Grahamstown is a madeleine cake. A sleepy student town where its history as a centre for English colonial expansion in the Eastern Cape remains apparent on its streets, and in its architecture — in its material, physical and social structures. It is a place where time can stand still as easily as it […]
Review: Of Good Report
Of Good Report opens with a repetitive creaking sound, some rural background noises, and a desolate landscape; in cinemascope.
The allusion to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is obvious, although perhaps only to a cinephile. The central character, Nolitha, is a shout out to Nabakov’s Lolita, which is made clear – in case you missed it – in the closing moments of the film.
Throughout, the work is visually striking, singular, hyper-masculine, uncompromisingly visual rather than textual (dialogue is relegated to second place in narrative purpose). It is a film where we see and hear things, rather than have them explained to us. This gives it incredible wiggle room for interpretation.
Relying on signifiers, in combination with excellent use of performances and authenticities, rather than exposition, is Jahmil XT Qubeka’s virtuoso move, but they are also the reason it does not reach completeness.
A brief recounting of the plot, and a discussion of the structure, is necessary. If you have not seen the film, I urge you to read no further. This is a film that must be seen, and must be seen unspoilt ¬– you should not know which way the rollercoaster turns.
The story is told by means of a circular structure, beginning at the end, then coming to the beginning of act two, circling back to act one, then finally act three makes sense of the film’s opening sequence, and then after this there is a very brief epilogue. The use of this structure, of this coming together of elements, allows for a moment of audience catharsis, and drives audience speculation throughout.
Parker Sithole (Mothusi Magano), a teacher, moves to a small rural town to take up a new post. On his first night there he is seduced by a beautiful young woman, Nolitha (Petronella Tshuma). In the morning he discovers her to be a student. This doesn’t stop him, or perhaps he cannot help himself, but besides these kinds of things are common and as long as they stay hidden there will be no consequence.
The affair continues and they are almost found out. It is around this point that we flash back to act one, where we discover that Parker nursed his cranky, chain smoking mother in her old age and, finally unable to take it, suffocated her.
Mentioned before, but cemented visually at the funeral, is the fact that Parker was once in the army.
So this is what we know: Parker was in the army. His mother was a chain smoker and this pained him. He had to nurse her. He killed her. This hardly seems like a chain of events that adds up, yet Qubeka is able to give it stunning actuality.
The principle underpinning this veracity is Parker’s wordlessness; we never hear him speak, so we are forced to read his feelings on his face, which bears a constant pained expression, as if he has just been informed he must now eat actual shit, can smell it, and is powerless to prevent it. This is the foundation upon which Qubeka builds.
By the time we get to Parker’s back story, we already understand him to be put upon, we have seen him suffer variously: a broken down taxi, a hole in his shoe, an alcoholic and broken colleague, a fellow school teacher’s insinuations that she wants to “offer herself to him”, and a nagging and invasive landlady.
The message is clear – life is stacked up against Parker Sithole. Yet, again, in this list form, those elements seem hardly enough to convey that message.
Of Good Report’s world is not made up of a traditional back story and nuanced foreshadowing but, rather, out of remembered fragments from other films, books, television shows, newspaper headlines, urban legends, childhood memories, neighbourhood stories and half borrowed jokes.
In this regard it is a thoroughly modern film; we do not need to know Parker’s past because we feel it cloud over him, through the expert balance of sound design and simple gestures. He is without a past, without a voice, and yet it is all too present.
We see Parker’s mother alive in only three scenes, but in one slow shot Qubeka conveys Parker’s disgust in her, and then when Parker has to help her in the toilet, the director balances that disgust with empathy for the old woman.
All we have verbally of their relationship is one word, “boyboy”. Like Norman Bates’ mother, Mrs Sithole is always sitting down, and then too the silhouetted killing of Nolitha brings directly to mind Mrs Bates in the hotel window.
Qubeka fills in Parker’s psychology by borrowing from Alfred Hitchcock (And Shakespeare through his teaching of Othello to his students. Later Nolitha reading it in bed, says “I don’t like this Othello one bit”, before the jealousy begins.) as much as Oliver Stone did in Natural Born Killers’ Rodney Dangerfield sitcom sequence for the character Mallory, or Quentin Tarantino does in everything from Pulp Fiction onwards.
There are also internal signifiers at work – Parker’s future, his eventual self-destruction, is echoed into the present by his colleague, the permanently drunk teacher, expertly played by Tshamano Sebe.
His character is sketched out in a few scenes where we see him bumbling and staggering and drinking, nothing more than a joke, a husk of a human.
But when Parker and Nolitha are about to be found out, he springs into action. We don’t want Parker and Nolitha to be caught, but later, oh, if only they had been.
It is Sebe’s school teacher who prevents them from being found out, his concern for Parker in turn destroying Nolitha.
It is when he later warns Parker against destroying himself that we see, even though Sebe also has no past, Parker is his past. As much as Sebe is Parker and Parker is Norman Bates (and then later Othello), Nolitha is Lolita, and is echoed by her friend Vatiswa, who seems to be headed toward her own Lolita moment. And finally Mrs Sithole is echoed by Parker’s new nagging landlady.
