On July 18, the Film and Publication Board’s refusal to classify the would-be opening film of the Durban International Film Festival, Jahmil XT Qubeka’s Of Good Report, became the flint that sparked the latest South African aesthetic controversy.
Unclassified films are illegal to screen, which means that this is a functional ban on the production. The ruling was imposed on the basis of having interpreted the representation of a sexual encounter of a Grade 9 pupil, Nolitha, (played by the 23-year old actress Petronella Tshuma) as being child pornography.
Tongues have been wagging in creative circles and the media, and given that the film is divorced from any overt perspective on political matters (as in the case ofThe Spear), it is clear that this matter relates to some quite primal conflict over the interpretation of a particular image.
In this case, the battle over meaning is taking place in the awkward, sexually liminal space of the moment of the young female character’s transition from archetypal “virgin” to archetypal “whore”, and what she, the figure of the girl, means.
It probably wouldn’t be completely unfair to assume that the film is objectionable to the classification board because of this very liminality, and the way in which the morality embedded in the process clearly regards anything that isn’t exclusively either “virgin” or “whore” as a kind of abomination.
This act of censorship is fundamentally based on a conflict of representation – meaning it’s as much an aesthetic one as it is an ideological one. This means that we need to be asking not the obvious and common question of whether we should or shouldn’t be allowed to depict female children in an erotic light, but rather what actually is a female child, and what is an erotic light?
South African film and South African audiences remain equally conservative. The idea that representations of people, places, things and events can have a lot of different meanings and aren’t consistently, singularly defined is, surprisingly, not taken for granted by the typical South African viewer, practitioner or institution of film.
We aren’t yet comfortable with the multifarious nature of representation, and expend a lot of hot air trying to settle on the one, all-encompassing, so-called “South African voice”, which it turns out, we’re really struggling to locate.
It’s a self-evidently flawed project, because its ridiculous to think that such a thing could ever actually exist in a finite sense.
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