Boasting 4 New York premieres, 1 US premiere, 1 world premiere, the New Voices in Black Cinema festival, which takes place in Brooklyn, NY, will run from Thursday, March 26 through Sunday, March 29, at BAMcinématek.
Over the next several days, I’ll be highlighting a few of the festival’s seemingly more obscure gems that I strongly recommend you check out, starting with Jahmil X. T. Qubeka’s serial killer thriller "Of Good Report," which premiered to much controversy at the 34th Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), in Durban, South Africa, where the film was censored following the classification refusal by the South African Film and Publications Board, citing that it "promotes child abuse & pornography," an unfounded accusation, from someone who’s seen the film and loved it.
Thankfully, eventually, the South African Film Board had a change in perspective, as they reversed their decision and gave the film the US equivalent of an R-rating.
The reasons for its controversial initial banning in the filmmaker’s native South Africa, are obvious, although for those who’ve been exposed to far more gratuitous displays of sexuality and violence on screen (there’s an abundance of that here in the USA), Qubeka’s sophomore feature directorial effort, the serial killer origins story, "Of Good Report," is actually quite tame.
Without giving too much of the plot away, in brief, a high school teacher gets involved with one of his students, and, as you’d probably expect, it’s a story that doesn’t end well. To say anymore on the plot would be to ruin your experience when you do eventually get around to watching the film; but let’s just say that the relationship takes a turn for the worse, and our protagonist, hunted by past demons, finds himself in a precarious situation which he has to stabilize, by any means necessary.
Rich in symbolism and pop culture references that underscore the film’s themes, and its protagonist’s state of mind (like a survey of his bedroom, ending with a shot of a magazine cover with American serial killer TV series "Dexter"), "Of Good Report" is held steady by an assured hand in Qubeka – a South Africa-set contemporary cinematic adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s "Lolita" (a novel already considered controversial) with its own killer twist.
But Qubeka has more than that tragiocomedic tale on his mind in "Of Good Report," of Shakespearean proportions, with its varied themes of love, jealousy and betrayal, as well as an opening scene reminiscent of a Sergio Leone Western – although this isn’t one – and an unsettling mother/son relationship reminiscent of that in "Psycho."
References to other films abound, as Qubeka demonstrates, on screen, his love of cinema, notably the classics, which comes through and translates to excitement for the viewer.
Our protagonist’s name is Parker Sithole, played convincingly by Mothusi Magano, a character mute throughout the entire film, his face speaking volumes, fluctuating between 3 seemingly dominant expressions: disaffected gaze, barely-there smiles, and the occasional maniacal laughter. He’s a sad sap of a not-quite middle-aged, bespectacled, slight man, who doesn’t utter a single word throughout the entire 110-minute film, but is able to convey every thought through action, and action only, even as other key characters ramble in his presence. And while the film paints a portrait of a killer getting his wings, his silence and visage actually encourage sympathy and compassion, despite his actions.
It actually took a second viewing of the film for me to realize that Sithole doesn’t speak at all (the only character who doesn’t, made even more remarkable by the fact that he’s the lead, and in almost every single scene), which I’d say is a credit to the filmmaker and actor, that this apparently didn’t at all hinder my ability to understand this man – his thoughts, motivations and actions – and thus appreciate the film.
Director Qubeka smartly unfolds the story via a seemingly disjointed timeline (although there is a method to the madness), jumping between the present and past throughout, each one revealing an increasing amount of back-story that helps make Sithole a full-realized character. The audience doesn’t learn crucial pieces of information until the story demands it, and Qubeka makes each flashback reveal seem rather seamless.
He builds audience empathy for Sithole early on, even though we have some idea of what’s to come (but aren’t entirely certain), and then turns all of that on its head, revealing the monster that lies within, challenging everything that we’ve come to know about this man, and any care we might have for him. But, by the time this moment arrives, the audience would likely have already come to find Sithole pitiable, and while we may not necessarily be rooting for him to get away with what he’s done, we’re not necessarily wishing ill-will upon him either.
It’s a delicate dance that works, and it’s partly for this reason that I’d consider classifying the film as more of a dark dramedy, than your typical noir or thriller.
So while the film’s non-chronological unfolding might be jarring at first, it sorts itself out as long as you’re paying attention; and if you’re patient, you’ll be rewarded.
That it’s a South African film is of little consequence. It’s a story that could take place anywhere, as Qubeka keeps broader social/politcal/economical concerns on the fringes, and instead hones in on this small town, and its inhabitants, eventually rocked by a scandal, brought on by this out-of-towner, who’s apparently set to leave death and destruction behind, wherever he’s been and wherever he’s going, moving on to the next city, where he’s invisible, seemingly to start anew, although with his skeletons in tow.
DP Jonathan Kovel’s black & white lensing is rich and assured, with some rather impressive camera work, that’s crisp and seamless.
The film’s sound design enhances mood and setting, and thankfully doesn’t dominate.
It’s certainly not a film for the prudish or skittish. There’s nudity and violence to spare – although a lot of the violence is off-screen and suggested, assisted by the actors’ reactions (Petronella Tshuma as Nolitha, the film’s Lolita, gives a measured, nuanced performance, equally mature, mischievous, and youthfully naive), which are, in turn, ours.
Comedy relief is provided, in part, by Sithole’s nosy and vociferous landlady, and her chubby-faced grandson, who’s seemingly never without his dog.
A minor grievance would be the film’s length. A shorter, more compact "Of Good Report" could pack more of a wallop, making for an even more impacting, intense experience.
The film represents an exciting shift previously observed on this blog, in the kinds of films currently being made in sub-Saharan Africa (in this case, South Africa) by and about black Africans, who appear to be getting more adventurous with genres, shedding preconceptions of what it means to be a black filmmaker from the continent. It’s not often that we see *genre* feature films by black African filmmakers, starring black Africans, and, by all accounts, thus far, this is definitely one of the strongest and most ambitious to come my way.
If Qubeka was a white South African filmmaker, with the same exact film, I’d argue that he probably would already be signed up with one of the top Hollywood agencies, and attached to direct the next expensive thriller, starring some A-list celebrity actor/actress.
In addition to screenings at Durban, "Of Good Report" also showed at the other prominent film festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival, where it receive the kind of international attention rarely afforded African feature films, kicking its international travels off to an auspicious start. It also screened at the London Film Festival, Stockholm International Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival and Pan African Film Festival in LA.
If you’re in the New York City, you’re STRONGLY encouraged to see it at the New Voices in Black Cinema Festival, when it screens Thursday, March 26, 2015 at 9:30pm. It’s a perfect film for a Saturday night, which is when it screens! To buy tickets click here.
Here’s a teaser for "Of Good Report" (emphasis on teaser), which doesn’t really do the film justice; but this is all there currently is: