King of Controversy: Jahmil X. T. Qubeka on Of Good Report

Jahmil X.T. Qubeka sat down with The Skinny while in Edinburgh for the Scottish premiere of his latest film, Of Good Report, at Africa in Motion. He discussed the controversy surrounding the film and his childhood in apartheid-era South Africa

Feature by Alan Bett | 18 Nov 2013

When The Skinny arrives to meet Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, the South African director who’s in town for the screening of his latest film, Of Good Report, at Scotland’s annual celebration of African cinema, Africa in Motion, another interview being filmed on behalf of the festival organisers is running late – technical issues. We’re asked to sit and wait for a while, which turns into an age; over an hour. In that time I eavesdrop into the story of this man’s life:

“When I was a young boy, my dad killed his girlfriend who was very much younger than him. In fact he started to date her when she was 16 and he killed her when she was 23. And a lot of that is infused in the film. Nolitha is the girl who died, Parker is my father to a degree.”

It’s a bracing story of murder and suicide in apartheid’s shadow. So, by the time Qubeka bounds over, reassuring hand on our shoulder, “Don’t worry brother, we’ll be done soon,” we’re frantically scribbling new questions on his life outside the lens and items less trivial even than the fresher controversies surrounding Durban Film Festival that we’d come here to discuss. 

“I’ve been a filmmaker now for 13 years and Durban really has been my festival home,” says Qubeka when we finally sit down to talk. “Everything I’ve ever made has been shown in Durban at one time or another and I’ve even been on the International Jury at some point, so it’s a festival quite close to my heart. So when they made an announcement this year that I had been chosen to be the opening film I thought that was really a special thing. The screening was supposed to take place on the eighteenth of August, which is Nelson Mandela’s birthday, but it’s also my second born’s birthday, so it was really a special occasion.

“But alas, the day before the screening I got a call from Peter Machen, the festival director. I was sitting in my hotel room with my wife, as well as the lead actor Mothusi Magano, talking about tomorrow and how excited we were. He told me that the film and publications board had refused to give the film a classification, which meant that it could not be shown and in essence had been banned. I didn’t even understand that. I didn’t even know that films could be banned in the new dispensation of South Africa. To be honest with you, my life has not been the same since that day.”

Of Good Report, the story of Parker, a teacher hiding behind a reputation ‘of good report’, and his illicit relationship and murder of 16 year old Nolitha, is assumably too raw and damaging for a country carefully sculpting its modern self image. “The main issues I tackle in the film are how the world is shaped in a misogynistic way and how it favours the male,” explains Qubeka. He uses the phrase “the wolf protects the wolf” at one point.

“Teen pregnancy is an issue I wanted to tackle too,” he continues. “And violence. I see it as a form of purging these issues. But the reaction from the conservatives has really been quite visceral and I’m like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t realise you’re that defensive of the issues which affect you.’” Due to the sensitivity and skill of the storytelling displayed in the film, it’s hard to view this as a moral or puritanical panic from the board, rather a defensive strategy, something Qubeka, a self confessed conspiracy theorist, fully subscribes to.  “Well you know, this is after the party now, yeah? Twenty years of democracy, twenty years of black rule. We have a very liberal constitution so I really didn’t see this one coming.” 

It seems dangerously restrictive, sidelining such important discussion. “Not only is it limiting, it’s disturbing,” he says. “Because it’s a subject that is a big problem back home. You would assume because we were an oppressed race that we would be more liberal in our understanding and our values, but I’m now seeing 20 years after democracy just how conservative we are.” Thankfully the issue was resolved by lawyers who had worked on previous banned films, who called and said, “‘Hey man, we know these guys and have dealt with them before, please can we handle this matter pro bono,’ and I said, ‘hell yeah, of course.’ And within ten days, as I had always believed, we were exonerated.”

“As a storyteller I don’t sit there and think, ‘OK, I’m a shit stirrer so therefore I want to cause controversy’” – Jahmil X. T. Qubeka

As an audience we don’t like to be placed in uncomfortable spaces: we don’t like being within the skin of an unpleasant character. Even for a master like Michael Powell and his Peeping Tom voyeurism it proved almost terminal. So imagine here viewing through the warped prism of a murderer’s mind. And, as Qubeka reveals, the levels of audience antagonisation might have been even more acute: “The original title of the film was Are you Parker Sitole?, and the reason I used the POV shots is to put the viewer into his I present and unpeel him to the viewer is in a way that makes you confused to whether you should be engaging or sympathetic to his cause.”

For a movie filmed beautifully in monochrome, showing a rural town bled of colour, it seems relevant that even an abhorrent protagonist is painted in multiple greys. We view the moments that formed the man and are forced to consider the twisted validation he offers himself. The women who are irrationally blamed. Parker’s mother: “She made me do it!” Jahmil exclaims, wide eyed, in character as Parker. The girl, Nolitha: “How can she wear that mini skirt?!” But the topic ends in a defence of his tactics. “As a storyteller I don’t sit there and think, ‘OK, I’m a shit stirrer so therefore I want to cause controversy.’ To be honest with you the word never even came to my mind. So when the reaction happened I was like, Oh my God, are people really this uncomfortable to discuss a matter like this? Are we so unwilling to look at the issues that affect us and the ills of society?”

In candid tones Qubeka tells me of the night his father came home and admitted to murdering his young girlfriend, pulling the trigger seven times. Later that same night his father took his own life. His powerful black family had lived well through apartheid, richer and more influential than the white families he was allowed to mix with through school, so were impacted inversely by its fall. Qubeka, in his early teens, retreated into film, as he had before this night. Loneliness was indulged by movies taken from his extensive catalogued library, viewed in his empty mansion. “You know one of my favourite films is Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and how it plays between the pain of reality and the escapism of fantasy,” he explains. “That’s definitely the way that I had to deal with a lot of trauma in my life. I’ve filled in the blanks through fantasy as a way to purge pain, and when I found the medium of film it was a marriage made in heaven or hell, whichever way you want to look at it. I was like, ‘Oh wow, here’s a medium where I can just pull out all of my pain, all of my heartache.’ It’s possibly selfish because it’s a privilege to be a filmmaker, it’s a privilege to be able to utilise the tools that we have to communicate with society as a whole. So who am I then to use it as my own psychological therapy?”

Of Good Report sits between exorcism and confession – hopefully it can help with Qubeka’s healing process. And although the director’s life seeps into the film’s harsh narrative,  does he plan to ever fully realise his experiences on screen? “I’ll definitely tell my story at some point,” he says, “I just want to grow a little bit older. I think it’s better to reflect. I think I can tell South Africa’s story through my story, my life. I’ll definitely go there, I’m just not ready yet.” An upwards glance; a wry smile; a nod. “Yeah.”

Africa in Motion ran 24 Oct to 3 Nov