Experiences with Censorship Structures in South Africa Old and New, with particular emphasis on film censorship
I first encountered the Censor Board of the old South Africa at close quarters in 1976, when I was one of the programmers at Cape Town’s Labia Theatre, and this relationship became ever more intimate when I joined the Director of the Cape Town International Film Festival, the flamboyant James Polley, as his asssitant.
Polley had turned white South Africa’s film scene on its ear when he managed to convince directors such as John Boorman, Lindsay Anderson, Nicolas Roeg, Bertrand Tavernier, John Schlesinger and Fons Rademakers to come to Cape Town for retrospectives of their work despite the Cultural Boycott. These were not minor filmmakers. They were the cream of seventies directors and the Censors were well aware of it.
A Methodist minister with a Masters degree in Theology from Yale, Polley had confronted the polite Christian discourse in South Africa with the firm belief that the policy of Apartheid was an enormous Heresy. Polley was a great admirer of the German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer, who had defied the Nazis and died in a concentration camp in 1945. He also much admired the idea of Liberation Theology practised by Left-Wing Roman Catholic priests in Latin America.
When on his Honeymoon with a young actress, Karien Scheepers, they spent time at the Cork Film Festival where he met John Boorman. It was there that the Cape Town International Film Festival was born.
This proved to be Polley’s last international travelling for a very long time. He was arrested along with NUSAS head Karel Tip and UCT Law professor Raymond Suttner in 1985. Thereafter he was a heavily surveilled member of the clergy. He was arrested for his marijuana garden while in Grahamstown, and although this was a minor charge, the police confiscated his passport. He had another high profile brush with arrest, when Albino Terrorist Breyten Breytenbach clandestinely entered the country business and was arrested in Polley’s company.
The Directorate of Publications at that time was headed by the academic and gentlemanly Prof Reginald Lighton. His Number 2 was the flamboyant (almost as much so as James Polley) Marie van der Westhuizen and some very scary types such as Prof Andrew Murray (a self-styled expert on Communism) and Etienne Malan, a one-time United Party politician who had crossed the floor and joined the National Party.
Marie, with a certain élan would constitute viewing committees based on the type of film she was dealing with. Unlike today, where viewing members of the board are hidden behind a curtain of anonymity, we knew those with whom we were dealing. Marie had some special members who were her arty types – one of whom, Len Kruskal was the father of actress Megan Kuskal, who established herself in off-off-Long Street theatre with doyen of experimentalism, Chris Pretorius, before acting in Andrew Worsdale’s seminal film Shot Down.
The letter of the Act under which the Directorate of Publications operated was fairly intractable but with the coming of South Africa’s first Film Festival in Cape Town and then with Film Festivals appearing in Durban and Johannesburg, Prof Lighton and Marie did their utmost to bend the rules in manners that would not compromise them too ruinously with their superiors. They bent the rules, I cannot remember the reasons stated, by allowing the terrifying female nipple to be uncut in John Boorman’s film Zardoz. Marie was particularly excited to meet Nicolas Roeg, she was a bit of a groupie, but however much she admired him, she still prohibited his film Performance.
Hardliners never tired of accusing James Polley (and myself) of breaking the Cultural Boycott, but to be quite honest we were sincerely convinced that to open people’s eyes through culture was far more valuable than taking a narrow cultural perspective, often under orders from elsewhere. The filmmakers who visited the Cape Town International Film Festival were not politically ignorant – quite the opposite – and besides the ones already mentioned there were the politically left and heavyweight directors from Germany – Helma Sanders-Brahms (Germany Pale Mother), Reinhard Hauff (Stammheim) and Margerethe von Trotta (The German Sisters) who did not take kindly to being told what to do.
Admittedly, the Directorate of Publications were well aware that, within their reckoning, promoting film exchange internationally was to the country’s benefit in terms of prestige. I am well aware that James Polley was offered funding for the festivals from the government, but being a man of unshakable principles, he turned all such approaches down and the festivals limped along with funding mainly coming from the United Church of Canada.
