BANNED – Review by Timothy Niwamanya


The concerted push for more-inclusive story-telling that gives visibility to disenfranchised sections of society is a central tenet of the global contemporary creative zeitgeist. This is helping in the undoing of decades of omission and misrepresentation of many marginalised communities in the arts. Naledi Bogacwi’s documentary feature film, Banned, brings the discussion home by confronting state-sanctioned film censorship and the policing of black creative practice in Apartheid South Africa.

Filmmaker Naledi Bogacwi

Restoring A Classic

The documentary’s main storyline centres around the making and eventual banning of a 1973 South African action film Joe Bullet by the fascist Apartheid-era government. Directed by Louis de Witt, it featured an all-black cast led by Kevin Gampu and was one of the earliest attempts at African genre-film production in South Africa. The late Tonie van der Merwe who wrote the screenplay claims it was an attempt at “a black James Bond”. His intention was to give the people of the townships an avenue for escape from their harsh socioeconomic realities through a black fictional character who attained a level of social mobility they could not fathom in the racist and oppressive society they lived in. The influence of American blaxploitation cinema can be seen in Joe Bullet too.

The film was outlawed after a couple of screenings at the Eyethu cinema in Soweto. Tonie, the producer and writer of the film, stored the reels away until it was rediscovered, restored and re-released more than forty years later. The players in making of the film profess their conscious efforts to make an apolitical film to avoid the ire of the government. In spite of their best efforts, the film was still banned highlighting the callous and indiscriminate nature of erasure of black people’s realities in South African media at the time.

Institutionalised Erasure

With Joe Bullet as an entry point, the documentary explores the wide-scale censorship of black art and narratives in film, music and theatre in the years of Apartheid. The South African government sought to gate-keep the proliferation of imagery and music coming out of the country that highlighted the plight of the oppressed African populations in the townships. They also wanted to maintain the mirage of a functioning moral society among the native white and black populace at home through the creation of mass-media bubbles.

Veteran black artists and performers of the time give first-hand accounts of the commercial exploitation and the brutal nature of the crackdowns on artistic practice. They include the likes of legendary entertainers Abigail Kubeka and Mercy Pakela, actor Sol Rachilo, story-teller and actress Gcina Mhlope, playwright Mbongeni Ngema and TV and Film legend Khotso Nkatho. It also provides a balance in racial perspectives with some native white South Africans, many of whom are now media practitioners themselves, given space to shed light on how the censorship of media they were allowed to consume also distorted their own preconceptions of the country.

Talking Heads

Banned is a contextually rich film. However, stylistically, it is a painfully conventional documentary. The story progression is facilitated by interviews in static medium shots and close-ups conducted in front of aesthetically-pleasing colour-themed backgrounds with a multiple camera set-up. The film’s intermittent shifts in editing pace provide for a visually-engaging experience in spite of the film’s, at times, didactic monologues from its characters. Archival footage from the days of Apartheid and bits of restored footage of Joe Bullet are also used extensively in the film.

Cultural Retention

Banned is a film whose wide appeal will make it one of the standouts at this year’s Durban International Film Festival. It elucidates that the injustices of Apartheid were not just spatial, economic and political, but also cultural, and it does so with great authority. The film is a treasure trove for African art historians and a testament to the creative endeavour of the great artists of the time, many of whom still don’t get the credit they deserve in spite of their trail-blazing efforts. Banned also offers hope that the stories of the down-trodden in intolerant and authoritarian societies always see the day of light. One way or another.

The documentary’s poster

Catch the film at the Durban International Film Festival:

Screening Schedule:
21 July 14:30 Suncoast 7
24 July 19:30 Gateway 9

Author: Timothy Niwamanya

This review emanates from the Talent Press programme, an initiative of Talents Durban in collaboration with the Durban FilmMart Institute and FIPRESCI. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (Timothy Niwamanya) and cannot be considered as constituting an official position of the organisers.

Thank you

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