Patriarchy is not just a black thing, FYI

In the documentary film The People vs Patriarchy, one would have hoped that the fast-paced introduction to the film was not a précis for its general tone and scope. Unfortunately, in many ways it is.

So, even as musician and actor Nakhane Touré distinctly outlines the spectre of Christianity as the overriding rationale for persisting patriarchy, this perspective is soon drowned out by the overall tone of the film — which seemingly posits patriarchy as a primarily black phenomenon.

The People vs Patriarchy, directed by Lebogang Rasethaba and produced by Jasmyn Asvat, is the second in MTV Base’s series of films looking at urgent South African sociopolitical issues, with the first one being The People vs The Rainbow Nation.

Though it uses a similar narration-free format and meticulously stitched-together visuals, this film’s marked departure is the lack of narrative profiles — making it more talk-driven than its predecessor.

Although, mostly visually, some effort is made to represent patriarchy as a globally occurring, power-related malaise, the context we are presented with in the intro is mostly that of the Western world. This perpetuates the idea that South African white people are not really needed at the roundtable when the issue is being addressed.

Visually, The People vs Patriarchy has its moments of aesthetic beauty. It is briskly edited, communicating with visual pacing as much as it does through tightly focused group conversations. But one soon realises that this context is selectively weighted, with only a handful of individual white participants and none in the group settings that give the conversations in this film much of their drive and urgency.

Gendered group conversations in a controlled setting dominate the film. One, taking place in what looks to be a corrugated iron hair salon among a cross-generational selection of black women, grows intense as they discuss patriarchal tropes steeped in religion or interpretations of culture. They talk transactional sex, the stereotype of the obedient, enduring wife and domestic violence as a supposed expression of love.

The men’s focus group is equally robust, although the setting is comparatively nondescript and their ages and social status more homogenous. Many seem be known to each other off the screen. This is a double-edged sword in the sense that their familiarity allows for an extended robust conversation, but it does give the film a parochial feel.

Over and above this, there is extensive use of talking heads, including some stilted, blurry inserts of unrepentant perpetrators.

The attendant visuals, especially the cutaways, consist of township scenes: men bonding with their sons, women going about their daily business and children at play. There is also a re-enactment of a harassment scene, in which a woman walks past a group of men in what looks like an affluent section of a township, only to be interrupted by an aggressive pursuer who breaks away from the group.

Some visuals speak to liberties taken in editing, such as the representation of township scenes as somehow being rural.

There are other visual imbalances, like the tacitly respectful distance white property and white people enjoy in the film. As the camera lingers over black spaces, essentially intruding on private moments, some people indignantly return the gaze.

The film does well to touch on recent framing moments. There is Karabo Mokoena — allegedly kidnapped, killed and burned by her boyfriend — who is turned into a symbol of a national crisis. Her case galvanises national shock and outrage, leading to the rehashing of the hashtag #MenAreTrash.

Police Minister Fikile Mbalula’s subsequent comments, lamenting her beauty as being somehow exceptional and therefore the crime of her murder being more abhorrent, are then framed as yet another manifestation of patriarchy, as performed by public officials.

There are also references to former minister Mduduzi Manana, whose assault case is explored visually more than it is verbally.

The persistent sexual harassment of women in professional spaces is highlighted quite starkly by various characters both in the talking circles and individually, as by feminist academic Srila Roy and actress Sibu Gcilitshana 

Overall, however, The People vs Patriarchy is an uneven film — one that fails to turn patriarchy into a truly South African discussion by throwing out regular cues that it sees the issue as only being relevant to black people.

The People vs Patriarchy will air on November 29 on MTV (DStv channel 130) at 9.15pm, during the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence global initiative

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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