In the Times of Branding and the Times of InfluencersSam Peckinpah (director of Straw Dogs)
A little judicious censorship is like a little judicious syphilis
It took a few years, as these things do, for forces within the State to become uncomfortable with a society in which too much freedom of choice was being practised. The State Censorship system, as it was practised by the Apartheid Regime, could not be duplicated to the letter but this did not mean that Freedom of Choice was going to be tolerated without brakes being applied.
Within the structures of the board, more liberal influences began to take their leave and a stronger bureaucracy, keeping a distance, heading towards anonymity, began to be apparent. What also began to rear its head was an increasing Right-Wing Christian influence; especially apparent within the rank and file of the board were ZCC caps and stars.
Meetings were sometimes called between the Film & Publications Board (their new definition) and stakeholders (that old chestnut). Some of these meetings were truly alarming. I remember one where it was made very clear that the Film & Publications Board had to make a profit to pay for a vastly increased staff (at present at an all high time high), thus placing in the hands of film distributors and exhibitors the responsibility to pay through the nose for the pleasure of being censored.
The mainstream distributors were not that concerned about censorship fees as they could afford to pay for them. Smaller, niche distributors were in a far more ignominious and potentially financially damaging position. This was playing firmly into the hands of the mainstream distributors as it could limit the operations of independents, operating without solid financial backing. The Neo-Liberal, Free-Market was alive and well.
I became the Curator/Director for Film at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 1999 and the Censors definitely had not gone away, in fact, as the years went by, the scrutiny became more refined. As more of the old guard disappeared – one of whom it was actually possible to discuss Sergei Eisenstein with – and were replaced with, to use Nagisa Oshima’s contemptuous label, functionaries, one found oneself involved in a game of ducking and diving –one essentially of thinly veiled disrespect.
The Film & Publications Board, as they were now known, had clearly brought Brand Managers on board to elevate themselves out of the public perception of being a puritanical interfering nuisance into being a friendly multi-faceted brand, whose primary aim was to protect children. They had acquired a friendly multi-coloured letterhead under which one was informed that there remit was We Inform You Choose. Not much of choice I fear, in a system where all films were required to be watched by anonymous committees before disseminated and then bound by all manner of Compliance requirements such as having to be screened in Licensed venues.
I was contacted by the new multi-coloured FPB sometime around 10 years ago requesting a platform in the film programme at the National Arts Festival to Inform the film community on all the guidelines which were increasing on a daily basis and to Inform filmmakers on compliance to this Information so that they could be Informed prior to embarking on the making of a film with areas which they should avoid if they were seeking to release their films. This appeared totally and utterly unacceptable, the tactics of bullies, and nowhere was there any suggestion that their team of Informants should be in any way challenged by a panel of Informed Anti-Censorship experts. I refused stating that it was entirely unacceptable to provide a platform at an Arts event to a State Entity whose position was to limit the freedom of expression of artists. I shared my feeling with the festival’s artistic director, Ismail Mahomed, who supported me in my decision.
Travelling back then, in this article, to Gagged: Film Censorship as a Tool for Repression in Democratic Societies as presented in virtual discussion as part of Artfluence Human Rights Festival presented by the Centre of Creative Arts at the University of KZN. Under the chairmanship of Russel Hlongwane, a panel consisting of producer Cait Pansegrouw, Durban Film Festival director Chipo Zhou and Dutch/Bosnian filmmaker Ena Sendijarevic, the discussion was a sadly lacklustre affair which nowhere got its teeth into the stated topic with words such as Gagged, Tool for Repression or, for that matter Democratic Societies.
A few interesting moments came from Cait Pansegrouw, whose film Inxeba – The Wound, had been given the full treatment on its release, first given a 16 age limit, then banned for pornography, then unbanned, while Cait Pansegrouw and her team were threatened with loss of life and limb and theatres were threatened with violence.
