NirenTolsi speaks to the director of Rough Aunties, and the aunties themselves, about the documentary that scooped a Sundance Award.
There are squawks of excitement and a liberal use of expletives in the Bobbi Bear office in Amanzimtoti, south of Durban, as film director Kim Longinotto calls from London.
Her documentary, Rough Aunties, an intimate portrayal of some of the women who work at Bobbi Bear (a NGO that deals with child abuse cases) won the Sundance Jury Prize for Best Documentary in the World Cinema category last week.
Longinotto has just informed administrative director Eureka Olivier that two of the film’s protagonists, Thuli Sibaya and Mildred Ngcobo, were sitting a row behind Hollywood A-lister Robert de Niro at the awards ceremony in Utah.
There is a collective swoon and enough drooling to stick together the pages of You magazine—mixed with a dose of hard-nosed reality: “Ja, but how much money will we get out of this? We need R4-million to build a new safe house for our children,” says Olivier.
If Olivier, all lacquered red fingernails and limping-bouffant-with-mullet, appears harshly focused on the bottom line, she must be forgiven. Film festival baubles are “fabulous”, but the children remain the bottom line for the remarkable women of this organisation.
Started by Jackie Branfield 20 years ago, Bobbi Bear intervenes in child abuse cases at the point of rescue: counselling children, ensuring that post-exposure prophylaxis is administered if needed and following up on court cases by badgering the criminal justice system when necessary.
The film, shot over 10 weeks last year, follows five of these formidable women—Olivier, Branfield, Ngcobo, Sibaya and Sdludla Maphumulo—as they cuss, chain-smoke, weep and laugh their way through the nightmarish world of child abuse in South Africa.
The documentary also captures the bond between these women and their own tragedies. During shooting Maphumulo’s son drowned—it is alleged because of illegal sand mining along the Illovo river—and Olivier’s relative was murdered in a house robbery. They banded together on each occasion.
For Longinotto, a Brit, the women’s story “is a metaphor for a new, young democracy. The legacy of Nelson Mandela is embodied in these women and their relationships with one another,” she says.
Her film also highlights some of South Africa’s post-1994 failures: a criminal justice system that is overburdened and ineffective in providing succour for child abuse survivors, a faltering public health system and rampant crime.
It highlights the country’s inability to deal properly with the apartheid-inflicted trauma and emasculation as evidenced by the number of abuse cases that Bobbi Bear deals with: “We have hundreds of cases because we follow them through the courts over the years that prosecution takes, but each of us [in a group of 11] get about two to three new cases a week,” says Branfield.
Some abused children are as young as two years old. She says: “It’s always a relative or someone close to the family. In my 20 years I’ve had only one stranger rape case,” says Branfield.
Following the women on night-time police raids, during counselling sessions and at funerals, Longinotto’s camera is never intrusive: “I became an honorary member of Team Bobbi Bear,” she says.
“I kept my distance and wanted to shoot them quite gently without any gratuitous zooming and rushing around. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible and never asked them to repeat anything,” she says of the difficulties of bearing witness without affecting the subject matter.
Poignantly, Maphumulo is close to tears when she hears that a particular case appears to be in perpetual adjournment after two years and that the docket has been lost by the police. Ngcobo comforts a mentally disabled child—who was previously raped—after learning that she was raped again by her grandfather the previous day.
But as Longinotto says: “It’s not all doom and gloom—it’s actually quite an uplifting story.” The humorous moments point as much to Longinotto’s sensitivity to cultural miscegenation in the new South Africa as to a particularly South African forthright garrulousness.
When Sibaya confides in Branfield that she is leaving her “psychologically abusive” husband of 15 years for another man, the conversation has a maternal feel imbued with a sense of Zuluness. Branfield commends her for not having done it earlier and Sibaya replies: “You would have kicked my bum.”
“I would have kicked your arse from here to Cairo,” says Branfield.
Longinotto is a veteran documentary filmmaker with a filmography including Divorce Iranian Style and The Day I Will Never Forget about female circumcision in Kenya.
On the film’s conceptualisation, she says: “I was asked to work on the project by Paul Taylor of We Are Together [a film about a South African HIV/Aids orphanage choir] and went over to South Africa to meet the women. I thought they were quite an extraordinary group of women—it was very inspiring and very humbling.”
With a win at the Sundance Film Festival under its belt, Rough Aunties is already garnering worldwide interest and looks set to travel to several festivals this year. ‘I’ve had very positive feedback from film festivals in Israel, Greece, France, Hong Kong and Australia—it has been overwhelming,” said director Kim Longinotto.
‘The film deals with universal concerns, so it has that appeal. After a screening in Sundance a doctor of psychology came up to me and Mildred [Ngcobo, a rough aunty] and his daughter fell into Mildred’s arms and started telling her about her own experiences of abuse. Mildred started counselling her there on the street. It was extraordinary,” said Longinotto.
As for when local audiences will be able to see what all the fuss is about, Monica Rorvik of the Durban International Film Festival said: ‘Discussions are under way with Kim and we would like to have the film screened at festival later this year.”
Rough Aunties opens with a quote from former president Nelson Mandela: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children”. The teddy bears at the Bobbi Bear office in Amanzimtoti reveal South Africa’s shame. The child support officers at Bobbi Bear use these teddy bears to comfort rape survivors and cajole them into communicating their violation. On each, Band Aid plasters and scribbling in black permanent marker on various parts of the body tell stories of abuse: ‘Hy het my geslaan. Ek het gehuil. [He hit me. I cried.]” ‘He put his lollipop and his fingers in me.” ‘She put matchsticks in my cuckoo [vagina].”
Sdludla Maphumulo says abuse happens across racial lines but it is particularly hard for Zulu children to talk about their abuse because of both cultural issues and the stigma attached: ‘In Zulu culture children can’t talk about their private parts—they will be considered dirty. So a five-year-old child can’t tell a big Zulu policeman, a stranger, about her rape. With these teddy bears it is easier for them to communicate to us what has happened,” she says.