It is by the placement of these echoes and references that Qubeka builds the emotional authenticity of his characters’ actions, and it is the lack of these around Detective Arendse, the policewoman, that eventually lets Of Good Report down.
Arendse has no parallel in the film, she is merely a type: the good cop who knows he’s guilty and won’t let go. She has no literary references foisted on her, she has no characters to echo or indicate her past or future. We have nothing but Lee-Ann van Rooi’s, admittedly excellent, performance.
This is out of keeping with the film’s primary methods, and means that we are provided with no expectations of her, because she is adrift in this sea of signifiers anything she does is out of place.
So Arendse is unanchored from the foundations on which Of Good Report is constructed, and yet Parker and Arendse’s final scene is the entire construction of the film.
Further technical considerations in the sequence (as played out in temporal order) further problematise the audience’s processing of events; what the objects are in Parker’s head at the film’s start is not entirely clear – they do not “feel” hard, and when it should become clear that they are Arendse’s teeth, we do not see Arendse’s mouth without them.
While it is logical that this is what has occurred this slight doubt coupled with uncertainty over Arendse’s motivation results in a closing scene that doesn’t quite sit right. It’s possibly the only false note in the film, and it is an unfortunate one.
But, then again, as Sam Peckinpah once said, the most a director can hope for is to get seventy percent of his vision on screen. Here it is important to note that this is Qubeka’s second feature, and an astonishing improvement on the mess (albeit with flashes of brilliance) that is his previous film, A Small Town Called Descent.
Qubeka’s reliance on signifiers and references as a method of storytelling is made abundantly clear in the opening sequence. As Parker looks down to the ground, we see a newspaper, the headline reads: “ZIMBABWE TEACHER SHORTAGE”.
It is obvious from this that Parker will end up, at some point in the film, in Zimbabwe. But what is even more telling about this proverbial gun in the drawer is in the choice of words: “ZIMBABWE TEACHER SHORTAGE”.
No attempt is made to hide that this is in fact a message being broadcast to the audience about an eventual turn of the plot, no attempt is made to hide the gun in the drawer by constructing a realistic headline; it’s veracity is that it exists.
We know Parker will become jealous because he is reading Othello. It is this blunt foreshadowing and echoing combined with the refusal to expound, to fully explain through exposition and back story, that gives Of Good Report its moral complexity.
During the first flush of Parker and Nolitha’s relationship, at the moment when they are about to be found out by the school’s headmistress, tension is built around the hope that they will not be found out, not around that they should – after all, this is a teacher sleeping with a student.
The key hinge for this sympathy is Nolitha’s agency. She is the one who approaches Parker; she is quite patently in control of the relationship at this point. And it is her agency in rejecting Parker later that causes his jealousy to boil over.
But is this a portrayal of a young woman experiencing her sexual awakening, or is it a plot device designed to make us sympathise with Parker, who never seems to do anything of his own accord except kill?
This is, after all, a film from the wolf’s perspective. But by not choosing a side in this regard, Qubeka has opened up a valuable debate about exploitation and teenage sexual emergence, which is precisely the debate a Film and Publications Board ban would have stifled.
Of Good Report is a film ripe for unpacking – its switches from comedy to seriousness often leaves the viewer unsure of where they stand, or how they are meant to feel.
It flirts with politics, through lopsided posters of President Jacob Zuma, radio reports in the background, and it raises moral spectres – in visually referencing Hansie Cronje. But mostly, its solid performances in small parts – the two cops and the roof fixer, the best friend Vatiswa, the landlady’s son – present a world that is familiar, authentic and seemingly unmediated.
During the Q&A session after a Cape Town screening of the film, an audience member asked of Qubeka, “Why did you let him get away with it?”
It’s an important consideration for how we construct the purpose of filmmaking itself. Should filmmakers provide a nice pat on the head to the audience as a salve to the reality that the bad guys often get away with it, should they deliver solace and entertainment, or should they rather make self-important films that drive messages home?
Films with longevity are often those that do not pretend to have the answers, and Qubeka has certainly done no pretending, all the while providing authentic entertainment.
Of Good Report is not the greatest South African film ever made ¬– it’s nowhere in the range, or possessing the nuance or completeness of Skoonheid, or Accession, but it is expressly and supremely a film that articulates its cultural time.
It does this by leaning towards the visual, preferring the use of sound design over dialogue as a storytelling method, being rooted in a uniquely South African paradigm, making no obvious points yet raising issues of sexual agency, using (exclusively Western literary) references as a method of emotional communication, resorting to comedy when things become too serious, being littered with political references but with no clear political agenda, and possessing of a refreshing lack of self-importance.
One thing is clear, though, Of Good Report is not yet Qubeka’s masterpiece.
Headline: Courtesy of the Bard’s Othello
Main Picture: Nolitha (Petronella Tshuma) and Parker (Mothusi Magano) in a scene from Of Good Report
Take Two: Mothusi Magano’s character, Parker, delivers the wolf’s perspective in Of Good Report
Triptych: A poster for Of Good Report, which was initially banned until the Film and Publications Board came to its senses