Certainly an interesting case study: Let us first look at the charge of Pornography. This is a term which can never be defined. For Nagisa Oshima there is no sleight in being accused of Pornography, in fact it is a bit of a recommendation. For the confused sergeant from the Vice Squad, who was called in to close down Limits of Liberty, it was a matter of some confusion. Seemingly defined as designed to inspire lustful thoughts, the definition is rather quaint. I have known people to have lustful thoughts at depictions of the Repentant Mary Magdalene or others who become starry eyed considering female knees. The definition does not bear much consideration without banning everything from patent leather boots to sailor suits.
Cait Pansegrouw does fall into a bit of trap here by; in denying the Pornography charge she states that there were no shots of genitalia in the film. By this statement, she admits that, for her, genitalia, either in repose or tumescent, can be defined as Pornography. No they aren’t Cait; it is your perception, or possibly a socially defined perception that requires naked genitalia to be Pornographic.
That Cait should have been placed in such a situation by a Censorship system, not fit for purpose, is totally unacceptable, as are the life threatening messages received telephonically and otherwise.
There is so much history here. The Nazis, as they were on their rise, managed to limit screenings in America of the films All Quiet on the Western Front and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator by threatening boycotts of American films in Germany (a lucrative market) and threats to the theatres in America that showed the the films. This is the Spirit of Fascism which is a spirit which cuddles up to the work of the Censor.
Sometimes these threats become very real. At the Weekly Mail & Guardian Film festival, we screened a Canadian film called How to Make Love to a Negro without getting Tired. In certain circles this was deemed to be a red rag to a bull. The festival received threats. The threats were ignored and late one night at the Avalon Cinema in Fordsburg, where the film was being screened, a bomb went off. The bombers were kind enough to time their device for the middle of the night, although they clearly were not aware that the projectionist resided in a room next to the projection booth. The explosion threw him from his bed but, thankfully, he was not injured. I am sure Cait received threats which were of a similar brand.
The only other interesting issue as discussed in the hour was Durban Film Festival Director, Chipo Zhou, noting that the choices by festival directors were resultant on compliance to the rulings of certain entities ie: The Film & Publications Board. I was immensely disturbed to observe that in the last three years, the Durban International Film Festival had formed a relationship with the Film & Publications Board whereby the Board achieved a credit as Partners with the Festival and were granted the right to present their travelling road show as part of the festival’s events. The very cosy relationship I had resisted at the National Arts Festival. According to the latest poster for the upcoming 2021 Durban International Film Festival, the FPB are still Partners.
I attended a few of these unpleasant presentations which were clearly publicity events for the Film & Publications Board and without any attempt on the part of the festival to take these events of Spin into another realm by challenging the existence of Censorship with an opposing view.
The Durban Film Festival and the Cape Town Film Festival were bulwarks against censorship from their very inceptions and every year would see renewed confrontation with the Censor Board. One of the high points of confrontation at the Durban Film Festival, came in 2016 where the film Of Good Report, which was due to open the festival was denied clearance by the Film & Publications Board on the day of the festival’s opening. The grounds were, of course, Pornography. Remember the Brand: We Inform You Choose. The film’s director Jahmil XT Qubeka was no slouch. He gave the FPB hell from the stage and threw a few Seig Heils in their direction as an afterthought.
The next day, the Film & Publications Board Road Show arrived, lawyers and all, seeking to do damage control and, in an event organised overnight tried to explain their position to the incensed press and audiences. They were absolutely ludicrous and then festival director Peter Machen, in a fit of despair, burst into tears at this display of the approach of Fascism. My respect for Peter Machen was confirmed. His response to this bureaucratic nightmare of censorial control came from the heart.
To return to Chipo Zhou for a moment: Her other relevant observation was that in compliance to certain unspecified criteria she mentioned how the festival – presumably she as director – had decided not to screen a film by a South African filmmaker, not on grounds of quality, but because he had been accused of all manner of wrongdoing. Well I don’t know about that. Censors as moral guardians is one thing, festival directors as moral guardians is another. Reputational damage, one presumes is the point here. To show a film by a director who has been vilified because of his lifestyle. Is that fair? Is that the festival’s remit?
