Experiences with Censorship Structures in South Africa Old and New, with particular emphasis on film censorship – episode 1
I think as I please
and this gives me pleasure.
My conscience decrees
this right I must treasure.
My thoughts will not cater
to duke or dictator.
No man can deny
die Gedanken sind frei.
In the Days of the Shifting of the Goalposts
At the recent, online, Artfluence Discussions held courtesy of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KZN, one of the sessions was entitled Gagged: Film Censorship as a Tool for Repression in Democratic Societies. This was certainly a welcome initiative concerning a subject that has seemed to slip out of public debate or, more egregiously, from activist resistance. In this piece I will begin with a reminiscence of the Limits of Liberty Anti-Censorship Festival held at the Wits Theatre in July 1993, a time of considerable disruption as the Old Political Guard gave way to the New and, within the halls of the Old Censor Board, the wielders of power were struggling to come to terms with the changes from without.
Limits of Liberty was an off-shoot of the combative Weekly Mail & Guardian Film Festival, which, with a green light shone from the ANC in London, were given the go-ahead to operate under the aegis of a Selective Cultural Boycott. This initiative was informed by meetings at a festival of activist arts held in Amsterdam called CASA – Culture and Arts in a New South Africa. I was part of the curation of Limits of Liberty as I had been on the Weekly Mail & Guardian Film Festival and both of the events were presented under the directorship of Liza Key.
Graced with a terribly rude poster designed by cross-dressing Steven Cohen, the festival was designed to cause fur to fly and fly it did. To quote at length as to the intention of the festival: “With the current pace of political negotiations, South Africa will see its first non-racial election in April next year. Policy relating to the governance of the country should have been formulated by the major parties for that election. And yet the issue of Censorship, so crucial during the years of political struggle, is being ignored at this vital juncture. The artistic and creative community has so far failed to articulate its views on what form, if any, censorship should take in a New South Africa. The goal of THE LIMITS OF LIBERTY conference and festival is to initiate public debate on censorship and to place the issue on the national political agenda.”
The times were particularly ripe for such of Festival and, even the Directorate of Publications, eager to appear to be open to dialogue took part. The then Director of Publications Dr Braam Coetzee and the Chairman of the Publications Appeal Board Prof Kobus van Rooyen took part in a public panel discussion and both the Directorate and the Appeal Board bent over backwards to allow the previously unallowable to be presented within the context of the Festival.
The modus operandi of the film screenings was to present films which contextualised notions of Pornography, Hate Speech, Political Interference, Blasphemy, Sexual Preference and Military Control of Marginalised Communities.
Within this context we screened Pier Paolo Pasolini’s attack on Fascism, Salo which was based on the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, the hardcore version of the Penthouse epic Caligula, a focus on Noam Chomsky Manufacturing Consent, a programme of scurrilous early films by South African filmmaker in exile, Ian Kerkhof and Ireland: The Silent Voice about the British media’s lack of coverage of the British presence in Northern Ireland.
A team of experts from around the world attended including Sally Sampson (from the British Board of Film Classification), Marjorie Heins (from the American Civil Liberties Union), Frank Panford (a British Human Rights Lawyer), Rod Stoneman (a Commissioning Editor from Channel 4 and expert on Ireland) and, locally, media Lawyer Lauren Jacobson was an intrinsic part of the discussion as was Dr Jane Bennett of UCT’s Gender Institute, not forgetting legendary poet and playwright Don Mattera.
Running alongside the film screenings and discussions was an exhibition in the Theatre foyer, curated by Robert Weinek and Caroline Cullinan. This included the sexually explicit homo-erotic photographs of New Yorker Robert Mapplethorpe and locally Paul Stopworth’s Biko Drawings (which graphically depicted Steve Biko’s internal injuries gained while in detention), Steven Cohen’s Cardinal’s Cloak and assorted work by Brett Murray, Kevin Brand and CJ Morkel.
Steven Hilton-Barber’s controversial photographs of a Sotho Initiation Ceremony were exhibited as well as Gideon Mendel’s photographs of the AWB, Ellen Elmendorp’s AIDS education photographs and Kevin Carter’s unsettling photographs from the Sudan. Also, as if to add insult to injury, video monitors were set up on opposite sides of the foyer – the one screening struggle footage, clandestinely shot in the turbulent townships and the other monitor screening hardcore sexual encounters.
The times indeed appeared to be changing, especially as the right to present Limits of Liberty had not only been cleared with the ANC in exile but also with the Directorate of Publications and the Publications Appeal Board, who were definitely not in exile, albeit feeling less comfortable in the chairs they had previously occupied with impunity.
Obviously not everybody was as delighted as we were. A small band of Feminists set up a silent vigil on the lawn outside the theatre, burning candles in protest against the screening of pornography.
Their vigil was however disturbed from unexpected quarters, when armed, and partially horse-backed representatives of the AWB marched on the theatre in protest to a screening of De Voortrekkers, a 10-minute lampoon of the historical epic of the same name from 1916.
Made by the anarchic team of Andrew Worsdale, Jeremy Nathan, Matthew Krause and Giullio Biccarri, the film showed a group of voortekkers engaged in carnal activity both hetero and homo-sexual including a spot of blasphemy with a fallen bible. For audience, staffers, the young filmmakers and the protesting feminists alike, it became a strange reversal of fortune as a troop of police arrived and surrounded to theatre to protect the participants from the enraged Weerstandsbeweging.
Director, Liza Key had been warned at the WM&G Film Festival, by a representative of the Security Police when screening films in Alexandra township that he was not having anybody conscientising his blacks, but that had been a few years before and things were moving fast.
