By Jon Herskovitz
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A low-budget movie no one in South Africa is allowed to see has become the most talked-about film of the year.
For the first time since apartheid ended in 1994, regulators banned a local feature film, saying the movie "Of Good Report" contained child pornography. This halted its screening this month at the Durban International Film Festival.
The film's director and movie critics have likened the ban to apartheid-era censorship, saying the film, which examines the abuse of girls by older men, hit a nerve in a country where patriarchal rule dominates wide sections of society.
The ban has raised worries about self-censorship in the local industry, where film-makers battle for scant funding for films that often take on tough questions about race, sexuality and the damage caused by apartheid.
"There is this branch of very brave film-makers who are making remarkable works and often they are deeply uncomfortable works. This is something that South Africans have become particularly good at," said Peter Machen, art critic and manager of the Durban film festival.
The Film and Publication Board, a government-affiliated regulator, objected to a scene in "Of Good Report" where the character of a 16-year-old-girl has sex with a teacher.
Board spokesman Prince Mlimandlela Ndamase said the four regulators had all decided that the film was pornographic.
"The government calls us pornographers when we bring light to social issues," the film's director Jahmil XT Qubeka told Reuters on Tuesday.
"I cry this beloved country because we are in trouble."
The movie has dominated radio and TV talk shows and social media since the ban came to light this week.
Many commentators have said the board was working in a way similar to the former apartheid regime by banning an art work that brought attention to a little-discussed social problem.
They also questioned how the board could classify the movie as child pornography when the legal age of consent is 16 and the actress in the sex scene is 23 in real life.
Ferial Haffajee, editor of the influential weekly City Press, tweeted: "Last year, we had to spend a lot of time with the censors of the Film & Publication Board. They were dopes. Still are."
An appeals panel found the board had overstepped its bounds last year when it restricted viewing of a politically charged artwork that showed President Jacob Zuma standing with his genitals exposed in a pose reminiscent of Soviet-era leaders.
The producer of "Of Good Report" has appealed the ban and hopes the film can be shown before the Durban festival ends on Sunday.
But the ban has also won the film international attention, which is likely to translate into screenings at film festivals outside South Africa.
The movie could join the likes of other local films that have won international acclaim for unnerving topics, such as "Skoonheid" - Afrikaans for "Beauty" - about a white bigot in his 40s fighting to suppress his homosexuality.
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)