Banning of film raises issues

Morgan Naidu

Morgan Naidu

It was all too predictable. A foreign film garners a couple of international awards; organisers of a local festival in KwaZulu-Natal jump at the opportunity to showcase the talked-about movie and the same film is banned even before a local screening.

Organisers cry foul, citing all kinds of artistic reasons that the film should be flighted.

One could easily have dismissed this as another case of Mother Grundy bodies such as the Film and Publications Board (FPB) overstepping the mark in determining what South African audiences should be watching.

But this was no ordinary film and the decision by the FPB to ban Brazilian film Bog of Beasts was neither easy nor ordinary.

Bog of Beasts was advertised as one of the showcase screenings at the Durban International Film Festival, which kicked off last week and runs until Sunday.

Festival directors hailed the movie as a "beautifully shot and absolutely harrowing" tale set in a rural village where violence and misogyny run free.

What the adverts and teaser campaigns did not point out was that the movie contained images and scenes that bordered on child pornography, exploitation of women and children, gratuitous sex and violence, rape and more scenes of violence and abuse against women.

The central character is a young girl who is peddled by her abusive grandfather and made to pose half naked at truck stops where grown men pay money to touch her or simply gratify themselves while watching her.

The film, while indeed cleverly shot by a Brazilian director with an eye for mood lighting and intricate angles, never quite justifies its level of needless violence with any kind of redeeming message at the end.

This, says the FPB's Iyavar Chetty, could very well have made the difference between the film being screened at the Durban festival and its being banned.

Chetty points out that Bog of Beasts needs to be seen in the context of the global pandemic of child pornography and paedophilia, culminating in a sharp jump in the number of illegal sexual images involving children being distributed and downloaded on the Internet.

The definition of child pornography has widened to include any imagery or visual in which the individual may simply "appear" to be underage.

It is a deliberate and crucial extension of the definition since "more and more we find that the pornographic images that include children are more and more sadistic", says Chetty.

While Bog of Beasts might not show an under-age girl engaging in sexual intercourse, there is enough content that point towards abuse and indecency.

Having watched this "harrowing tale" I struggled to find a balance, a thought process that would lead to a redeeming message.

Perhaps the message was out there somewhere amid the scenes of sadistic men planning the rape and beating of village prostitutes. But clearly, I had missed it.

Even more distasteful, however, was the reaction of Durban Film Festival officials, who appeared to be more concerned that the reputation and international standing of the festival would be damaged by such a banning.

The festival's Nashen Moodley was quoted in the media as saying the film was actually critical of sexual exploitation of women and children, again referring to Bog of Beasts as being an award-winning and critically acclaimed film committed to eradicating child pornography.

Perhaps we had not viewed the same film, but the reality is that Bog of Beastsdrew mixed reactions from audiences at the international festivals where it was screened.

It won an award for best film at the Brazilian Film Festival and actually tied for joint third in Rotterdam when the Tiger Awards were dished out.

But we should not be fooled by the advertising. Bog of Beasts' critical acclaim was more for its artistic velour than actual content and Rotterdam judges praised it for its "crudeness, energy and visual strength".

This is South Africa, however, and in particular this is a society that is grappling with the horrors of abuse of women and children, violence against women and children, rape and exploitation.

If Western societies and Western film festival organisers choose to employ a set of guidelines that allow brutal and violent rape of women and the blatant physical and sexual abuse of children as fodder for voyeuristic audiences, then so be it.

Here in Africa, though, it is perhaps not too late to salvage our African values and traditions and engender a healthy sense of dignity and respect for human life.

It was telling that despite their misguided defence of Bog of Beasts, the Durban Film Festival organisers saw fit to choose a simple, low-budget South African film for the opening of the festival.

Meisie, a film by acclaimed director Darrel Roodt and producer Diony Kempen, also has as its central character a young girl in rural South Africa who is a humble goatherd.

l Morgan Naidu is a writer and executive director of Sowetan Television