On Saturday afternoon, 3 February 2018, my friends and I decide to go and watch the film Inxeba (The wound) at the Rosebank cinema in Johannesburg. This is the day of its release. The excitement is huge in both social media and movie theatre. But, somewhere in the Eastern Cape, we learn that the movie houses have postponed its release. We hear that a few concerned groups, like the Man and Boy Foundation and the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa), have threatened to picket and boycott its screening. The argument these groups have advanced is that the film is blasphemous and vulgar, and that it misrepresents, distorts and disrespects the isiXhosa tradition of ulwaluko – circumcision.
A few days after we watched the film, the FPB review board reclassified the film. This means that the film, which was originally and correctly given the age rating of 16LSV, is now banned. The FPB review board has erroneously succumbed to the pressure by these concerned groups. In its reclassification, the FPB considered the film pornographic and gave it an X18 rating. In a nutshell, an X18 rating means that the film can never be shown in cinemas, as it is considered explicit adult material. It can only be accessed in adult shops like Adult World, where pornographic material is sold and bought as DVDs. This flawed ruling was made by the FPB on 13 February 2018, ten days after we watched the film.
I felt saddened, infuriated and ashamed of this incorrect ruling by the appeal tribunal. There are a couple of reasons that made me feel that way. The most important one is that I worked as both classifier and chief classifier at the FPB for six years, from 2011–2017. During these years, I watched and classified more than a thousand porn films. Based on this knowledge that I’ve acquired over the years, I’m definitely sure that Inxeba (The wound) is certainly not a porn movie. Did they really watch the same Inxeba film that I watched on 3 February? Did they base their decision on hearsay? I started to ask myself these questions because, even when one watches a trailer with the implied sex scene, the film does not qualify to be pornography. Never! I mean, I know what porn looks like – it lacks artistic merit and dramatic value. Porn is about explicit sex from the first minute to the last minute, without dialogue or storyline. Is this what the appeal tribunal saw while watching Inxeba? Definitely not! I’m convinced there is a hidden agenda that even the FPB is failing to explain. Else, they would have given the overdue reasons for the banning by now. I know the FPB. I was there when the film Of good report was wrongly classified by the classification committee and we lost the appeal. I was there when Brett Murray’s “The spear” painting at the Goodman Gallery nearly divided the country into two. The FPB then bowed to public pressure and classified the painting without proper jurisdiction. I was part of the committee that classified the film Dis ek, Anna and gave it a higher rating which was later reduced by the appeal tribunal. I’ve attended several other appeals which FPB won or lost.
My six years’ experience at the organisation made me familiar with and knowledgeable about the legal and regulatory prescripts that govern the FPB as a regulatory authority. Its classifiers are mandated and have duty to be responsible, transparent, accountable and responsive in exercising to serve the public good and legitimate government purposes. The governance is mandated legislations, such as the Constitution, the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA), the Films and Publications Act, as amended, and the Classification Guidelines, among others. The Classification Guidelines are the most important tool in the classification process. They are used to determine what is harmful or disturbing. After determining this, classifiers give a film or publication an appropriate age restriction. This must be consistent with the objectives of the FPB, which are to regulate the creation, production and distribution of films, games and certain publications, as well as online content.
Having watched the film Inxeba (The wound) at the cinema, I’m convinced and proud that the classifiers gave it a correct age restriction of 16LSV, in line with the legal and regulatory prescripts. For example, there are two moderately implied sex scenes in the film between two male characters. Although in both these scenes there is a show of implied passionate sexual activity, the scenes are handled very sensitively and there is no display of sexual organs. Even if this were the case, such conduct would not amount to pornography. I mean, how many films have we watched with a display of genitals, which have not been brutally and invalidly censored by the appeal tribunal? There are many of them. Is Inxeba targeted because it’s about two grown-up, gay Xhosa men? In the film, we only see the display of full buttocks. Does this make it a porn movie? Hell, no! Yes, I agree that the film contains strong and frequent abusive language in isiXhosa, with English subtitles. I also concur with the initial classification that the violence is also fairly frequent, moderate to strong. For example, at the end of the film, there is a scene where the main character, played by Nakhane Toure Mavuso, pushes the rebellious umkhwetha character down the cliff. Although this is implied, for me this may have a moderate to strong impact when looked at with various menaces and threats which go with the circumcision rite of passage, such as stick fights, and so on.
