When I first read about the Khoi man Claas Blank and his 1735 affair with fellow Robben Island prisoner Rijkhaart Jacobsz, a sailor from Amsterdam, I knew I wanted to make a film about it.
It was 1997 and the clause on non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation had been agreed for inclusion in South Africa’s new Constitution. This story, which focuses on the persecution of the two men for having sex, seemed a fitting way to celebrate the rights conferred by the new democratic order.
This was not the only reason I wanted to make the movie. I had started South Africa’s gay and lesbian film festival in 1994 and made a couple of decidedly queer doccies about township cross-dressers (Sando to Samantha) and a two-part series about gay history co-directed by Zackie Achmat (Apostles of Civilised Vice). Doing the story of Claas and Rijkhaart seemed a good way to bring my queer movie- making ambitions to a climax. So, how to take on 18th century sodomy on Robben Island?
I contacted my friend, Toronto director John Greyson. In 1989 I had seen John’s film Urinal about gay men in Toronto arrested for “cottaging” —having sex in toilets — and I knew he was someone I would like to collaborate with. He had come to South Africa several times to run workshops and had himself made a great piece about the late Simon Nkoli titled A Moffie Called Simon — when Simon was arrested as part of the Delmas Treason Trial. We became good friends and I new John and I could work together.
As we looked deeper into the transcript of the 1735 court record, the evidence for an affair between the two prisoners — as opposed to Oz-like prison sex — became more and more compelling. We tried to imagine what an interracial relationship on Robben Island in that period might have been like. What did the incarceration of so many freedom fighters on Robben Island in the 20th century mean for our 18th-century love story?
As we researched the story we became aware of the extent of the homosexual panic that gripped The Netherlands in the 18th century, with more than 70 men being executed for sodomy in those years. Perhaps the fate of our two lovers was linked to these events in Europe? Then we discovered that the Swedish botanist Carl Linneus had named the Protea in 1735 — the year of Claas and Rijkhaart’s trial. Carl Linneus was not only the father of modern botany, he was also one of the fathers of “scientific racism”. His famous work of botanical classification included the classification of people into different races each with their own racially determined characteristics. In this racial hierarchy the “Hottentot” was confined to a special sub-species of the not-quite-human!
We wondered how these two would have fitted into Bronx on a Friday night? Were they gay? Is this just a modern label that emerged, if you follow French philosopher Michel Foucault, in the 19th century? Well, they, or more likely Rijkhaart, might have been. Amsterdam in the 18th century had a thriving gay culture where men did indeed have sex in favoured public toilets, where there were gay bars and where, all in all, things sounded pretty damn gay! So — if Foucault was wrong and gay identity had in fact emerged 100 years earlier than he thought, and if Rijkhhart had by any chance been part of that Amsterdam gay subculture, how would that have effected his relationship with Claas? How would Claas and Rijkhaart have understood their affair, which endured for more than 10 years?
These were some of the questions we worked with as we developed the script. Once we had a script which provided our response to these questions, we had to figure out how the movie would work aesthetically. It couldn’t be a straight attempt at period purity in the style of Merchant and Ivory. We had to find a new way of doing period. The idea of using anachronism (mixing periods) is hardly new.
But it is new in South African film, which up to now has been very reverential about period. But we didn’t mix period just to be naughty. It was our way of acknowledging the long arc of Robben Island history. Our guys were tried and convicted for sodomy —two among the thousands of people convicted for crimes that would not be crimes today. There was another reason for our choice. How do you know that the version of “period” you get in a period movie is so damn accurate? In our script we continually question versions of history given by various characters. We carried this questioning over to the aesthetics of the movie as well.
Rouxnet Brown (Claas Blank) and Neil Sandilands (Rijkhaart Jacobsz), as the lovers, made an excellent combination. Their fine performances have meant that their characters have asked all the appropriate questions while living through the hell real people once lived through. I enjoyed working with John and with Gulio Biccari, our excellent cinematographer.
I feel that I have done queer film now — even though I have other queer projects in mind. And that is how Proteus was made. What we hope for now is a general distribution for our work so that South Africans across the board will have access to it.