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Smorgasbord of real life drama

Among the strongest movies on this year’s gay and lesbian film festival are the documentaries, with several important South African works and some fascinating material from abroad. The sheer breadth and variety of the documentaries on offer are breath-taking.

In It’s My Life, director Brian Tilley paints a day-to-day portrait of activist Zackie Achmat, depicting his personal and public activities over five months. Achmat, a leader of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), takes on the wealthy and powerful pharmaceutical companies in a battle for cheaper drugs for South African HIV/Aids patients. It is a nerve-wracking struggle.

And, all the while, he is fighting his own physical battle against HIV/Aids, refusing to take anti-retrovirals until they become available to the majority of South Africans. As he says, he is trying to reinject some “moral content” into the situation — to think that the TAC and the state won the battle for cheaper drugs and the state is now denying them to pregnant HIV-positive mothers is mind-boggling. Achmat’s companion Jack Lewis appears in It’s My Life, and Lewis’s own documentary, Patient Abuse: TAC’s Struggle for Treatment Access, forms a fine companion piece to Tilley’s powerfully stirring portrait.

Another tribute to a leader from South Africa’s gay and lesbian community is Simon and I, about the late activist Simon Nkoli. It is made by Nicky Newman and Bev Ditse, the latter a close friend of and co-leader with Nkoli in the formative years of what would be the first gay and lesbian movement in South Africa to comprehensively mobilise people of colour. It is, in fact, Ditse’s own memoir of Nkoli and of their sometimes fractious relationship, giving the documentary a lovely personal touch, and opening up the very human side of this key figure in the campaign for gay rights in this country. The archival footage is always interesting, and the interviews add depth and humour.

Daddy and the Muscle Academy is a documentary made in 1991 about Tom of Finland, perhaps the most notable artist of gay male erotica of the last century. His images of stylised and impossibly well-endowed muscle-marys have, as the movie demonstrates, helped articulate a whole subculture of “Tom’s men” in the leather scene. The documentary shows Tom’s development from his earliest, rather fey and very pretty pictures, through his fascination with the threatening but titillating Nazi occupiers of his native land during World War II, to the burnished hunks of his later work.

And, in contrast to those exaggerated figures, is that of Tom himself, filmed shortly before his death, recounting his life and the progress of his work with insight and wry wit.

The most radical of the documentaries on display is Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn. Taking the documentary form in unexpected directions, just as she took her history of porn-starring in a new direction with her live performances, Sprinkle looks back on her career. With wicked humour and an engaging lack of shame or regret, she pieces together clips from her early work (where she improvises naivety) and moves onward to some of the oddest (and sometimes most offputting) pornography one is likely to see. She comes out, at the end, as a maker of spiritually inspired “art porn” — and keeps sending herself up.

More down-beat, but offering a fascinating glimpse into a world few of us encounter, 101 Rentboys is exactly that — a view of 101 hustlers from the streets of Los Angeles. Taken to a hotel room and given $50, they talk about all aspects of their lives and work.

And there’s more, much more, with Keep the River on Your Right, about a Jewish gay man who lived among New Guinean cannibals; Paradise Bent, about Samoa’s fa’afafines or men who take on female identities; Trembling Before G-d, about homosexuality and the Orthodox Jewish community; and views of life in the gay subcultures of India. It’s a whole world in one festival.

Out in Africa is on at Cinema Nouveau in Johannesburg until February 24, in Cape Town at the V&A Waterfront February 21 – March 3, then moves to Durban. Call 021 465 9289 or visit

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