At the National Arts Festival, I came into conflict with some of my colleagues around a film called Vaxxed, a film which was made by a controversial British doctor as an expose of the effects of the MNR vaccine, causing, in his opinion, autism in certain children. This was heading to a rather unpleasant confrontation with my colleagues which was finally avoided when the filmmakers elected to distribute the film on another platform. In the case of that particular film, I believed strongly that whether I agreed with its standpoint (and I am still not sure), the filmmakers had the right to state their case.
To complete this chapter then, let us look at the perception that the exhibitor of a film is there to serve the audience and not as an arbiter of taste. Obviously I maintain the latter. I would not screen a film, for instance, that I, as a Curator feel strongly against and this brings me to the Labia Theatre and a film called The Roadmap to Apartheid.
Produced to draw clear comparisons between the State of Israel’s relationship with its Palestinian citizens and neighbours and South Africa’s past dispensation, the film is a clear polemical piece of outraged political cinema. The Labia, after agreeing to the film being screened, withdrew their permission because of complaints from some of their patrons. The distributors of the film took umbrage, and various legal battles ensued. The Labia insisted that they had a large Jewish patronage, who would take exception to the screening of a film critical of Israel. Aside from the fact that being Jewish does not mean that you are not critical of Israel, and that, to my knowledge, the Labia did not canvass their data base of patrons, the decision seemed strangely ill conceived. If the Labia objected to screening the film, that is clearly their right, for whatever reason, but to blame it on an unspecified Jewish patronage is hiding in plain sight. Many of the Labia’s technical staff are Moslem. I am unaware if they were consulted.
In The Time of Fahrenheit 451
Censors are Dead Men set up to judge between Life and Death. For no live sunny man would be a censor. He’d just laughDH Lawrence (Sex, Literature and Censorship)
I have no intention in this article of going deep into the labyrinthine thought processes contained in the statute books of the Film & Publications Board. Anybody interested in those rat infested corridors, can investigate for themselves. My position is very clear: all censorship goes against human rights, against freedom of expression and against what we are as humans. Censorship of any kind is an abomination. Censorship is an expression of Fascism.
Fascists love Movies. They also love to control what is in them.
General Franco had his own cinema in the Palace of El Pardo, where he screened films banned to the general public. Adolf Hitler loved movies. Being an insomniac, he screened films every night to his buddies. Having a thing for girls’ legs, he was particularly fond of Hollywood musicals. Josef Goebbels, Martin Bormann and his architect Speer were forced to join him, long past their bedtimes. The Nazis, as we know, loved burning books, so did Franco’s Fascists and there is not a vast distance between burning books and bombing civilian populations.
We know Josef Goebbels. We know Adolf Hitler. We know their names, but we do not know those colourless individuals who hide in their own shadows – the anonymous paid experts, whose decisions impact on the artists, for a better world, for those who are not anonymous and who are not hiding behind bureaucracy. Those anonymous ones – come out of the shadows – let us see you. Let us know your names. Introduce us to your wives and children. Let us see what you eat for breakfast. Let us see what you feed your children. Let us see your darkest secrets. Let us see what turns you on in the swamp of your anonymous lives. Fascism is the enemy. The inner Fascist that tells us to comply, be compliant, be good. Ah – the banality of evil.
The compliant Fascist thinks that the anonymous guardian, making the decisions, is freeing the parent (for instance) from the duty to care for their own young. The anonymous guardian will protect and make decisions easy because the decisions are bound to compliance.
In the book Fahrenheit 451, author Ray Bradbury posited a future time when special units were given the job of book burning. Francois Truffaut and Nicolas Roeg turned it into a devastating film. In 1933, the Nazi Youth, students at universities in Germany, raided their libraries, coming to the bonfires with their arms laden with books.
The purpose of Censorship is always political, whether it is aimed at pornography or violence or false news, the purpose is control.
During the Soviet era, the countries of the Eastern Block, each had their own bizarre systems for the control of cinema. In Poland for instance, once a producer had acquired the necessary clearance from the appropriate committee, the film could go ahead. After the film was completed came the crunch when it had to be viewed by a committee of functionaries. Over time the committees changed from being controlled by bureaucrats to committees composed of artists and filmmakers. Many films were held up in this process and often distribution only came many years later. In other countries such as Czechoslovakia, scripts would be required to be vetted by functionaries beforehand. Milos Forman landed in hot water with his film The Fireman’s Ball, which although it passed the first stage, he was accused of sabotaging the Socialist economy, after the fact by the functionaries. Often films had to be smuggled out of the countries concerned and positive reviews at major festivals such as Cannes, often helped the filmmakers concerned to be forgiven back home.
