Classify Thisby Samora Chapman / Images by Luca Barausse / 23.07.2013
As you know, 24 hours before the opening night of the Durban International Film Festival, Peter Machen (the festival manager) received a letter from the Film and Publication Board. The letter stated that the festival’s opening film, Of Good Report had been banned by the film classification board for containing scenes that they defined as “child pornography”. All copies of the film were to be surrendered to the police and destroyed. Peter made an appeal but it was too late. Oh well… fuck it. The show must go on.
Meanwhile hundreds of Poison City socialites, filmmakers from around the world and rock stars from every nook and cranny were getting ready for the opening night of what many perceive as Durban’s finest cultural event.
At the end of a long day I staggered down to the Suncoast Casino for the big show, oblivious of the drama that was unfolding behind the scenes. I hustled my free ticket, shmoozed with the cool kids and grabbed my free popcorn at the door.
Enter the movie house and nestle in… hoping the formalities will be short so we can get on with the party. I’m picturing sushi, beer and canapés; my hungry belly is growling.
Up on the screen was a live video feed of the main theatre, The Supernova, where things were getting under way. This must be a mistake, I’m thinking, I’ve been thrown in with the plebs in the B Grade ‘simulcast’ theatre. As to be expected, there were a series of self-congratulatory speeches and plenty of Madiba love. Eventually Peter Machen stepped up to the podium looking like a nervous wreck.
“In the dark days of apartheid,” said Peter “the Christian nationalist government controlled everything that went out in the media. Back then The Durban International Film Festival was like a window to another world… a world where freedoms existed beyond what we knew in South Africa.”
He then introduced the filmmakers and producers in attendance, who came up on stage and mopped up the applause. There were a few words from the main players and at last the lights dimmed, the screen flickered and a message came up on the screen.
It went something like this:
‘The film Of Good Report has been banned for containing scenes of child pornography. At 28 minutes into the film a minor is depicted having sexual intercourse with an adult. The screening of this film will be deemed a criminal offense.’
A wave of confusion rippled through the theatre. Is this the opening scene of the film? A gimmick, perhaps? At this point, dozens of people started to leave the theatre and I took the opportunity to head to the Supernova for some of the real life drama.
As I arrived, Peter Machen facing a sea of bewildered faces, says: “Unfortunately this isn’t a bad joke. I’m sorry to inform you that the opening film has been censored and we cannot show it.”
And then it got seriously entertaining. Jahmil Qubeka, the director of the film, came up on stage with sellotape over his mouth. The next thing he did was tear up his ID book, then he threw his hand into the sky in a sieg heil, repeatedly… Saluting the imaginary beast of state oppression, up in the bleachers.
It was brilliant. It was a moment in history.
The producer explained that the actress in the ‘child porn’ scene is 23 years of age. The film reportedly tells the story of a schoolteacher’s illicit affair with his 16 your old pupil. 16 is the legal age of consent in South Africa, so I really cannot understand how this could be classified as a depiction of “child porn”? The film deals with important themes of sexuality, rape, power and relationships between young women and older men. We live in a society where these issues are crucial and need to be addressed by contemporary filmmakers like Qubeka.
Sexism is like the standing pillar of ignorance, still condoned and even championed in the mainstream media and many other facets of public life. It seems to me that the Film and Publications Board in this instance were unable to disconnect themselves from what we know from film school as the ‘straight male gaze’.
At the after party I consumed a few brews and went looking for Jamal, el-Director, who was still pumped from the big protest.
“Was it ever an option to go ahead and show the film?” I asked. “That would have been a serious statement.”
“No way man. We would have been thrown in jail!” He said without hesitation.
At that moment Roger Young gate crashed my interview, bear hugging Jamal like a long lost lover and leading him away, leaving me hanging with my single quote.
Did the opening night of the Durban International Film Festival see the first tangible return of apartheid style thought policing? Or was it a once-off instance of over-zealous and verkrampte administrators overplaying their paternalistic role in trying to protecting our minds from what they deem as smut, and in so doing denying us the opportunity to creatively engage with our society’s most pressing issues? Either way Qubeka’s film will now debut to packed theatres at the Toronto Film Festival. Its success guaranteed thanks to this particular furore.
But it’s us who are left trying to pick up the pieces of our newly diminished civil liberties. Is this the shape of things to come?! I was left wondering: what would Madiba do?
*Image © Luca Barausse.