Against hate, in favour of humour

Shaun de Waal takes a look at the South African short films on at Out in Africa festival, opening this week

The rights of gay and lesbian people are protected under South Africa’s Constitution, yet Jon Qwelane can also blather in the Sunday Sun about how wicked and perverted it is to be gay or lesbian, and how Robert Mugabe got it right—presumably when he called gay and lesbian people lower than pigs and dogs. What next, asks Qwelane, bestiality? Just to rub the point in, the cartoonist for his column provided a picture of someone marrying a goat.

You’d have thought that, after a history in which black people were compared with and treated like animals, such comparisons would be taboo. You would have thought, too, that making such comments at a time when gay and lesbian people, particularly women, are regularly subjected to “corrective rape” and to murder, would amount to a form of incitement.

The press ombudsman, an old comrade of Qwelane’s, found that Qwelane’s words were not hate speech.
Perhaps not; Qwelane certainly expressed hatred, and writing is related to speech, but he did not actually advocate the killing of gay and lesbian people in so many words. And, even if he had, he probably could have muttered an ambiguous apology to the Human Rights Commission, à la Julius Malema, and it would all be okay.

So it’s no doubt all right for me to express my opinion that Qwelane is obviously a senile old goat, except that I rather like goats (not to marry, though). Let’s just say Qwelane is a ghastly bigot who gives humanity a bad name, and hope that the readers of the Sunday Sun are not the kind of people who might feel spurred by his words to rape and murder lesbians and dump their bodies in the veld, as happened to Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa last year and to female soccer star Eudy Simelane in April this year, or to gun down a drag queen, as happened to Desmond “Daisy” Dube in Yeoville recently.

And one can only encourage efforts to combat such homicidal prejudice, as does one of the short films showing this year at the Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (OIA). Produced by the website Behind the Mask, which provides information about and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed (LGBTI) people in Africa, Musa Ngubane’s Beyond Hate Crimes documents the outrage and the anti-homophobia campaign that followed the murders of Sigasa and Masooa.

Ngubane says: “I knew both Sizakele and Salome personally, and I guess this was my way of honouring them—and not them alone but all the LGBTI individuals who have fallen, been degraded in any way and had their human rights taken from them solely because of their sexual orientation. As a black lesbian from the townships, it bothers me that we LGBTI people and our families and friends are living with the constant fear of a hate crime attack.”

The other short films by South Africans on the festival take very different angles on such matters. Matthew Griffiths’s Farm deals with anti-gay sentiment, but in a touching, wryly amusing and ultimately affirmative way. The script of this story of a gay young man staying on the family farm with his conservative father after his mother’s death “was written in attempt to reflect a growing gay and lesbian population among Afrikaners,” says Griffiths. “These individuals often come into conflict with a very conservative viewpoint, and struggle to come out—especially to their families.” He is interested in Afrikaans culture, “where it has come from and where it is going in a rapidly changing South Africa”.

Like Farm (which should perhaps be called Plaas), Lodi Matsetela’s BFF examines the interpersonal issues that arise when sexuality is at issue. “BFF” stands for “best friend forever”, and the film contrasts the needs of friendship and those of a romantic partnership. It is the story of a young woman who invites her BFF around for dinner—the BFF not having seen her since she entered her present lesbian relationship. Much serious (and less serious) talk follows.

“The desire behind the project was to test and push myself,” says Matsetela. “I’m first and foremost a writer, but I’ve also produced [she has a production company, Puo Pha Productions], and I wanted to try my hand at directing. So I wrote the script, and after hooking up with associate producer Samora Sekhukhune, we went about pulling as many favours as we could, and funding the short with the little money we had. So what was initially a very self-involved quest turned into something others can enjoy, I hope, and that makes it so worthwhile.”

Nim Geva’s Three Good Things and Stanimir Stoykov’s Snakes take a somewhat irreverent approach, though, as Stoykov says of his work: “Like Madonna, I’m trying to make the world a better place.”

