Rating 'Inxeba' as porn is artistic illiteracy

The porn rating of the award-winning Inxeba does not reflect the film’s content but rather homophobia’s pervasiveness

The porn rating of the award-winning Inxeba does not reflect the film’s content but rather homophobia’s pervasiveness

At school, I secretly hated it when the music teacher subjected us to German lieder. I struggled unsuccessfully to challenge myself to appreciate the songs.

I have also struggled for years now to have a genuine appreciation for the works of some jazz artists. I have often quietly wondered whether every single person at a jazz event looking like they are having an orgasmic aural experience is faking it.

I am capable of boredom at a jazz festival.
I have never, however, thought of lieder or jazz as noise. I know that these are musical genres. I learned to distinguish my low level of appreciation for some of these art forms from acceptance that they are, nevertheless, art forms containing complex aesthetic and moral qualities.

One should distinguish between various definitional, evaluative and personal questions: What is art? What is good art? What art forms or specific works of art do I like as matter of personal taste? Is my personal taste necessarily indicative of what counts as (good) art?

When you delineate these philosophical questions then it becomes easier to accept that one’s individual preferences are just that: a reflection of personal taste. Preferring a certain work of art over another is not a necessary condition for a work of art to be classified as art.

There is complexity here. If you do not intuitively — or, alternatively, through exposure to the works of experts in aesthetics — have a certain minimum level of artistic literacy, then you will be inclined to form all sorts of hasty judgments about a range of artworks, and art forms.

These flashbacks to philosophical inquiries I had encountered in aesthetics came back to me in recent weeks as the public debate about the film Inxeba (The Wound) gained furious momentum.

Wounds have been opened that reek of homophobia, cultural chauvinism, toxic masculinity and, beyond all these variations of bigotry, low levels of artistic literacy.

Some saw it acceptable to review the film without having seen it. This is simultaneously shameful (because doing so is a marker of intellectual bankruptcy) and undeserving of serious engagement. No one is entitled to form a definitive judgment about a film they have not seen. Doing so is as misguided as forming and expressing a definitive viewpoint about a book or music album without having read the book or listened to the album.

And, if someone summarised for you what they regard as the essence of the book or the album based on their direct knowledge of it, then you are still not entitled to a firm or definitive viewpoint. If the person is, in epistemic terms, a trustworthy reporter, then it is not outrageous to take their summary seriously. I have — and do not think this is unjustified — chosen, for example, not to read some books when friends I trust tell me why doing so would be a waste of my precious time.

But then I need to be humble about what I do with the viewpoints I have inherited from them. Their opinion can help me to make decisions such as whether to read a book or buy an album, but that is still very different to expressing a confident and definitive viewpoint about works of art I am not directly familiar with.

The widespread sense of entitlement to hate Inxeba without having seen the film stems from the general acceptance of homophobia and conservative cultural tropes in society. Someone tells you there is a film in which the central characters have same-sex desire and same-sex sex and that is enough to give licence to public disapproval even without watching the film.

Of course, some critics have watched the film and found it offensive. Should the fact that they are offended determine whether the film is shown in cinemas nationwide? Absolutely not. Just as my dislike of lieder and some jazz cannot determine whether these musical forms should be allowed to be performed publicly, so the disapproval, discomfort and even being offended should not determine whether Inxeba is shown in cinemas.

It is a work of art. It has a complex storyline, with rounded and complex characters, a narrative arc and sophisticated plot, themes and subthemes. In other words, Inxeba has all the structural features of films that we routinely permit in our cinemas and classify as works that have artistic merit.

If you hate the film or deem it to be not particularly good, then write a strongly worded letter to a newspaper and criticise it morally and aesthetically. Or tweet your disgust. Or call a radio station and express your considered critique. The film cannot be banned because you dislike it. Just as I must live with the possibility of hearing lieder again one day.

In a liberal constitutional society that has enshrined speech rights, including artistic freedom, art cannot be banned whenever some people threaten to protest against the distribution of works of art that subvert or interrogate or play with their beliefs or lived experiences. Even offensive art is not unlawful or thereby due for classification as harmful to society.

A film does not even need to be accurate in its portrayal of a ritual before it can be lawfully distributed widely. Even if there are aspects of the storyline that bear no resemblance to reality, a film should still be classified as a work of art.

Now, for one thing, many of us — including many Xhosa men who have undergone the traditional circumcision ritual — think that Inxeba is a good film. But even if many people think it is a poor film with serious aesthetic and moral deficiencies, so what? That is not how we decide whether it can be screened in NuMetro or Ster-Kinekor cinemas.

If that was the entry criterion, then Leon Schuster’s films would never be shown in mainstream cinemas because they are horribly poor works of pseudo-art that have countless aesthetic and moral deficiencies, including racist tropes that are recycled with gay abandon. But Schuster has a right to have his films screened widely, and any classification slapped on them must be rational. It is thereafter up to filmgoers to decide whether to see these films and whether they want to engage them critically.

Now, what the Film and Publication Board’s appeal tribunal has done is, in effect, to ban Inxeba. It has been classified as being pornographic and having qualities that could cause “tension in society”.

This is laughably ridiculous and simply reveals the low levels of artistic literacy of the men and women entrusted to make such an important classification judgment. It cannot be pornography because it does not aim to arouse.

The bits of nudity and implied sexual activity in three scenes do not last, collectively, for more than a few minutes in a film that is of regular feature length.

Furthermore, those scenes are not even sexually explicit. Anyone who has seen or been exposed to pornography knows that the dominant content in a porn film is explicit sex, aimed at arousing the viewer. The viewer also seeks out porn films to be aroused.

We do not go to the cinema to see Inxeba to get aroused. Indeed, the dominant emotional and cognitive responses as the story in Inxeba unfolds are nonsexual precisely because the artistic complexity of the film opens irreducibly complex and layered emotional and cognitive responses in the viewer. Art does that. Porn doesn’t.

Inxeba fails to meet the crass qualifying criteria to be hardcore porn. It is therefore irrational to give it a classification — X18 — that puts it into the same category as porno-graphy that you can only access at a tiny number of licensed outlets such as Adult World.

The appeals tribunal did this only because the implied anal sex scene offended their homophobic sensibilities (even in the absence of explicit sex).

There are countless films on the circuit that have more nudity and sexual activity that do not get this rating, such as Fifty Shades of Grey. What is the difference? Simple: heterosexual sex does not “cause tension in society” but, apparently, implied gay sex does.

The X18 classification stems from a wicked belief that homosexuality per se is pornographic. That is a view the appeals tribunal members can hold privately. It cannot in law be the basis of the X18 classification.

By conflating private beliefs about homosexuality with the classification criteria in law, the tribunal members found themselves banning a film that has won some 20 awards around the world. The awards were not won at porn festivals but at film festivals that recognise quality works of art.

Our Constitution demands of us to be comfortable with diversity. Diversity, in turn, means that artistic works will never be experienced uniformly. We bring our personal life experiences and deeply held beliefs to the cinema. These frame our responses to films. That is fine. That is healthy. That is how contestation in the marketplace of ideas gets off the ground.

We cannot, however, become so intolerant as to demand that our individual tastes and personal beliefs be the basis of public policy.

It is not compulsory to watch or like Inxeba. It is compulsory to uphold the rights of artists and filmmakers to make and distribute films that offend some of us.

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