March 29, 2023


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South African Film Board tries to silence African classic ‘Black Girl’

5 min read

The Joburg Film Festival went ahead with a screening of Ousmane Semben’s “Black Girl” on Thursday, refusing to bow to political pressure after South Africa’s Film and Publications Board (FPB) refused permission to hold a public screening of the Senegalese director’s groundbreaking debut. .

In a decision that shocked the festival’s organizers and many African filmmakers in attendance, an FPB reviewer recommended the film be submitted for “full classification” — a process that would determine its suitability for public viewing — “due to biased material that includes hate speech. Speech that is derogatory to a human being.”

The festival appealed the ruling but decided to go ahead with Thursday’s screening after no official response to that appeal was forthcoming. FPB did not immediately respond to a request for comment diversity For comments

Addressing moviegoers on Thursday, a spokesperson for the festival rejected the board’s “unfair” decision and defended the screening of Sembene as a “monument of African cinema”, describing it as a “matter of principle” linked to “the spirit of protest that is the spirit of the establishment”. of our country.”

Rafiki Fariala
Courtesy of Joburg Film Festival

diversity It is understood that in addition to “Black Girl,” at least two films screened at this week’s Joburg Film Festival have been flagged by the review board: Rafiki Fariala’s “We Students!”, a documentary about a group of university students in Central Africa. Republic, which played at the Berlin Film Festival last year, and Vladimir Sexus’ “Role — Historias dos Rolezinhos,” a documentary about shopping mall protests that mobilized thousands of black people against racial profiling and violence by security guards in Brazil.

Based on a short story written by Semben, “Black Girl” follows a young Senegalese woman who moves to France in search of a better life. After taking a job as a governess for a wealthy white family, she finds her hopes thwarted by a barrage of racist and humiliating incidents that eventually drive her to commit suicide.

Credited with being the first feature film from sub-Saharan Africa, Semben’s 1966 debut was instrumental in laying the foundation for post-colonial African cinema. In a 2015 review of Samba Gadzigo and Jason Silverman’s documentary about the late filmmaker, Sembene!” diversityIts Guy Lodge described “Black Girl” as “a brief, surprising snapshot of immigrant life in France that has achieved unprecedented international exposure for a film in sub-Saharan African cinema,” adding that the director’s “burning brand of political cinema has lost nothing. Years later of its rhetorical and emotional immediacy over the years.

The film previously played at the Joburg Film Festival in 2016 without controversy.

In South Africa, where memories of apartheid-era censorship run deep, the FPB’s decision was met with swift backlash from the local film community.

“I don’t understand it and I’m absolutely horrified,” said Emmy-nominated documentarian Jihan El-Tahri (“House of Saud”), who served as a jury member at this year’s festival and as a filmmaker and university lecturer. In South Africa for almost 20 years.

“‘Black Girl’ is not just any film. ‘Black Girl’ is a seminal film in African history,” he said. “This is the film that started the idea of ​​an African vantage point in international cinema [and] It was the first film to feature African women’s voices – the status of an African woman and what she faced.

Usman Semben’s “Black Girl” is credited with being the first feature film from sub-Saharan Africa.
Courtesy of Film Foundation

El-Tahri, whose 2008 documentary “Behind the Rainbow” chronicled South Africa’s transition from a liberation group to the ruling African National Congress, said the FPB’s ruling, if upheld, “would be a change that is completely unacceptable to the film tradition. The entire on the continent

“If South African students, the South African public, are no longer allowed to see films like this – essential films that change the vantage point from our point of view to how to tell a story – it’s a disaster,” he said.

Senegalese director Moussa Sene Absa, whose “Xalé” opened this year’s Joburg Film Festival, expressed disbelief at the board’s decision. “Am I dreaming? Is this a nightmare? ‘Black Girl’ is censored in South Africa? “No way. No way. No way.”

Musa Sene Absa
Courtesy of Gerhard Casner/Berlinel

Citing the film’s influence on his own career as an emerging director more than three decades earlier, Absa praised Semben’s film for its screenplay and criticized the subjugation and humiliation inflicted by French colonialists on their West African colonies. He emphasized that this was the first film that African filmmakers were unable to tell their own stories in order to convey the narrative of the colonial era.

“I can’t imagine it,” he said, reflecting on the verdict. “This film opened many doors for African cinema. It doesn’t make any sense.”

In the FPB report, a copy of which has been obtained by diversity, The reviewer listed several “superstitious scenes” in violation of Film Board rules, including a French newspaper headline describing the protagonist’s suicide (“Young nigress slits her throat in employer’s bathroom”), and a dinner table scene in which a French guest says her companions “Africans eat only rice” and “their independence has made them less natural.”

That content, the reviewer determined, “may be threatening, disturbing or cognitively harmful to children under the age of 13 because they are still immature and impressionable to the complex themes of exploitation and oppression…[and] One would not be able to understand the director’s intention to show the impact of colonialism and slavery.”

Festival organizers, however, noted that children under the age of 13 have already been banned from viewing the film.

Usman Semben’s Venice Special Jury Prize winner “Mandabi” is playing in Johannesburg this week.
Studio Channel

“Black Girl” is the centerpiece of a programming strand at the Joburg Film Festival that pays tribute to Sembene, which will celebrate its centenary this year. Presented as part of the African Film Heritage Project, a collaboration between Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO to identify, restore and preserve African films, Sidebar will also screen a digitally restored version of Sembene’s Venice Special Jury Prize winner “Mandabi,” among others Including a Selection of Pioneering African Works.

The controversy this week in Johannesburg recalled a similar incident at the Durban Film Festival in 2013, when Jahmil XT forced a black screen at the opening-night premiere of the film, an FPB rule against Quebec’s “Of Good Report.”

The Joburg Film Festival runs from 31 January – 5 February

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