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In the age of Nymphomaniac, one would think that a new spin on the Vladimir Nabokov/Stanley Kubrick favorite Lolita would turn no heads, but for the brief space of the Durban Film Festival last July, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s stylishly tense thriller Of Good Report found itself banned by South Africa’s Film Board as “child porn,” which it decidedly is not. Denied the prestige of opening the festival, it got the official green light in time for a last-day screening and a special prize for “artistic bravery.” It has since earned good festival exposure, most recently at Hong Kong, as well as audience acclaim. The harrowing story of a timid rural schoolteacher who develops a fatal attraction to one of his students deserves to break out into theatrical pickups, where it could hold its own with other sophisticated art films.
What’s most striking is the bold confidence with which Qubeka works with genre, melding the story of clandestine passion between a youngish teacher and a 16-year-old student with his personal artistic agenda: highly expressive black-and-white cinematography, a risky decision to keep the protagonist Parker Sithole (Mothusi Magano) from speaking for the entire length of the film, and nursing a daring ambiguity that prevents the viewer from ever getting a bead on Parker or identifying with him whole-heartedly.
With this kind of ambition, and given the setting, one would expect a dash of social concerns to be thrown in, but the film is not overtly political. It does create a world where sexual abuse and shocking violence can occur, but that would be true of the U.S., for example, as well as South Africa. Still, this is no simple murder mystery waiting for the police to show up, but a portrait of searing torment in a man’s mind. It should advance the writer-director’s career another notch after his award-winning HIV doc Talk To Me, the well-received uMalusi, and his feature bow A Small Town Called Descent.
The story opens on a particularly grisly scene as a half-dead, blood-caked man stumbles through the desert scrub, oblivious to the stares of two laborers nearby. Yanking something out of his skull that might be teeth, he staggers on with superhuman determination.
Shifting back and forth in time, the rest of the film leads up to this crucial moment. It’s not always crystal clear at first who’s on screen, but it’s a good bet that it’s Parker in one of his guises. As somber teacher in glasses, he listens to an irate father shouting at the principal of the rural high school, demanding to know where his daughter is. In other scenes, he wears a soldier’s uniform and poignantly listens to an elderly woman smoking and hacking; she calls him Boy-Boy. This character, presumably his mother, could have stepped out of some impoverished backwater in a Faulkner novel.
We see him arriving at school the day before classes, dressed in an old jacket and silk tie, his face full of dismay and stage fright. The principal (Tina Jaxa) beams that he comes “of good report” with high credentials and stellar references, though exactly from where is never specified.
That evening he stops by the local bar for a drink and meets his fellow teacher, the drunkard Vuyani (Tshamano Sebe), destined to become his one and only quasi-friend. When the sexy Nolitha comes on to him, he looks overwhelmed with pure joy. Her name rhymes with Lolita, but the admirable Petronella Tshuma plays her not as nymphet but as a bright young lady playing at being mature beyond her years, using sex to mask her insecurities. One night together and Parker is smitten. He seems unaware of how young she is, much less that he’ll find her in his English lit class the next day. When realization dawns, he’s unable to curb his appetite even at school, and naturally it’s Nolitha who pays for their folly. The tale becomes increasingly dark and psychological, full of violence and pain that doesn’t let up until the brutal ending.
And still not satisfied with his genre-stretching, Qubeka attempts to spin the mood 180 degrees win the playful end credits, which really don’t work.
Apart from fine leads Magano and Tshuma, the supporting cast is well-directed and full of surprises. Though he has to mime his role, Magano’s Parker gets the message across with a range of facial expressions, or simply retreats into remoteness, as he does with his cagey landlady (Nomhlé Nkyonyeni).
Jonathan Kovel‘s cinematography is concisely expressive in tracing the rising and falling arc of a love story. It has a number of inventive moments, like when the camera pans over the schoolgirls’ short, swinging skirts. Like the sophisticated music track by Philip Miller, it easily shifts from light-hearted to unsettling.
Much of the dialogue is in English but there is a good sprinkling of African languages and dialects, too, contributing to the strong sense of place.
Venue: Hong Kong Film Festival (Global Vision), March 28, 2014
Production companies: Spier Films, iXhosa Nostra in association with the New Brighton Motion Picture Co.
Cast: Mothusi Magano, Petronella Tshuma, Tina Jaxa, Lee-Ann Van Rooi, Tshamano Sebe, Mary Twala
Director: Jahmil X. T. Qubeka
Screenwriter: Jahmil X. T. Qubeka
Producers: Michael Auret, Luzuko Dilima
Executive producers: Gibson Njenje, Lwazi Manzi
Co-producers: Heather Millard, Pordur Bragi Jonsson
Director of photography: Jonathan Kovel
Production designer: Jerry Manganyi
Editors: Cobus Rossouw, Che Amaru Tunstead
Music: Philip Miller
Sales Agent: 6 Sales
No rating, 109 minutes
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