The Joburg Film Festival defiantly went ahead with a screening of Ousmane Sembène’s “Black Girl” on Thursday, refusing to bow to political pressure after South Africa’s Film and Publications Board (FPB) denied it permission to hold a public screening of the Senegalese director’s groundbreaking debut.
In a decision that shocked festival organizers and many of the African filmmakers in attendance, a FPB reviewer recommended the film be submitted for “full classification” — a process that would determine its suitability for public viewing — “due to prejudicial element that contains acts of hate speech which is degrading of a human being.”
The festival has appealed the ruling but decided to go on with Thursday’s screening when no official response to that appeal appeared forthcoming. The FPB did not immediately respond to a request from Variety for comment.
Addressing moviegoers on Thursday, a festival spokesperson rejected the board’s “unfair” decision and defended the screening of Sembène’s “monument of African cinema,” describing it as “a matter of principle” that aligned with “the spirit of protest that is the founding spirit of our country.”
Variety understands that in addition to “Black Girl,” at least two other films screening 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 the Central African Republic that played at the Berlin Film Festival last year, and Vladimir Seixas’ “Rolê — Histórias 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 Sembène, “Black Girl” follows a young Senegalese woman who moves to France in search of a better life. After taking a job as governess for a wealthy white family, she finds her hopes thwarted by a barrage of racist and humiliating incidents that finally drive her to commit suicide.
Credited with being sub-Saharan Africa’s first feature film, Sembène’s 1966 debut was instrumental in laying the foundation for post-colonial African cinema. In a 2015 review of Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s documentary about the late filmmaker, “Sembène!,” Variety’s Guy Lodge described “Black Girl” as “a brief, searing snapshot of immigrant life in France that gained unprecedented international exposure for a film from sub-Saharan African cinema,” adding that the director’s “scorching brand of political cinema has lost none of its rhetorical and sensory immediacy over the years.”
The film previously played at the Joburg Film Festival without controversy in 2016.
In South Africa, where memories of apartheid-era censorship run deep, the FPB’s decision met with swift backlash from the local film community.
“I do not understand it and I am absolutely horrified,” said Emmy-nominated documentarian Jihan El-Tahri (“House of Saud”), who is a member of the jury at this year’s festival and has worked 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,” she said. “This is the film that starts the idea of an African vantage point in international cinema [and] was the first film to give a voice to African women — the dignity of an African woman and what she faced.”
El-Tahri, whose 2008 documentary “Behind the Rainbow” explored the transition of South Africa’s African National Congress from a liberation group into the ruling party, said the FPB’s ruling, if upheld, “would be a shift that is totally unacceptable for film heritage on the entire continent.
“If South African students, the South African public, are no longer allowed to see such films — the essential films that changed the vantage point from how we, from our perspective, can tell a story — that is a disaster,” she said.
Senegalese director Moussa Sène 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’ censored in South Africa?,” he said. “No way. No way. No way.”
Citing the movie’s influence on his own career as an emerging director more than three decades ago, Absa praised Sembène’s film for its visual poetry and withering critique of the subjugation and humiliation inflicted by French colonizers upon their West African colonies. It was the first film, he stressed, to upend the colonial-era narrative that African filmmakers were unable to tell their own stories.
“I cannot imagine it,” he said, reflecting on the ruling. “This film opened so many doors for African cinema. It doesn’t make sense.”
In the FPB report, a copy of which was obtained by Variety, the reviewer listed several “scenes of prejudice” in violation of film board regulations, among them a French newspaper headline describing the protagonist’s suicide (“Young negress slashes her throat in employer’s bathroom”), and a dinner table scene in which a French guest tells his companions “Africans only eat rice” and “their independence has made them less natural.”
That content, the reviewer determined, “may be threatening, disturbing, or cognitively harmful to children younger than 13 as they are still immature and impressionable to tolerate complex themes of exploitation and oppression…[and] will not be able to comprehend the intention of the director to show the impact of colonialism and slavery.”
Festival organizers, however, noted that children under the age of 13 were already restricted from watching the film.
“Black Girl” is the centerpiece of a programming strand at the Joburg Film Festival paying homage to Sembène, who would have celebrated his centennial birthday this year. Presented as part of the Africa Film Heritage Project, a collaboration between Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO to locate, restore and preserve African films, the sidebar will also screen a digitally restored version of Sembène’s Venice Special Jury Prize winner “Mandabi,” along with a selection of other pioneering African works.
The controversy this week in Johannesburg recalled a similar incident at the Durban Film Festival in 2013, when a ruling by the FPB against Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s “Of Good Report” forced organizers to show a black screen at the film’s opening-night premiere.
The Joburg Film Festival runs Jan. 31 – Feb. 5.