From the outside, looking in
Photographer Zanele Muholi’s documentary Difficult Love looks at her life and work as an artist and activist.
She spoke to the Mail & Guardian about the project during the TriContinental Film Festival.
Tell me a bit about the documentary. How did the concept come about? How did you get involved, both as subject and as director of the project?
The film was commissioned by SABC, and was pitched by Peter Goldsmith. He approached me in 2008, and wanted to do a film about me and those around me. Seeing that the story is about my life, and I know my life better than any other person, I asked to be co-director.
Although my background is photography (I prefer to call myself a visual activist), I also work with video.
The film was shot over two weeks in 2010. I decided to invite some of the people who feature in my photographs to speak for themselves. It’s one thing when you walk into a gallery and see a framed image, but then you start wondering who those people are, and what they have to say about being in those photographs, about living as out lesbians, or trans people, or gay people. I needed to bring that perspective.
But most of all I think that everyone has his or her own story to tell, and I needed to share with viewers who Zanele Muholi is. The documentary is about my life, about living as an out person, as a family member, as somebody’s sister, as somebody’s partner. I brought my family into the picture, and those who are closest to me.
How does this more holistic view of your life feed into your work as an activist? How does it connect to your work about the position of young black lesbians, and further that aim?
The common picture that comes to mind when you think about black lesbians in South Africa is bloody. If you Google “black lesbians in South Africa”, you find hate crimes, and curative rapes, brutal killings. You will not find anything about black lesbians and their families, about black lesbians and their children, black lesbians and education. You don’t see anything about black lesbians taking over the movement, using art as means to rebel. We do not have records where we look at queer art. We read more about death than we do about life, and love.
So that is why in this documentary I have tried to tap into some of those elements. I look at family life, and how our families look at us and how they understand us, rather than how the outside world looks at us. I do not speak for others.
I have my own story to tell. Everyone who features in it has their own story to tell.
The production is very “mainstream”—funded by the SABC and shown on TV. How does that affect the response?
I think that the LGBT community needs to mainstream our issues. The people who need to know most about our lives and our struggles are not part of the LGBT community. This documentary is aimed at educating people about our lives. To stream it into LGBT festivals would have been a limitation. To open it up to the public is the way to go.
Who needs to know about Zanele and the photos I take? Am I taking them for my own personal consumption? Am I taking them for black lesbians? Or am I taking them for other people, to share black lesbian culture with them? To share and inform those who have no understanding?
So I had to make this mainstream. It’s one thing to give it to your own community, but it’s another thing to speak to the non-converted.
And there may be some person sitting in a rural area, or in some marginal space, who may not have access to my work, but, seeing it on SABC 2, they may get to see that they are not alone.
And the response?
Some people ask why they have to listen to these stories, or project their prejudices on me, but I have no time for people who are negative. I have had a good response from educators, from some who want to screen it in different spaces. I am making sure that this documentary is distributed as much as possible. It is one of the few examples where a black lesbian is not just a “subject” but is speaking for herself. It also highlights that it is possible to collaborate with people to get the story told.
Did that desire to keep it mainstream affect the way the film was put together?
It was important to keep the film accessible to both audiences, to the LGBT community and the broader public. I didn’t want to be limited. It needed to speak to larger audiences.
Feedback has been good and bad, but that doesn’t matter. The fact that it is done means that we are moving forward. Even if you don’t understand or refuse to understand, you have something to process.
In terms of your work, have you seen a shift, in terms of how your work is viewed by the public? Many people were exposed to your work for the first time when they heard about former Arts and Culture minister Lulu Xingwane storming out of your exhibition.
In 2004 I directed a documentary called Enraged by Picture, which was produced by Out in Africa, and which was shown at over 30 film festivals internationally. I have spoken about these issues before. For more than ten years I have spoken and written about these issues.
Have people woken up to the idea that these are issues that need addressing?
I get a lot of good feedback from overseas. I find that there is a lot of bashing from people within the continent. But the more they talk, the more they fire me up, and I will produce more and more. And that’s when I realise this work is important.
It’s sad that so many people are hurt along the way—just because of narrow-mindedness. But I just can’t stop now.
I hurt a lot when I hear about lesbian murders. We are not supposed to be hurt or persecuted or violated for loving people of the same gender. We just need to live in the world and be respected.
Do you see yourself changing your path at any point? Is there a point where you can say you have succeeded, and are free to work on other issues?
I can’t say I have succeeded. I don’t what success is. I think we are getting there, in a way.
But as long as I identify as LGBT, I won’t change my way of thinking or my way of doing things. I may change the medium, but I won’t change the subject matter. I think that there are very few of us working on this topic, and if we speak together and work together people will hear us. I’m looking at working with other artists.
And what will it take to change this? You have said that there are people who risk their lives in speaking out?
We know that on a monthly basis a lesbian woman or trans man is raped for expressing their sexuality. But if you look at this country, even if you do not speak out, there are people who are prone to being hurt. An old woman walking down the road to get her pension could get hurt for no reason. A child at home in bed can be raped without having said anything. I am putting myself into this knowing that someone might not like what I am saying. But do I silence myself, or allow someone else to silence me?
I can’t do that. I think it is my right to speak out about things that are unjust, and our responsibility to speak out about things that are unjust, in order to free others who cannot speak out themselves.