AiW Guest Christine Singer.
The widely anticipated film Of Good Report opened Film Africa 2013, London’s annual major celebration of film from Africa and the diaspora, on 1 November 2013 at the Hackney Picturehouse. Set in a small town in the rural Eastern Cape, this third feature by young South African director Jahmil XT Qubeka (following uMalusi and A Small Town Called Descent) is the somber, provocative story of a high-school teacher with a penchant for young girls. The film became the centre of public attention earlier this year following its controversial temporary banning by the South African authorities from the Durban International Film Festival 2013, making it the first local feature film to be banned since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Presented in black and white with sharp direction, Of Good Report takes its audience on an unsettling, surreal journey into the mind of a shy, young, and mentally troubled man, Parker Sithole, played by Mothusi Magano. When Sithole takes on a new job at a high school, the head teacher, flicking through his references, commends him for being a man “of good report”. As we are to learn later, a bitter irony lingers within this statement. Sithole promptly begins an illicit affair with one of his new students, the sexually charged 16-year-old Nolitha (played outstandingly by Patronella Tshuma), and, as The Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw highlights, the similarity in sound between her name and “Lolita” is not a coincidence. Of Good Report represents a contemporary adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita (1955), set in South Africa and twisted with a serial killer reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho. A dark comedy thriller that lends itself to classical film noir, Of Good Report leads the audience into the abyss of Sithole’s soul, who, haunted by the demons of his past, spirals into a voracious obsession with Nolitha that ultimately results in violent tragedy.
Quebeka was present at Film Africa’s opening night and introduced Of Good Report by sharing his filmmaking philosophy: ‘You make films to be engaged. To love them, hate them. Just to have an audience engage a film, for me, is everything.’ Of Good Report does precisely that. The film’s thematic – the abuse of girls by older men – and its gritty, uneasy depictions of violence and sex make it stand out from South Africa’s contemporary landscape of local feature filmmaking; and this is certainly provoking responses from audiences, with no exception at Film Africa’s opening night. During the Q&A with Film Africa director Suzy Gillett, some viewers critiqued Qubeka for falling into sexist patterns when representing Nolitha at the expense of positive gender representations. Qubeka’s cinematography, indeed, devotes many scenes to Nolitha’s body shot in close-up and from a low angle, inevitably placing the viewer in a masculine subject position. One could argue that, framed in this way, Nolitha is being looked at as an object of desire and is subjected to the “male gaze” of Hollywood cinema that Laura Mulvey critiqued more than 30 years ago.
Qubeka, however, argued that the sexist framing of Nolitha was a necessary technique for allowing the narrative to unfold from the perspective of Sithole and for critiquing the misogyny underlying this character’s actions and thoughts. Qubeka told the Film Africa audience: ‘I could easily have preached. I could have said: “this [gender-based violence] is bad”. But I feel that I have an insight in what I term “the wolf” – this misogynist, masculine perspective of the world (…). I felt if I had to really deal with the issue, I had to deal with it in the most honest way that I could (…). I’m not trying to fly the flag of misogyny. I’m saying that it exists. I’m trying to give you an understanding of what I believe is part of the seeds and the rhetoric of how a misogynist thinks.’ The director revealed that the film’s script was derived from own experiences of growing up to a violent father during the height of apartheid, adding that he sees the film as much as an exploration of gender-based violence in the context of South Africa as a ‘global story’ about patriarchal rules that dominate societies across the world.
That Qubeka deliberately chose to provoke rather than to “preach” makes Of Good Report not merely a social critique of gender-based violence but also an entertaining and captivating film with significant aesthetic value. Rich in symbolism, sarcasm, and intertextual references to Hollywood films, English literature, and popular culture, Of Good Report merges social critique with genre playfulness that is geared towards keeping audiences engaged. The film also offers more than the typical film noir, for the surreal and bizarre is lurking constantly within its monochrome frame. The sequences displaying Sithole’s vivid fantasies of Nolitha and memories of his past as a soldier in the DRC, underlined by an edgy soundtrack, create a dreamlike and unsettling atmosphere that kept us on the edge of our seats.
In South Africa, Of Good Report began to provoke debate even before anyone was able to see it, making it one of very few contemporary, locally made feature films that has stimulated nationwide public engagement. The South African Film and Publications Board refused to authorize any screening of the film on the grounds that it contained “child pornography”. Qubeka, his producers, and film critics compared the ban to film censorship during apartheid, proposing that the film’s major theme had touched a raw nerve in a country which has one of the highest rates of abuse of women by men, and where child rape and “sugar daddies” are endemic across wide sections of society. In this context, Of Good Report represents an important cinematic attempt at laying bare social misogyny and gender-based violence within contemporary South African feature filmmaking. When the film was banned from the opening night of the Durban International Film Festival, Qubeka, appeared on stage with his mouth taped shut, choosing not to comment as an act of protest. His wife, a doctor at a Cape Town hospital, delivered a poignant speech to highlight that the issues the film presents are very real and dealt with on a day-to-day basis in South Africa. These local controversies catapulted the film onto the international film festival circuit, aligning it with South African films that have gained international acclaim for engaging unsettling themes, such as Oliver Hermanus Skoonheid (2011), which dramatises a White Afrikaans-speaking extremist’s struggle with suppressing his homosexual identity.
The discussions Of Good Report has sparked both before and after its release give an indication that Qubeka’s intention to start a conversation about gender-based violence is bearing fruit. Although it would be naïve to deny that the film epitomises, to some degree problems associated with the sexist representations of women by male-authored films that have plagued the history of cinema, what can be said to “recuperate” it is the extent to which Qubeka tries to encourage engagement with misogyny and sexual violence. As he poignantly said to conclude Film Africa’s Q&A, ‘once you put up a film, it belongs to anybody.’ From this perspective, Of Good Report might be seen as an “instigator” of discussion, rather than a final word on sexual violence. The nature of these public discussions, and whether they cohere with the filmmaker’s intentions, remain major questions still to be answered.
Watch the trailer for Of Good Report here.
Watch Film Africa ask Jahmil XT Qubeka three key questions here.