Disagreement cannot extend to censorship

While it is alarming, it is not entirely unexpected that debate around the film Inxeba has descended into threats of violence and the cancellation of screenings mere days after its general release in South African cinemas. For it was less than six months ago that Nakhane, the film’s lead actor, first received death threats, and the AmaXhosa King, Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu, expressed his intention to halt distribution of the film.

The Board of PEN South Africa, a non-political organisation representing South writers, roundly condemns the threats of violence levelled against workers at cinemas showing the film Inxeba, calls by traditional leaders to ban the film, and successful attempts to stop the film screenings at cinemas this past weekend in the Eastern and Western Cape. We believe these actions – encouraged and perpetrated by traditional leaders, politicians and members of the public – amount to censorship and are in contravention of the law and the Constitution.

As has been widely reported, protest action against the film caused screenings of ‘Inxeba’ to be cancelled at Nu Metro cinemas in Port Elizabeth, East London and Cape Town. Although citizens are entitled to feel and express disapproval of any work of art – including through peaceful protest, organisation and boycott – this entitlement cannot extend to preventing other citizens from viewing the work, especially if the work is not in contravention of the Constitution. Effecting the cancellation of film showings impinges upon the rights of other members of the public who wish to view the film. The official restriction of a film, according to the Film and Publication Board, amounts to a “direct contravention to Section 16 of the South African Constitution [the right to freedom of expression] as well as the provisions of the Films and Publications Act”; similar restrictions effected by public action are equally problematic.

A further concern to PEN SA are reports of an alleged meeting between the Film and Publication Board and the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (the “CRL Rights Commission”), in which it was purportedly “agreed that the National Film and Video Foundation must apologise for funding the movie”. If this meeting did indeed take place, this can be taken as nothing less as an affront to free expression, and an attempt to dissuade filmmakers from exploring similar themes in future films. PEN SA is of the view that the NFVF is under no obligation to apologise for funding a film that is not in contravention of the Constitution, and must be afforded due respect and the opportunity to fulfil its mandate without fear or favour.

The PEN SA Board contends thatall cultures, including those of South Africa, flourish through artistic work that helps to imagine a country in which all are at home, a reality not yet attained for many. The fact that Inxeba is directed by a white filmmaker is understandably a point of contention for many people; however, to reduce and erase the work of the many people involved in creating the film – including actors, writers, cinematographers and production assistants – to the work of one person is reductionist, and strips other people involved with the film of their professional and personal agency. Inxeba is the collaborative work of some of the best of South Africa’s writers, actors, musicians and filmmakers, who have been celebrated both inside and outside the country, and present us with a view of ourselves in which we are brave enough to face what is difficult. 

PEN SA stands with them because our Constitution gives them that inalienable right, but also because our country and our culture is enriched by their generous and courageous vision, which confronts and undermines.It should be noted that what the perpetrators of apartheid, colonialism and racism sought (and seek) to accomplish is to force cultures to remain static, inert, and comprised of people who are afraid.

We are encouraged that the film’s creators have submitted a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. We appeal also to the Human Rights Commission to intervene as a matter of urgency, and we call for the physical protection of cinema workers, as well as the cast and producers of the film. It is also imperative that organisations such as the CRL Rights Commission refrain from creating an atmosphere in which censorship – retroactive or pro-active – and the restriction of Constitutional free expression might once again thrive. Such inappropriate intervention harkens back to darker days for this country’s artists. We must make sure they do not return.

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