The themes of the film itself are also mature and complex in nature, as they deal with rite of passage into manhood, same-sex relationship, the isiXhosa culture of ulwaluko, love, perseverance, courage and fear, among others. However, these themes are handled with great care and sensitivity. They have a moderate sense of threat or menace, as well as suspense, which is sustained throughout the film. For example, there is a scene of implied foreskin cutting, where the initiates look like they’re in severe pain. However, this has to be analysed within the context of the rite of passage tradition, and I think the classifiers and the quality assurers at the FPB have to be commended for the initial age restriction of 16. I’m convinced the initial classifiers worked independently and objectively without fear, favour or prejudice. They applied their minds rationally towards the FPB’s mandate to protect children from exposure to disturbing and harmful material, and from premature exposure to adult experience. Their initial decision of a 16 age rating was valid, consistent and reliable, and I’m satisfied that the classifiers and quality assurers maintained the high standards of reporting, being credible at all times.
What I found disturbing, absurd, baffling and dishonest was when the appeal tribunal overturned the classifiers’ initial correct decision and banned the film by giving it an X18 rating. This dubious rating means that the film is considered to be extreme in its display of sex. This is definitely not the case, as explained above, unless the appeal tribunal was watching a different film to what most of us watched on 3 February at the cinemas. In my opinion, the appeal tribunal was succumbing to some public pressure, rather than following the guidelines and other legal and regulatory prescripts. It is public knowledge that the Man and Boy Foundation and the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa approached the FPB immediately after the initial rating to lodge an appeal against the showing of the film. They also threatened to lay charges at the Human Rights Commission and Gender Commission against the producers and directors of the film. In my view, the appeal tribunal failed in its mandate to protect the legal integrity and reputation of the FPB by surrendering to these pressures, instead of following the rules, guidelines and governing principles of the appeal and classification processes.
In protecting and yielding to these concerned groups’ demands, the FPB appeal tribunal is also denying children an opportunity to learn and make decisions and choices that will affect them in the future. As much as they think they’re protecting the culture, they are also denying the same culture growth, side by side with modernity in this day and age of botched circumcisions, HIV and AIDS. It’s apparent that the appeal board has missed out on the other important aspects of the film, which include same-sex relationships, safe sex, love, the challenges of patriarchal societies, finding the balance between modernity and tradition, negotiating the rural and urban landscapes, as well as the beauty that is embedded within the isiXhosa culture and the traditional rite of passage into manhood. The banning of the film is an opportunity lost to create, shape, influence and persuade our destinies as South Africans. Through the creative narrative, images, songs and poetry in the Inxeba film, South Africans would have benefitted by reflecting on their social, cultural and political environment.
The mandate of the FPB, as highlighted in its slogan, is to inform and let the people choose – “We inform and you choose.” Unfortunately, the appeal tribunal blindly followed the biased arguments that were advanced by the minority concerned groups that see the film as blasphemous, vulgar and disrespectful. What if these groups have hidden agendas of homophobia? And, I suspect they have. Therefore, I think that the decision by the tribunal to ban Inxeba is inconsistent with the principles in PAJA, which clearly state that “the administrative action in classification must be reasonable, lawful and procedurally fair”. PAJA is about checks and balances, and ensures an accountable, responsive democratic administration. It encourages participation, transparency, effectiveness and efficiency, responsiveness, accountability, equity and inclusiveness. It is not a question of whether you like the film or not, as the appeal tribunal or as a concerned group.
To conclude, as I write this today, it has been ten days since the banning of the film Inxeba (The wound). South Africans and the rest of the world are still waiting for the reasons for the banning from the FPB. As you’re still trying to concoct those reasons, please don’t make us wait longer. Just know that we are watching you like a hawk. We don’t want to relive the bitter past of censorship. Also, remember that in classifying the film as porn, you have insulted the FPB and its mandate. You have shown South Africans, and art in general, a middle finger. You have made a mockery of the FPB institution to the world, because we all believe the film has artistic merit and dramatic value. That is why it won many awards and nominations around the world. Lastly, you have made us question why and whom you’re serving in that structure. I hope it’s not the interest of certain groups, but South Africans as a whole.
Niq Mhlongo, author and fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Studies (JIAS), and city editor at the Johannesburg Review of Books (JRB)