He describes Snakes as a “no-budget Christian comedy melodrama in drag”; it’s “inspired by B-movies ... In my quest for attention, I made Snakes as shocking as I could.” Snakes is downright iconoclastic—if you see Jesus and Robert Whitehead as icons. The Isidingo star plays a female televangelist (selling cosmetics for Christ) who has to deal with an errant son. This is firmly in what Stoykov has now established as his own particular tradition of outrageously trashy and hilarious mini-movies.

Like Stoykov, Geva produces that precious commodity, humour. Three Good Things is perhaps the shortest and sharpest of the short films on show. Geva describes it as “a dark little comedy about a do-gooding psychologist and a suicidal young man. Meeting by chance on a quiet back road, they both discover that ‘help’ and ‘hell’ are only one letter apart.”

The short was made for his master’s in film at Columbia. “Originally the script had a female in the man’s role,” says Geva, “but I thought it would be more surprising with a gender swap. This also allowed me to cast myself. In fact, the whole movie I blame on Woody Allen.”

And then for something completely different, there is Kali van der Merwe’s W-hole, which is a short excerpt from a longer work in progress. I have to declare an interest here, in that my study a few years ago of artist Steven Cohen and “the anus as a site of artistic practice” led Van der Merwe to consult me and a colleague on some, er, anal theory. (I hasten to assure the reader that I do not feature visually.) W-hole has to do with that part of the body (particularly the male body) most likely to be treated as nothing more than an organ of waste disposal—though it can be a pleasure centre as well.

Such ambivalences cluster around the anus, and Van der Merwe uses a minimal art-film approach to explore them. The result, as it stands, is intriguing, challenging and a little spooky. “I am interested in exploring the hidden, the secret, the unexposed, the taboo,” she says. “I have chosen to focus on the male arsehole as a way to investigate male constructs of intimacy, shame, identity, sexuality and the ownership society creates around the body.”

In a year in which OIA did not run script workshops as in the past, it’s pleasing to see a wide-ranging crop of short films from South African filmmakers. It’s a sign that our cinematic culture is growing from the ground up, and that OIA has become a regular forum for such work and thus nourishes such growth. It’s certainly not a bum deal. Next year, something about goats, perhaps?

Ten best of the fest

  • Brother Outsider. Stirring documentary about the gay man who mentored Martin Luther King. To be introduced on September 5 by Justice Edwin Cameron.
  • Enough Man. An in-your-face, real-life exploration of what it means to be a trans man, the lover of a trans man, and more.
  • For the Bible Tells Me So. Gay Christians tell why God does not in fact hate them. Tell that to the NG Kerk.
  • The Quest for the Missing Piece. In this personal doccie, Jewish gay man Oded Lotan wants to find out why his precious culture had to mutilate his penis when he was eight days old.
  • Saturno Contro. Almost a sequel to the same director’s The Ignorant Fairies—a sensitive, fun, good-looking ensemble drama about overlapping lives (lovers, friends, family, addicts —) in Rome today.
  • Savage Grace. From Swoon director Tom Kalin, another story of psychic exploitation and over-the-edge sexuality. A bit of a shocker, it’s beautifully made and features riveting performances, especially Julianne Moore’s.
  • 25c Preview. A gritty saga of drugs, rentboys, comradeship and abuse, scripted/improvised by its leads and shot hand-held on the streets of San Franciso. For those who want to keep it real.
  • Vivere. Intense, unexpectedly beautiful German human drama about a girl in search of her delinquent sister, while herself falling for an older woman.
  • Tick Tock Lullaby. Lesbian partners seek sperm donor. Hardly a laugh for them, but touching and amusing to watch.
  • Underneath. Fiercely indie story of sassy sistahs in the ‘hood—what Mzansi’s lesbians should be getting together on a shoestring.

OIA runs in Johannesburg at Nu Metro Killarney until September 14 and in Cape Town at Nu Metro V&A Waterfront from September 11 to 21

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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