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How should we approach art that offends us?

By its nature, art seeks to provoke deep feelings. While we may dislike and ignore pieces we don't agree with, art that seeks to target religion and core belief systems is far harder to discern. This is certainly true of John Trengove's Oscar nominated Inxeba: The Wound. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya considers the film which has attracted criticism and boycotts and is being promoted as a “taboo-breaking South African feature”. In the face of potential offensive material, he reminds us that our faith should never depend on whether outsiders – including art – endorse or ridicule our beliefs.

Many of faith would probably feel a sense of déjà vu as they listen to or partake in the debate around the recently released Inxeba: The Wound. Xhosa traditionalists have called for the boycott of the movie, in some instances threatening violence because they claim the movie distorts and desecrates the sacred culture of the Xhosa people, particularly because it has a gay subtext in the storyline. On the other side of the argument are the film's creators who say the movie is art and as such they guaranteed freedom of expression and freedom from gender oppression under the Constitution.

Movies on sensitive issues such as culture and religion almost always carry the possibility of not being universally accepted, to put it mildly. For example, if all you knew about the Catholic Church was based on the movies, you could be led to believe that it is an institution that defends paedophilia and the greed of some clergymen, for example.

Probably more than any other, the Catholic Church gets a lot of bad press. It is routinely mocked and its institutions ridiculed or desecrated. Movie makers in particular love taking pot shots at Christianity’s valued imagery and symbols. Faith communities, particularly Christians, are easy prey (unless you live in a theocracy like Afghanistan or Iran where making a movie or writing a book seen as insulting the religious sensibilities can be a self-imposed death sentence).

Western film makers have no such concerns. It is as though every new movie tries to outdo the previous one when it comes to being offensive.

The 1979 British movie, Life of Brian, portrayed the story of Brian who is born on the exact same day and directly next door to Jesus Christ. The boy is mistaken for the Messiah, attracts followers, and is eventually crucified despite his valiant efforts to convince everyone that he is not “The One”. This depiction, which went to the very heart of the Christian faith, did not go down well with many Christians. The movie was banned in many countries. Thousands protested and picketed in theatres in the United States where the movie was showing.

In 2006 the Da Vinci Code took matters to a new high (or low depending on how you look at it!). Adding to the oft repeated narrative of a corrupt Holy See bureaucracy, the movie suggested that the Church had covered up the “truth” that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and the couple were blessed with children.

These are but two of the many movies and books that have intentionally gone out to mock the most sacred tenets of our Christian faith. They are , surely, not the last. The challenge to people of faith is never to allow what they hold sacred to be determined by those who – whether out of ignorance or malice – seek to desecrate their beliefs.

Yes, our feelings will be hurt many times, but our faith in the sacredness of that which we say is holy should never depend on whether outsiders endorse or ridicule our beliefs.

This attitude, I think, should inform how we approach Inxeba: The Wound. The real issue is whether we can transcend what we feel about it. Can those who feel offended by it hang on to (and  appreciate) whatever they hold true and sacred. This should not be altered by others, regardless of their sincerity, malice or ignorance?

Update (14 February 2018): 

The Film and Publication Board (FPB) Appeal Tribunal has reclassified the film to X18 with elements like sex, language, nudity, violence and prejudice. The film was previously rate 16LS. The reclassification means Inxeba can only be distributed from designated adult premises and can no longer be screened at cinemas.

Update (13 March 2018):

Inxeba has now been released on the mainstream cinema circuit in South Africa. The film has been reclassified “18”, following the decision by the Film and Publications Appeals Tribunal, to reverse the previous controversial X-rated classification. The final classification of the film will be decided at a review of the same tribunal on 28 March.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.