Durban film festival: Censors shut down opening film

Jahmil XT Qubeka's film tells the story of a teacher who is a sexual predator that grooms and seduces one of his students. The film was set to be shown as the opening film of the festival on July 18.

Until the final moment before the screening and during the speeches – which were largely about Nelson Mandela’s birthday and freedom of expression – there was no indication of the banning. When the lights dimmed, the audience was greeted with this message: “This film has been refused classification by the FPB [Film and Publication Board] in terms of the FPB Act 1996. Unfortunately we may not screen the film Of Good Report as to do so would constitute a criminal offence.”

The Film and Publication Board has ordered that “all copies of the film must either be surrendered to the police or destroyed”, on the basis that it contains child pornography. During the scene in question, according to the FPB report, “the sexual act of cunnilingus is strongly implied along with sexual effeus [sex sounds] made by Nolitha”.

The film’s producer Mike Auret said in an interview on Friday, “I defy anyone to be sexually gratified by this scene. It’s accompanied by disturbing music, it’s sinister. There is no Barry White in the background. The scene is designed to disturb. She is falling into the clutches of monster. It is a disturbing film because it shines a light on sexual predators, it is not designed in any way to cause arousal, but rather the opposite. We are not denying that the film is about a teacher having sex with a pupil but it’s not designed as pornography, it cannot be used as pornography."

After the announcement at the opening, Sarah Dawson, a festival staffer who has seen the film, raised the point that it was of extreme concern that the Film Censorship Board (FCB) were unable to see the protagonist Nolitha, played by 23-year-old Petronella Tshuma, as anything more than an object of arousal, and that they could not recognise the character's victimhood and give it voice. Sarah added that the issue raised volumes about the patriachical function of the FCB.

"The structures of censorship are so self evidently characteristic of the patriarchal undertones of the previous and now present government, who seek to control female bodies by 'protecting' them. From the gaze of the man, ironically. There just seems to be an outright refusal to look at the complexities of victimhood, the acknowledgement of the reality of teenage sexuality, out of fear for its erotic value,” said Dawson.

'Huge wave of conservatism'
Festival manager Peter Machen chose not to show another film in a gesture of solidarity with the filmmakers. “It would have been a massive insult to the filmmakers, the process of filmmaking, and to audiences to just brush this under the carpet.” At a press conference on Friday he said, “We have to recognise that this represents the thin end of the wedge. There is a huge wave of conservatism rising in cultural production in this country.”

All films screened at the festival are usually exempt from classification. The exemption process is, according to Machen, “a formality”. However, this year the FCB asked to see some of the films being shown; they only did so on Monday evening at about 6pm. The decision to deny the Durban International Film Festival the right to screen the film came on Wednesday evening. Machen launched an emergency appeal process but was informed that the FCB’s appeal process would take 30 days.

On stage, Qubeka burned his identity document and taped his mouth shut. The audience reacted to the event in stunned silence and disbelief.

At the press conference this morning, Zama Mkosi, the chief executive of the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), said that “the NFVF is disappointed that it has come to this. It was completely unnecessary. If there were any issues they could have been dealt with earlier”. Mkosi also stated that she had not seen the film, and she didn’t know what rules had been applied by the FCB.

NFVF rejection
Producer Auret said that they applied to the NFVF for post-production completion funding and were turned down with a letter that had a "strongly moralising tone". The film was completed with support from the Icelandic Film Fund and is already scheduled to screen festivals in Toronto, Dubai and Rotterdam.

The producers will appeal the decision. If that appeal fails they will take the matter to the Constitutional Court. Auret, who is also a lawyer, added: “Our great Constitution is being eroded by a revisionist conservatism. The government agencies we interact with don’t understand film. The film is about a strong, black woman, and it deals with a serious issue. We have had a whole year of activism around violence against women, and this film would shine a light on these issues and start a conversation. This ruling effectively silences that conversation.”

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