The film you're not allowed to see

2013-07-28 14:00

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Of Good Report, denied a classification by the Film and Publication Board, views SA through a prism that makes for uncomfortable viewing. Charl Blignaut sees what you’re not allowed to

The biggest problem when it comes to the discussion around the banning of Jahmil Qubeka’s Of Good Report is that few people have seen it. I have.

It was available to journalists as an online screener ahead of the Durban International Film Festival.

Unfortunately, I saw it on a computer and not in a cinema. I have no doubt it’ll be even more impressive on a big screen.

And it is impressive. Shot in black and white as a homage to film noir, it’s a very dark comedy told as an African Western by a bona fide auteur. It’s a fresh, confident, quirky and accomplished art-house movie with excellent performances and a genius score. It takes experimental South African film up several notches.

What it doesn’t do is wag a moral finger or try drive its message home. It isn’t a piece of social realism or a “message film” (whatever that is). It’s not the kind of film that pushes a line in “nation building” that government film agencies are so keen to see on our screens (think Darrell Roodt’s Yesterday).

Neither does it push a notion of “social cohesion” because it’s about social disintegration and a country of crumbling morals – where an older man, a man “of good report”, can get away with murder. And our sugar daddies do, every day.

When the film maker approached the National Film and Video Foundation for funding they rejected his application because, they said, it doesn’t “offer a protagonist we can root for”. They advised him to look at Red Dragon or Dexter to up the lead character Parker Sithole’s moral convictions.

But easy comparison or classification evades this film. And this makes the debate around its depiction of underage sex even more complicated.

Because the language of the film is difficult, its classifiers will need to understand film language first. And if you see the film, you will wonder if they do.

The sex scene in question is stylised and absolutely inexplicit. It’s the least of the problems the film raises. Yes, the girl is 16, but so is the age of consent.

The Film and Publication Board (FPB) is governed by an act that says she must be 18 or older. The actress playing her is 23.

Where “the aesthetic element is predominant, the image will not constitute pornography”, stated former chief justice Pius Langa. By this definition – a landmark judgment by the Constitutional Court on the FPB’s definition of pornography – Of Good Report is not pornography.

It’s not an overtly political film either. When it takes a jab at political corruption it does so symbolically – President Jacob Zuma talking on the TV while a poster of him is stuck to a wall next to it. The message is clear, but you have to work to find it.

Most people who end up seeing this film will probably not even realise, by the end, that Sithole doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue in it.

He’s a miserable and comical man, stripped of his dignity by apartheid and hardened by his former life as a soldier. He is a killer who is unable to get in touch with his emotions.

In one scene, we finally see him cry. Except he doesn’t. The tin roof of his room is leaking and water is dripping on to his face. When he meets Nolitha, she offers a small glimmer of joy in his dark life.

Yes, she’s a Lolita. She thinks it’ll be fun to seduce this man in authority, her teacher.

She appears to even enjoy the sex. Perhaps it’s this that really upset the FPB.

Here we have a real and complex character who doesn’t easily fit into the portrayal of South African women as either virgins or whores – as academic Sarah Dawson argues in The Con, an online magazine.

Dawson saw the film when helping make selections for the Durban festival. She proposes our problem with Nolitha is we don’t know how to classify her because we barely recognise her rights in our patriarchal society.

The banning, she writes, “has happened purely because the sexualised young female of Nolitha doesn’t yet have a proper meaning in this society”.

As Of Good Report’s powerful final scene ends, it instantly took its place in my all-time South African top-10 favourite films.

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