We felt we had a lot to be proud of. I stood at the back of the Wits Theatre watching Caligula in all its priapic glory and we were doing it legally.
One major hitch though, which we didn’t win was the proposed screening of the infamous Nazi anti-Semitic epic Jud Suss. Our contention, of course was that the best way to confront hate speech was to present it for all to see. The Jewish Board of Deputies thought otherwise. They pulled out all their armoury, complained to the German Embassy and the distributors of all films produced during the Nazi Era, the Friedrich Murnau Stiftung and that, I am afraid, was that. We didn’t win that one.
In conclusion to this section, a bizarre incident took place near to the end of the festival. I was urgently called to the theatre to find a group of young constables roaming around the exhibition looking as if they had wandered into Sodom. Their commanding officer, a sergeant, I remember, but I don’t remember his name was ensconced in the theatre office and he was not happy. Being informed that I was the party responsible, he was ready to arrest everybody in sight but some of the audience were, in fact members of the Censor Board, and again, in one of those reversals of fortune, they were on my side.
They informed the sergeant that everything was in fact legal and told me to phone Professor van Rooyen of the Publications Appeal Board. This I did and thankfully he was at home. I explained the situation and Van Rooyen very calmly told me to put the sergeant on the line. What followed was the sergeant becoming very respectful and saying Ja Professor and Goed Professor a great deal. He then handed the phone back to me and Van Rooyen told me not to worry and that everything was sorted.
The sergeant then became terribly friendly and shared with me how he had been relaxing at home after a hard day at the office, having a beer, when he was summoned to come to the Wits Theatre because there is Pornography happening there. Well now he was satisfied that there was a paradigm shift, he admitted that once upon time if your saw a woman’s ***** (I will leave you to fill that in), you knew you had pornography going on. However in the new dispensations one woman’s **** was pornography but another woman’s **** was not pornography. I sympathised and he took his constables and departed.
To put a cap on the whole event, a scheduled screening of The Last Temptation of Christ was delayed by several hours due to an occupation of the venue by a group of self-designated Christians of uncertain validity, led by Right-Wing, Anti-Communist Pastor Peter Hammond, whose analyses of Christ’s teaching would certainly surprise Christ himself. The thinking behind the occupation, besides merely in order to cause a commotion, was to delay the screening so that it would, of necessity have to continue after midnight. The exemption granted by the Appeal Board was specifically for a particular day. Going past midnight would, by default, be illegal.
Once again, the South African Police Service came to the festival’s rescue and the protesting ‘Christians’ were carried out bodily by the constables. The film screening then began and Peter Hammond and his followers made their way down to the Police Station to charge the Festival with conducting an illegal screening. Bizarrely – and these were bizarre times – the police ignored them.
The Last Temptation of Christ’s scriptwriter, Paul Schrader, had been a guest of the Weekly Mail & Guardian Film Festival the year before, when, the Directorate of Publications, being less sure of themselves, prohibited a screening of the film at the last moment. Schrader then, in a form of Religious Ecstasy (he had trained for the clergy in his youth) provoked the jubilant ‘Christians’ in the Market Theatre concourse by assuming crucifixion poses at the window of the Gramadoulas restaurant for the edification of those outside.
Having managed to upset the prim South African status quo with certain success, another Limits of Liberty was on the cards for the following year. Manufacturing Consent guru Noam Chomsky was invited but the dates co-incided with another engagement. I went off to New York, and with the assistance of Marjorie Heins of the American Civil Liberties Union had meetings with Annie Sprinkle, the Post-Porn Modernist, the feminist pornographer Candida Royale, and was invited for a wonderful supper by Robert Mapplethorpe’s friend Veronica Vera, who besides being a porn performer in her own right, ran an educational organisation for cross-dressers called Ms Vera’s Academy for Boys who Want to be Girls. Although all three ladies were keen, the requisite funding for their visit never materialised.
The star of the next Limits of Liberty was Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima, who was funded by the Japan Foundation. A retrospective of his work was presented including the controversial In the Realm of the Senses.
In the Times of Spring can Winter be far Behind?
Our system was bolstered by paternalistic habit and irrational fear rather than by positive evidence of a need for controlEnid Wistrich: Film Censorship Explored
1994 came and went and the Directorate of Publications found themselves between a rock and a hard place. They still had a job to do, and probably did not want to contemplate unemployment, but at the same time they wanted to appear amenable to all things artistic and/or adult. As a film distributor, it was a golden opportunity to catch up and take the audiences with one. At little Art Houses (the 7 Arts in Norwood in Johannesburg and the Labia in Cape Town) suddenly one was screening The Story of O, Caligula, Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast and a Hong Kong hoot called Sex and Zen. One even was able to have an outing distributing the thoroughly nasty I Spit on your Grave starring Buster Keaton’s daughter on VHS. And then as a special bonus one had luminaries like the Japanese director Nagisa Oshima visiting for a retrospective and showing his masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses. A lovely, urbane man, who had a special liking for whisky, and a total distaste for diplomats – functionaries as he called them, he did not take fools gladly. After a screening of In the Realm of the Senses at the 7 Arts in Norwood, a very ruffled lady shouted at him from the audience Mr Oshima! What is the difference between your film and pornography? Oshima’s gaze at her could not have been more withering. Nothing at all! – he said And now an intelligent question please.
This didn’t exactly last and as with so many Springs, Winter was not far behind, but you will have to wait until the next issue of herri before I get onto that sad tale.