South Africa Loosens the Reins of Movie Censorship : Free speech: The country’s more relaxed approach to language and nudity reflects a fundamental break from its strict, Calvinist past.


The censors thought Marlon Brando was all wrong as the crusty South African barrister. He met privately with his client. He wore the wrong robe in court. And then he stalked the courtroom like, well, an American lawyer, while questioning witnesses.

No respectable barrister would do such things here.

But that turned out to be one of the reasons South Africa’s censors gave for unbanning “A Dry White Season.” Such “obvious flaws,” they concluded recently, “would lead the South African viewer to grimace or smirk . . . and immediately realize” that the film was fiction.

South Africa has one of the most exhaustive film censorship systems of any country in the Western world. About 1,300 films a year are studied, often frame by frame, and cuts for nudity, language and politics are the subject of lengthy public appeals argued by batteries of lawyers.


Today that complex process is undergoing dramatic changes, reflecting a fundamental break from South Africa’s traditionally strict, Calvinist past to a new, more relaxed and secular approach to cultural gatekeeping.

Nowhere is the trend more evident than on the marquees of South Africa, where such R-rated fare as “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Harlem Nights,” “Cry Freedom,” “sex, lies, and videotape” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” have been appearing.

This is the same country that once banned “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” because too many people were watching it.

“We’re getting things through the censors that we never would have dreamed of getting through five or 10 years ago,” said lawyer Johann van der Westhuizen, who has handled hundreds of censorship-board appeals for film distributors here.


Film distributors credit the Publications Appeals Board, the ultimate censor in South Africa, with adapting a liberal interpretation of censorship laws--and dragging the country’s conservatives along, albeit reluctantly.

“For years we’ve argued that you can’t ban something because it’s extremely irritating or unpleasant to watch or even highly critical,” Van der Westhuizen said. “And now they are listening.”

South African censors have always been most sensitive about language--not four-letter swear words but expressions such as “Jesus!,” “Christ!” and “Oh, God!” Film companies still have more success getting nudity than raw language past the censors, but “we’re getting a lot of the language through now,” said Van der Westhuizen.

When the censors ordered 10 dialogue cuts for language in Eddie Murphy’s “Harlem Nights,” Van der Westhuizen put a social-linguistics professor on the stand during the appeal. The professor testified that, in the street culture of Harlem, language has historically played an important role as an instrument of resistance to a white-dominated society.


The censors were at least partly convinced. They restored five of the cuts, and the film was released on the condition that no one under 19 could see it.

South Africa’s censors say their changing attitudes are simply tracking worldwide trends.

“The whole world is in a process of secularization, and one must accept that,” said Braam Coetzee, director of South Africa’s censorship body, the Publications Directorate. “Films no longer just tell a story. They show problems of life in their splendor and their sordidness. They show real people--and real people use swear words.”

But some conservative whites think the censors have opened the door too wide, especially for language and nudity. And President Frederik W. de Klerk may have been feeling pressure from his own theologically conservative church when he decided not to reappoint Kobus van Rooyen to a third term as head of the censorship appeals board.


Until Van Rooyen’s appointment 10 years ago, the cultural revolution had virtually passed South Africa by.

Television wasn’t introduced here until 1976, and even today its heavy dose of American fare is strictly censored, without appeal. The word God is routinely excised from programs, penis was cut from a recent episode of “thirtysomething,” and an interracial kiss in a past “L.A. Law” also got the ax.

The censors apply looser standards for movies, though, taking into account the artistic merit of the film and its likely audience.

An Academy Award nomination or critical acclaim in the United States often has saved movies from the censors’ scissors in South Africa. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Big Chill” all made it to South Africa’s screens uncut due, at least in part, to praise from overseas critics.


“Born on the Fourth of July,” an Oscar-nominated film with especially frank language, was cut in five places by the first round of censors but released uncut on appeal for a long run here.

“We give priority to the goals of viewers who would like to see films of caliber with as few cuts as possible,” said Van Rooyen.

The initial hurdle for films in South Africa is the Publications Directorate in Cape Town, where panels of three or four citizens view the films and issue a ruling. (Most reviewers are white; blacks, who make up 75% of the population, have no say in government censorship.)

Coetzee, the censorship director, tells the citizen panels to use the standards of “a reasonable member of the community who doesn’t hurry to judgment. Our golden rule is that if something is integral to the film, you’re not entitled to take it away.”


Two of the board’s decisions--in the cases of “Cry Freedom” and “A Dry White Season"--marked a turning point for censorship in South Africa and reflected the new, more relaxed political atmosphere introduced by President De Klerk’s reforms.

“Cry Freedom,” a film about the friendship between a white newspaper editor and Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, was approved in 1988. But on opening day police confiscated the reels, saying it was a threat to state security. The authorities returned the film this year, and “Cry Freedom” opened, uncut, in April.

The difficult journey of “A Dry White Season” reflected the rigorous test that political films still must undergo. The story, about a white schoolteacher’s political awakening after police kill his gardener, was banned in January as a threat to national security, but the distributors appealed.

The state’s attorney argued that the film portrayed the police and judges in a bad light and that Brando’s courtroom scene misrepresented South Africa’s judicial system.


The state also argued that the film’s epilogue, which said the government “continues to ban, imprison, torture and murder (those) who oppose apartheid,” was inaccurate and inflammatory.

Van der Westhuizen, arguing for the film distributors, United International Pictures, countered that film was a work of fiction that would incite no one to violence and presented no “clear and present danger” to the state.

“For black people who lived through these times, it’s nothing new. They may feel emotional, but it’s not going to cause a revolution,” Van der Westhuizen said. He acknowledged that whites who see the film “may get angry. But they won’t hate blacks. They’ll be angry at the filmmakers in America.”

The appeals board agreed with Van der Westhuizen. It said the factual flaws in the film, including Brando’s courtroom behavior, would be obvious to any South African. It added that most viewers would more likely “discuss, criticize and rethink” the film than “to feel more inclined to unrest or to hatred.” The film was approved, uncut, for showing to audiences over 21.


To cut a film like “A Dry White Season,” Van der Westhuizen said later, “would be worse than banning it as far as the country’s image is concerned. It would look as if they were taking the sting out. And we wouldn’t screen it.”