Sunday, October 20, 2013

Of Good Report

OF GOOD REPORT           B             
South Africa  (109 mi)  2013  d:  Jahmil X.T. Qubeka   Website     Trailer

An extremely provocative South African film, where the director was born in South Africa, raised in East London, educated in English, where his first feature film is something of an homage to genre pictures, including film noir, as it is shot in low contrast Black and White and features a lead character, Parker Sithole (Mothusi Magano), a teacher by trade who is besieged by hallucinations, yet never utters a word.  The film certainly plays on audience expectations, where it’s hard to believe anyone entering the theater could have possibly anticipated what this film delivers, as it’s a bit mind blowing.  With only one film under his belt, Qubeka is already the bad boy of South Africa, a bit like the brash style of Tarantino, but Qubeka is much more experimental, where the director does resort to exploitive and often horrific imagery, including the naked body of a minor, which has generated criticism that he’s a child pornographer, yet supposedly the film was made to elevate a public discussion on social issues, specifically gender violence.  One might question whether the best way to elucidate the issue is to make a film where an adult brutalizes a young girl, but that is one of the fundamental problems in South Africa, where according to the Human Rights watch in 2001, “for many South African girls, violence and abuse are an inevitable part of the school environment.”  This is a nation where educators misuse their authority and sexually abuse young girls.  It’s not young boys that are impregnating young girls, it’s those with money (which the kids certainly don’t have), the stereotypical “sugar daddy.”  In one South African province alone, KwaZulu-Natal, today there are somewhere between 10 – 15,000 female students that become pregnant each year, astonishing figures, which don’t even take into account the number who may have contracted HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.

Initially scheduled to premiere at the Durban International Film Festival, the largest in South Africa, the film was banned prior to the screening on child pornographer issues, something that took the filmmaker completely by surprise as he wasn’t aware they banned films in South Africa post 1994, where prior to that they banned everything, “including Eddie Murphy movies.”  The Durban Festival has a history of protest, and of showing taboo work, where even during the apartheid era when films were routinely banned, the festival found a way to show those films.  Within about 10 days, the court overturned the ban, as the actress playing the 16-year old child is actually 23, and allowed the film to be seen on the final day of the festival.  Mind you, this film offers no moralizing or lectures of any kind, and isn’t remotely a message film, but is a hugely subversive take on genre films, using a radical musical score from Philip Miller, much of it drawn from his LP Music for the Films of William Kentridge, whose unnerving dissonance keeps the audience disoriented and provides a shattered sensibility, reflecting the psychological breakdown of the lead character, Parker Sithole, who served time as a soldier before reporting for duty in an impoverished rural South African township with no local connections, yet he comes with excellent recommendations, a man “of good report” during a time of teacher shortages, so he’s seen as exactly what they need and is immediately enlisted as a school teacher, where everyone involved with the school has high hopes for this shy and quietly introverted man.  So with inverted expectations, it’s a bit shocking to see him instead develop into a deranged psychopath, where the film shows the early origins of a serial killer, where Parker becomes sexually involved with a beautiful underage girl, Nolitha (Petronella Tshuma), something of a sirenesque Lolita who turns out to be one of the students in his class, but rather than end the relationship, he escalates the time they spend together, becoming more and more sexually obsessed, where he does little to hide his prurient interest in her.   

Using flashbacks and dream sequences, along with frequent hallucinations, Parker goes berserk when Nolitha leaves him, becoming Othello to her Desdemona, often veering into the horror genre, where the past and present converge and it’s often hard to distinguish between some of his mad ravings that exist only in his head and what actually happens, much like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000).  While offering a convincing portrait of a tortured man who can’t help himself, it recalls Peter Lorre in M (1931), a psychopathic pedophile who can’t stop himself from kidnapping and murdering little girls.  Parker is a miserably lonely man, likely stripped of all dignity during apartheid, endlessly wallowing away his time as a soldier, where he learns to kill, slowly losing touch with the world as he descends further into the moral abyss, escalating into utter depravity, becoming a nightmarish vision of Hell on earth where he hermetically seals himself away from the world outside, utterly alone with his handiwork.  We see what he does, which for some will be graphically excessive, generating gasps in the audience, and we see him get away with it, at least temporarily, where he lives to do it all over again, like a deadly parasite attaching itself to another living form.  Opening and closing with the same visual motif, a man stumbling through the desert, where the camera shows nothing above the waist and focuses only on his dirty boots covered in mud and dust, a highly effective device, as the film is about the arrival of a stranger, a non entity, someone with no local roots, who comes bearing excellent recommendations, a man “of good report,” where much like the white-gloved, overly polite boys in Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), no sooner have they brutally murdered one family before they move on to the next.  Of interest, this is a South African and Icelandic production, where one wonders where the Icelanders came into the picture.  The director, who was present for the screening, suggested he would love to come back to this character in about 20 years and pick it up again.  When he made it, he was hoping it would become a cult film.  It’s a strange and intensely moody portrayal of a post-apartheid society that fails to recognize the continuing existence of an evil presence lurking within, that lives invisibly among us, where over the end credits the film turns to color with an animated red Devil dancing off to the side, a laughing reminder of more victims yet to come. 

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