The reasons for its controversial initial banning in the filmmaker's native South Africa, are easily identified, 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), Jahmil X.T. Qubeka's sophomore feature directorial effort, the serial killer origins story, Of Good Report, is tame.
Without giving too much of the plot away, in brief, a high school teacher gets involved with one of his students, in a story that doesn't end well - as you'd probably expect. 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 an expected 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, or 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.
I can understand why South African censors objected to the screening of the film at Durban a couple of months ago. It's certainly not 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.
Of Good Report 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 year, this is certainly one of the strongest and most ambitious to come my way.
South Africa's National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) has an expressed goal of demonstrating that South African cinema can compete on the international stage, and show that stories by South African filmmakers can resonate in the international cinema market place.
With Of Good Report's showing at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival, where it'll receive the kind of international attention rarely afforded African feature films, the film is off to an auspicious start.
Jahmil Qubeka is certainly a director to watch. Look for my extended interview with the filmmaker in the next week or two.
Here's a trailer for Of Good Report: