Jahmil Qubeka's neo-noir thriller 'Of Good Report' has experienced a rather rocky road to the screen, having been banned – and then unbanned, following protests – by the South African government earlier this year. Its depiction of a teacher’s illicit sexual relationship with an underage pupil is certainly disturbing and controversial, though it’s unclear what the film is trying to achieve – sharp social critique, or just a stylish and thoroughly South African take on the classic psycho-killer tale?
Parker Sithole (Mothusi Magano) is a schoolteacher ‘of good report’ – with a glowing set of references and a general air of mild-mannered, unassuming respectability, he is granted a post at a high school in a remote, rural South African township. At first unwittingly, he initiates a sexual relationship with 16-year-old student Nolitha (Petronella Tshuma) – a relationship that quickly descends into obsession, violence and depravity as Sithole’s already somewhat tenuous sanity deteriorates.
Shot in searing black and white that suits the arid, dusty setting, the film is visually very engaging – there are shots of deep shadow, over-saturated brightness, and lurching, sickening blurriness. The result is a highly slick, stylised look that offers obvious tribute to the film noir genre, though that’s not the only borrowed convention: Sithole, the anti-hero (though that’s grossly stretching the definition) is mute for the entire duration, with Magano’s brilliantly expressive face almost making up for the lack of speech.
It is difficult to engage with a character that never utters a word, however, and while I understood the stylistic reasoning behind Sithole’s silence – and its function of illustrating his alienation and sinister ‘otherness’ – it was nevertheless occasionally jarring. Qubeka does well to keep the audience hooked though, telling the story (which is like a combination of Nabokov’s 'Lolita' and Hitchcock’s 'Psycho') in non-linear fashion; a slipstream of real events, bizarre fantasies and surrealist dream sequences that echoes the chaos of Sithole’s mind, with some black humour thrown in for good measure.
Where 'Of Good Report' seems fuzzy, however, is in its ultimate meaning. Is it a criticism of South Africa’s institutions, and their sordid secrets? Of the culture of complacency and corruption that allows predators like Sithole to operate? Or is it a twisted, tragic love story designed to make us question moral absolutes? Or perhaps just a taut noir-inspired psychological thriller? Qubeka seems to have tried to achieve all of these things but without fully realising any of them – and the end product is an intriguing and accomplished yet ever-so-slightly unsatisfying cocktail.
Find more info and purchase remaining tickets at bfi.org.uk/lff. Any sold-out showings will have tickets available in the stand-by queue just prior to the screening times.