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Any sensible person who has seen the film 'Of Good Report' will be scoffing at the Film and Publications Board's effective banning of the film on the grounds of child pornography. The film narrates the descent of its main protagonist, a school teacher, into madness, leading to his murdering three of the four main female characters. The scenes depicting the teacher having sex with one of his pupils is descriptive, but by no means explicit, which makes the accusation of child porn even more ludicrous.
This is the third time recently that the Board has lost its head on matters sexual. The first time was when it banned a film called 'XXY', which explored the sexual awakening of an intersexed youth. Then they banned all reproductions of 'The Spear'. Yet on all three occasions these rulings have been overturned on appeal. Clearly there is something seriously wrong with the Board. But what exactly ails them?
The Board seems intent on ignoring the fact that the Constitutional Court has placed artistic expression beyond their censoring reach. Free speech advocates were unable to win a blanket exemption for art in relation to child pornography; so the compromise that was arrived at was that journalists and documentary film makers who needed to possess child porn on public interest grounds, would have to apply to the Board for an exemption to do so: a difficult compromise as it amounts to a form of prior restraint.
But in spite of this difficulty, the Court actually dealt with the collision between artistic freedom on the one hand and the need to prevent child abuse on the other, quite brilliantly. In considering whether a particular form of expression was child porn, it first considered whether it was porn at all.
In this regard, it introduced a distinction between forms of expression that arouses aesthetic feelings and those that arouse erotic feelings: while it acknowledged that the line between the two was often grey, if the expression veered towards the former, it was not even considered to be porn at all. This distinction meant that the Court introduced an artistic exemption from child porn by sleight of hand.
Yet the Board has consistently chosen to ignore this distinction, failing to realise that artistic expression is, to all intents and purposes, a no-go zone. The only thing that saves the Board's credentials is an excellent Appeals Tribunal.
It can be inferred that the Board's focus is not only on classification of films and publications. Rather it has taken on itself the larger role of a moral regulator, whose task it is to uplift society. If this is their own understanding of their mandate, then it stands to reason that it would keep art in its crosshairs.
This is because art has the potential of being inherently transgressive. Although it has also become highly institutionalised in capitalist society, and can often be profoundly system maintaining, art still offers free spaces for imagining human relations, and even society itself, afresh. In fact, really good art never ceases to question the society in which it finds itself.
As a result, social conservatives often have huge problems with artists, as they are seen as moral degenerates, corrupting others in much the same way that they themselves have been corrupted by too much freedom. This is why authoritarian nationalist governments down the ages, including fascist ones, have controlled the activities of their artists, writers and other creative people. Intent on engineering society from the top, these governments cannot allow society to be imagined differently from the dictates that they themselves impose.
This control agenda applies to sex too. Sex is an exceptionally powerful emotion, and also ensures the continued reproduction of society; so in the same way that political classes have sought to control the means of production to their benefit, they have also sought to control the means of reproduction.
This means ensuring that defining the terms and conditions on which sex takes place remains a male prerogative, while actively discouraging sexual practices that interfere with this control. As a result, lesbians, gay people, transgender and intersexed people are stigmatised as unnatural. Rape, too, plays a regulatory role, in that it disciplines women especially, ensuring that they live in perpetual fear and reducing their autonomy.
Authoritarian nationalists, including many social conservatives, believe that the state has a moral purpose, which is to enforce a moral code to ensure a virtuous citizenry. Ironically, Christian Nationalist ideologues under apartheid also believed that the state had a moral purpose, namely to secure white peoples' status as the superior 'race'.
This ideology promoted hidebound gender relations, allowed white men to control the terms and conditions of sex. It also informed the work of the Board's predecessor, the Publications Control Board, for many years. As a result, the Board fetishised sex by banning public displays of sexuality and preventing proper public debates about sexuality, especially sexual practices that clashed with what they interpreted as Christian teaching.
The democracy-era Board started on a good footing, but since 1999, the role of the Board appears to have reverted back again to that of a moral guardian. Around that time, it fell under the sway of social conservatives, using violence against women and children as the excuse to begin reinstating morality as a basis for publications control. The Board also attempted to extend its jurisdiction to the press, seeking the status of 'super-regulator', suggesting that it had arrogated to itself a broader social mission. Thankfully, it failed with respect to the media.
The Board appears to believe, as their apartheid predecessors did, that their role is to police the sexual practices of society, by controlling what they consider to be deviant sex and deviant art. Clearly they fear not just the power of sex, but the power of art. In fact, the judgement on 'The Spear' strongly suggested that art must be made according to their prescripts. Needless to say, their conservatism has found particularly fertile ground under Jacob Zuma's administration.
The Board is on an extremely dangerous slippery slope. The recent controversies have been about sexual expression, but it is only a matter of time before political expression falls foul of the censors. Social conflict is increasing, and so too are the state's mechanisms of social control.
It has become apparent that the ANC government can no longer count on the support of miners and other key sections of an increasingly restive working class. Neither can they count on the support of an increasing number of film makers, artists and writers. In time, this growing crisis of legitimacy could well threaten the political authority of the state. As the state increases its mechanisms of social control, it could be anticipated that new forms of cultural control will follow. And, undoubtedly, the Film and Publications Board will be there at the ready.
Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.