Tedious as these structures were, it is miraculous how Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Yugoslav cinema flourished during the darkest years of Soviet control. So where are we now, as the world falls apart, not with a bang but a whimper, and in the plague year, the functionaries still attempt to operate?
The China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing was reined in so devastatingly in 2019 that they elected to cease operation. As one of the festival’s curators noted: There are not enough radical independent films now. So what’s the meaning of an independent festival’s existence? China has further been rattling censorial swords over the once laissez faire Hong Kong which is increasingly under the whip on the mainland to censor films on National Security grounds
National Security, Not in the Public Interest, the clichés keep coming but they will not go away.
Our own Film & Publications Board appeared recently with The Film & Publications Amendment Act which has to be seen to believed. Under this proposed act, YouTube would have to submit all their contact to the FPB for vetting (and pay for it) and any online content, put up by anybody would be subject to clearance. This particular document seems to have gone away for awhile – COVID seeming to have emerged as a priority – but worry not, it is lurking in the wings.
A recent film which premiered at the Sundance Festival last year – virtually I fear – is called The Censor. Set in the Video Nasties era, in the film, a serious young woman, one of those anonymous functionaries, doing her job with intent, falls prey to her own inner darkness. To quote critic Christopher Schobert from The Film Stage: Censor shows that paranoid delusions can target anyone––even those tasked with being the public’s moral barometer.
And then, out of the darkness, from Italy no less, comes a sane reversal of their censorship policies – which took some of their greatest filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini into the dock. Dated 6th April 2021, the press release bears repetition: “Film censorship has been abolished,” announced culture minister Dario Franceschini in a statement late on Monday: “The system of controls and interventions that still allow the state to intervene in the freedom of artists has been definitively ended.” As a result, it will now no longer be possible to block the release of a new film or demand edits for moral or religious reasons. Filmmakers will instead classify their own movies based on the age of the audience. “It’s a form of self-regulation. We are mature enough,” said director Pupi Avati, whose 1970s film Bordella was censored.
At what temperature do Images burn?
So books burn at Fahrenheit 451. Films on celluloid burn in the projector gate when the frame is halted in its progress. Ingmar Bergman used this device in the opening of his film Persona, as did Monte Hellman at the close of his film Two Lane Blacktop. But how to stop the life of the digital image? A quandary for the controllers in their darkened booths.
The Image Burns: The two famous cinematic burning frame moments – Two Lane Blacktop (End) and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (Beginning)
- Die Gedanken Sind Frei ( Lines from the 1600s song originating in the German Peasants Revolt. The Song once again became revevant as an anthem of the Anti-Nazi Student Movement and the White Rose in Germany in the 1930s. Folk Singer Pete Seeger once more made it an anthem for the American Socialists and Anti-War Movement in the 1960s).
- Programme of Limits of Liberty – May 1993 – Weekly Mail & Guardian
- D H Lawrence – August 1929 – On the banning of his poetry book PANSIES (Sex, Literature and Censorship – Essays by D H Lawrence)
- Wilhelm Reich – The Mass Psychology of Fascism – 1933 – Souvenir Press London 1972
- Alex Comfort – Authority and Deliquency: The Psychology of Power – 1950 – Routledge and Kegan Paul
- David Cooper – The Grammar of Living – 1974 Allen Lane – 1976 Pelican
- The Dialectics of Liberation – edited by David Cooper – 1968 The Institute of Phenomenological Studies – 1971 Pelican
- J M Coetzee – Giving Offence: Essays on Censorship – 2018 – University of Chicago Press9.
- Christopher Schobert – The Film Stage – Review of The Censor
- Cinesesura: 6 Apr 2021 18.13 BST