealism (slow pace, observational, re- enactments, monochromatic, daily life); the French New Wave (elliptical time, parallel dimensions); intertextuality (á la Kubrick, Lolita, extreme violence depicting character disintegration); and Third Cinema (socially critical analysis) all sandwiched into a psychological thriller genre.

Are the FPB appointments able to assess this kind of layered and multifaceted aesthetic complexity? What is the FPB’s expertise in art history, film theory, narratology, media studies, audience and reception analysis, media effects and cultural studies?

Filmmakers think of themselves as artists rather than educators. The latter practice needs attention when making social messaging films. Entertainment education strategies, public health communication methodology, social learning theories and critical pedagogy underpin TV programmes with which Of Good Report intersects.

The South African television drama series Soul City, 4Play: Sex Tips for Girls, Tsha Tsha and Intersexions are driven by global research institutes and associated bodies of knowledge tested and implemented in practice, backed up by audience research, reception analysis and behaviour change monitoring.

Once-off films rarely obtain this kind of research support. Makers of films who want to change attitudes would best work off known research bases and with the appropriate research and evaluation institutes.

Nevertheless, one wonders whether the FPB is aware of this huge body of research of which South Africa is a global leader.

Nothing mobilises complacent citizens like a banning. This incident was the catalyst needed for South African filmmakers, legislators and media professionals to band towards a common goal.

Source: Professor Keyan Tomaselli is the author of The Cinema of Apartheid and Encountering Modernity: 20th Century South African Cinemas. Sep 2013.