Heart of tradition: Nakhane Mahlakahlaka stars in Inxeba: The Wound, a film about Xhosa circumcision rituals. The actors and crew have been receiving threats since it opened on February 9. Picture: SUPPLIED
Heart of tradition: Nakhane Mahlakahlaka stars in Inxeba: The Wound, a film about Xhosa circumcision rituals. The actors and crew have been receiving threats since it opened on February 9. Picture: SUPPLIED

The unthinkable has happened. The Film and Publication Board has banned the multiaward winning film Inxeba: The Wound from being screened in mainstream cinema outlets, restricting its distribution to "designated adult premises".

This reclassification of Inxeba by the board’s appeal tribunal in essence means that the film can only be seen at venues where pornographic films are also screened. Therefore, the banning has reduced Inxeba to a pornographic movie. When it opened it had an age restriction of 16 years.

This decision came after the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA called for the banning of the film on the grounds that it reveals secrets about Xhosa circumcision rituals.

Xhosa traditional leaders succeeded in having the film withdrawn from cinemas in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape, but it opened to full houses on February 9 in some cities.

Threats of physical harm have been issued by faceless people against the actors and crew since the film opened. Some of them have been taken to a safe house. The film-makers accuse their detractors of homophobia.

The Film and Publication Board has succumbed to the demands of an assortment of people — including traditionalists, conservatives and some civil society organisations — and has banned Inxeba: The Wound from being screened at mainstream cinemas.

Critically acclaimed novelist Thando Mgqolozana, whose debut novel, A Man Who is Not A Man, deals at great length with Xhosa initiation and who is the co-writer of Inxeba, has also finally broken his silence.

"What has just happened amounts to a censorship of this film," he says.

"People need to speak out strongly against this. It is not only about this film, as it will also happen to others in the future. People do not have to like the content of the film and those who like it must be allowed to watch it undisturbed and without censorship."

The reclassification of the film by the Film and Publication Board’s classifiers has again thrown a spotlight on the role of the classifiers, who are employed on a part-time basis and never explain how they reach their decisions.

In 2012 they classified the Brett Murray exhibition at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, Hail the Thief, as suitable for viewing by those aged 16 and above. One of the paintings in that exhibition portrayed former president Jacob Zuma with his manhood exposed.

Heavy criticism followed that decision, forcing the Film and Publication Board to commission research into the classifying process and review the regulatory framework governing classification. The board did not make the report available, nor did it announce whether it changed any processes.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) says the decision to classify Inxeba as a pornographic film amounts to censorship and is a repeat of practices by the National Party government during apartheid.

"We urge the public to question and scrutinise this move reflecting an increasing culture of censorship and the erasure of queer narratives that is detrimental to the fight for representation," the IJR says.

The Film and Publication Board says that Inxeba: The Wound contains "classifiable elements of sex, language, nudity, violence and prejudice".

But the IJR remains unconvinced. "This move signifies a creeping culture of censorship that threatens the values of a just and equitable society that ought to recognise and protect the LGBTQIA+ community.

"The reasons cited for the banning allude to its ‘pornographic nature’, which raises the question whether the board is not selective in its application of what constitutes pornography.

"When compared to other recent releases that contain heterosexual sex scenes, we urge the board to consider whether double standards are not being applied in this instance. If the board’s decision is solely being informed by the fact that this is a gay love story, then it exposes deep-seated homophobia that continues to inform our ideas around masculinity and, subsequently, denies queers their humanity."

The IJR called on the Film and Publication Board to "withdraw this banning, effective immediately".

The Right2Know (R2K) Campaign says the X18 classification is "one categorisation away from a total ban" under the board’s classification schedule.

"We view this as censorship; censorship that silences the voice of the LGBTIQ community and violates the constitutional right to freedom of expression. As the board has yet to publish reasons for this decision, R2K sees it as a dangerous and gross overreach of its authority," the organisation says.

R2K has been campaigning against the censorship threat of the Film and Publication Board’s decisions. In 2015, when the board’s online regulations were released, the organisation warned about the threats to a free and democratic internet. In 2016, the organisation raised concerns about the board’s partnership agreement with the notoriously homophobic Kenyan censorship board, submitting a Promotion of Access to Information Act request for the agreement.

The Kenyan censorship board has a history of banning, or attempting to ban, LGBTIQ-themed material.

R2K’s Promotion of Access to Information Act request was rejected, raising questions about the Film and Publication Board’s commitment to transparency and accountability. "The reclassification of Inxeba by the appeals board flies in the face of the spirit of the freedom of expression in a democratic state, which includes freedom to receive or impart information or ideas, especially for those ideas or expression with which we differ," R2K says.

"While we respect the freedom of expression of those who feel misrepresented or disagree with this film, we don’t believe that this should lead to the censorship of a narrative, which gives expression to same-sex attraction between men and the confrontation this creates with traditional notions of masculinity and culture.

"We demand the Film and Publication Board scrap this outrageous, homophobic and patriarchal decision and allow creative expression to flourish and be seen in its many forms."