Issues around the banning of the film, Of Good Report (2013)
Of Good Report is the first film to be banned by the Film and Publications Board (FPB) since 1994 (the year South Africa became a democracy) at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF). The screening was cancelled on the opening night of the Festival, 18 July, much to the outrage and indignation of many. Debates have been raging ever since.
As a result, very few people have actually seen the film and yet the media has been filled with reports and comments from various individuals and groups, from film directors and producers, media academics, film enthusiasts to the general public, reopening debates on secrecy and censorship, as well as issues around child pornography.
Because I had not seen the film, I felt I needed to temper my initial outrage at the banning of a film aimed at an audience of mainly mature, adult and international film ‘officianados’. At least, they were viewers who appreciate not only what’s on screen but also the background to the film and its place in society. So here I refer to comments made by UKZN’s Professors Keyan Tomaselli and Anton van der Hoven, as well as award-winning film-maker and lecturer, Mike Hatton. None of these film ‘fundis’ has seen the film, but their comments are based on years of experience in the study and making of film and its role in society.
Expanding on the context of the banning, Tomaselli states, “Film festivals have traditionally been known to screen movies that are ‘difficult’- films that challenge societal norms or depict unconventional scenarios that would offend the average viewer.”
The following very important points must be considered regarding this case and its impact on future decisions in film production and regulation:
1. The Film and Publications Board and its role
According to Prof van der Hoven, “It seems to me to be the product of an immature culture in which state functionaries have little understanding of the overall purpose of their role and, as a result, are not able to exercise intelligence and judgement in the name of the social good. Instead, all they can do is ‘follow the rules’.”
Mike Hatton adds his view: “I do think that the publications board has a role in age restricting films. Does this really stop underage children from watching inappropriate films – no I don’t believe so – but it can be used as a guide. Ultimately I believe the publications board’s role is not to ban anything but rather alert us as to what might be problematic for an audience. In the case of a film festival one is expecting an educated audience that is able to understand films on more sophisticated levels. Thus banning the film is suggesting that knowledgeable film audiences cannot make their own decisions – wrong! There may be a case for limiting the film’s release on normal circuits though.”
Tomaselli explains that, according to the Film and Publication Board (FPB): “Censorship…. is a system that denies and prohibits access to certain materials determined by a government to be inimical to its own interests or the ‘national interest’.”
The argument that many have raised against the FPB’s banning of the film is that the decision was paid after watching only 28 minutes of the full film. Hatton says, “In my opinion one can never make an overall assessment if one has not watched the entire film. The nature of most scripts is that the first act sets up the characters and has an inciting incident. The resolution to this only comes in the third act and this is where the director’s intent becomes more explicit.”
However, Tomaselli points out that the FPB had two options, “The ethical option which would have seen them make a stand and to have watched the film in its entirety (in contravention of the Act) to get a holistic perspective on the narrative as a whole and the POV [point of view] it takes, [OR ] The legal option to which they held themselves (and thus attracting the ire of the Festivals delegates).” He also maintains that the FPB is a “classification body, with a special brief regarding the prevention of child pornography. It is not a censor board. The Classification Committee is the (I think, the misplaced) target for conducting its work within the requirements of an Act of Parliament. The Committee did not describe the film as pornographic, but in terms of the definitions of the Act. The word ‘pornography’ is a media invention.”
2. The Question of Age and Child Pornography
In Hatton’s view, “The fact that the main actress was not underage is in the films favour.” However, Tomaselli explains: “In terms of South African law, ‘child pornography’ is any picture, regardless of how it was created, or any description, of a real or imaginary person who is under the age of 18 years, or who is represented as being under the age of 18 years –
• engaged or involved in any form of sexual activity
• participating in or assisting another person to participate in any form of sexual activity, or
• any picture which shows, or any writing which describes, the body or any part of the body of a real or imaginary person under the age of 18 years in circumstances that amount to sexual exploitation or in a manner that makes it capable of being used for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
Tomaselli adds, “Nearly every country in the world has legislated against depiction (actual or imaginary, in whatever form) of underage sexual activity in one way or another.”
3. The Producer’s Intension
According to Hatton, “The difference between what is porn and not porn is quite simple in my opinion and is related to the people who make the film and their opinions about why they want to make the film. The porn industry is quite explicit about their intent as are art-house or more ‘avant-garde’ filmmakers. It is time filmmakers’ opinions are taken into consideration. In the cases where people perceive that a filmmaker is testing boundaries simply for the sake of it, then the filmmaker should have an opportunity, as in a court of law, to defend his/her film. Only after this should the film be categorised.”
For Tomaselli, “A key question becomes, what is the director’s position on the issue of underage sexual activity involving sugar daddies? Might the film, for example, have the (unintended) effect of promoting teacher-pupil sexual relations amongst some communities of viewers? Does the film criticize such relations?” He adds: “The producer and director’s response is, “It happens! Therefore, we have every right to show it” (sexual encounters between underage girls and sugar daddies).”
Another important question, for Tomaselli, is “How are viewers positioned? as voyeurs or as repulsed, though this can be a fine line”.
4. Further Considerations, Issues and Contradictions
Tomaselli raises a number of issues to be considered. It is these we need to debate and discuss in order to move forward and avoid another controversy:
“There is that small DIFF constituency that has seen the film. These are film scholars and critics, whose opinions are therefore to be taken seriously. They feel that the film did not cross the line into pornography involving children.”
“Some commentators have implicitly linked the Of Good Report banning to the broader environment of state secrecy.” Was this, then, a political decision?
“Many feel that the opening night issue could have been handled differently.”
“The Act defines under age sexual activity as below the age of 18 BUT the age of consent in South Africa is 16.” The legislation and statutory bodies appear at odds.
In conclusion, the real issue now, according to Tomaselli, “is not the banning of the film but the conducting of a broader public debate that enables our policy makers to respond intelligently, accountably and appropriately to bigger issues relating to the public sphere.”
Film-makers, media academics and regulatory bodies, together with other relevant stakeholders, must collaborate in a transparent, intelligent and rational manner to ensure our society benefits from media productions on every level: aesthetic, philosophic, societal, economic and ethical.