Jahmil XT Qubeka, the director of the film, Of Good Report which was meant to open the DIFF, stands muzzled in front of a screen with the FSB notice that his film cannot be screened. Photo: Russel Grant
Reopening the debate about censorship, art and its value for society
Against "Sugar Daddies"
This week, President Hifikepunye Pohamba (Namibia) rightfully spoke out against "Sugar Daddies" and advised school-going girls to delay getting involved in relationships and to rather concentrate on finishing their education.
I believe, Jahmil XT Qubeka had the same in mind, when he shot his latest film "Of Good Report" as he tells me, he wanted to address the abuse of women by elder men, "something seen in South Africa" every day. The film apparently makes a strong statement against the practice of school teachers acting as sugar daddies. I am saying, apparently, as I haven't seen it. As it stands, at the time of writing this, it would be a criminal offence to posses, let alone watch the movie, if I were still in South Africa.
During Mandela Day
Having been in Durban last week myself, for the Durban International Film Festival, the film world was surprised and shocked, as "Of Good Report", the opening film, was banned by the South African Film and Publication Board (FPB), on the grounds it contained "child pornography". Unfortunately, the FPB only watched 30 minutes of the film, before they made their decision.
The board seems to have made an unwise decision, as they have now achieved what they wanted to prevent. The film was the talk of the town, media houses from within South Africa and outside, including Africiné, Variety and Hollywood Reporter, have been prominently covering the story.
This was to be expected, especially as it was the first film to be put on an index since 1994, the year Apartheid rule ended. Even worse, the festival had to announce the decision on the birthday of no one else than Nelson Mandela, who had all his life stood strong against censorship and policies against freedom of expression. It was a sad day for South Africa, and the film industry at large.
But it might also be the other way around and good will come out if this. The banning has ben revoked (and what is left, is a happy filmmaker, whose life had changed overnight, where requests for his newest film has been coming in from all over the world. The success at the box offices outside South Africa, in the festival circus and regarding dvd sales should be enormous. The banning of his film has achieved the opposite of what the FPB had intended. The film had been marketed all around the world. Twitter accounts opened. Facebook pages opened etc.
An Award for Artistic Bravery
Furthermore, the ban has triggered a serious of discussion around censorship, classification, and if audiences can abstract from images seen on screen and interpret the underlying social message. Academics are writing their papers, so are lawyers, and COSATU, FEPACI, DFA, Africiné, Arterial Network and others are forming a coalition opposing the FPB decision.
Following the refusal to classify the Opening Night Film Of Good Report, the Film and Publications Board reversed their decision and gave the film a an R-Rating of 16 that Saturday, July 27 afternoon. The film was not screened in any of its allocated slots as a result of the refusal for classification and so could not be in competition. The Durban International Film Festival acknowledged the film's achievements in stimulating worldwide debate and highlighting important issues in South African society. Festival manager Peter Machen therefore announced a new annual award for Artistic Bravery, the first of which was given to Of Good Report director, Jahmil XT Qubeka. Of Good Report was screened on the last day of the festival (Sunday, July 28) at 12h00 at Suncoast Nu Metro.
Societal norms versus unconventional scenarios
Some countries have a long history of banning certain films, which the censorship boards label as "difficult", films which challenge societal norms or depict unconventional scenarios that would offend the average viewer. It is important that an open society values this openness and learns how to deal with controversies in a pragmatic manner. Criticism of certain societal norms and the debate around them is beneficial to a society. It moves a society forward.
AfricAvenir is showing "Cairo Station" (1958) by legendary Egyptian director Youusef Chahine on August 12, as opening film of the 1st Week of Classic Egyptian Films in Windhoek. This Chahine masterpiece explores sexuality and repression, madness and violence, among the marginalized. "Cairo Station" brought the director international recognition at the Berlin Film Festival. The film was declared a masterpiece, but the Egyptian authorities at the time didn't think so. The film was banned for twenty years, before the ban was lifted.
This year, a film which premiered during FESPACO 2013 (not in Official Selection, but at the Goethe Institut of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso), "The President" by award winning Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo, encountered the same fate. The Cameroonian authorities did not approve with the daring film plot. Bekolo triggered the anger of the Biya government by making a fiction film in which the "Le Président" disappears a few days before the elections. As "The President" is clearly directed at President Biya, who has been in power for over 30 years, and as Bekolo is asking critical questions, highlighting stories of succession, independence and transformation, the authorities are increasing the pressure to stop the film from being watched by ordinary Cameroonians, oppressing any debate amongst the people who are supposed to be represented by the government.
Fortunate for me, that the film played at Durban International Film Festival. But unfortunate for the audiences, for whom the film was made. The same could be said about "Of Good Report". It is the local audiences, which filmmakers priorities. Bekolo is known for his reflective critical and thought provoking films. So was Chahine. And they both contributed immensely to their societies.
Let's hope, authorities, wherever they are, will be more open and understanding, that film is an art form, and that any art form is essential for society and for the advancement of humanity.
Hans-Christian Mahnke attended the Durban Film Market, which runs in parallel to the Durban International Film Festival. He is the director of AfricAvenir Windhoek, an NGO which runs an Monthly African Film Series in Windhoek.