Artistic odes to the individual

So far, my 20s have been characterised by a need to hide my abundance of tears because I cannot show weakness. There is no room for vulnerability because, as a black woman, it is my duty to be militant. This is the gospel of the times, according to our saints: the wayfarers who forged the path I am attempting to walk.

But I am growing tired. So, I seek a reference to save me from growing weary of the militant veil I have adorned myself with. It is at this crucial point that filmmaker Katya Abedian enters my view and ministers a new message with her short film debut, Skin Diver.

For 15 minutes, I enter a dreamworld suburbia of soft pastels and quiet hues, an ode to the gentle-hearted beings who feel with a deep sincerity what the world has taught me to view as weakness.

In this suburbia, we meet Saffron, a wide-eyed girl who throughout the film seeks a way to be okay with not being like everyone else. Saffron has an insistent need to acknowledge her feelings in a world where vulnerability is not encouraged. So, when no one is looking, Saffron lets her tears embrace her face — an experience she secretly holds on to by bottling the droplets as proof that she feels.

[In Suburbia, Saffron played by Demi van der Westhuizen meets Tony Gum’s character Amanzi. Together the two do not follow the stream (Katya Abedian)]

Skin Diver is the fruit grown from a storytelling seed that was planted when Abedian was growing up in her Iranian family, where mornings were characterised by vivid stories around the kitchen table. “Storytelling is a part of my everyday culture. In South African communities, it is how we make sense of the world. But it was particularly after listening to stories from my Iranian family that I began having this strong sense that these are the kinds of experiences that should be shared,” Abedian tells the Mail & Guardian.

This seed was watered by her interest in film and the Bahá’í faith’s emphasis on serving humanity while encouraging diversity. “I definitely knew that that was what I was drawn to. But there were other parts of myself that I felt like I had also been given these capacities and I should somehow use them not just for myself but to serve,” she says.

So, after matriculating, she began filming Skin Diver in 2017, hoping to serve the message of individuality as an offering. “We have to do what we feel comfortable and excited by. We have to be able to respect each other and empower each other,” she insists.

The Bahá’í faith is centred on three core assertions collectively known as “the three onenesses”. They are unity of God, unity of religion and unity of humankind. For these assertions to be taught, followers of the faith believe that the all-powerful God reveals his message through divine messengers or educators — a role that the 19-year-old Abedian strives to serve within.

The Bahá’í writings teach that humanity is one and all people are equal before God, so everyone should work towards transcending the divide created by differences to celebrate and learn from diversity. This is central to Skin Diver on an individual level, in that we watch Saffron learn how to embrace the things that distinguish her from others without condemning them or herself.

“People can’t tell you; you have to figure it out yourself,” says Abedian. “You make meaning of it and then you know what you need to do with that experience. Not because someone told you and you believed them. I owe a lot of this to my parents. Often, parents don’t give children the room to make mistakes. That independent investigation of truth — that is really special.”

Like a lucid dream, Skin Diver sends a gentle message: because we are responsible for creating our own realities, no one should shame us for following an unpopular narrative. This message resonates with Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe’s new album, which was released last week. It depicts a world of surveillance and androids where people have lost their humanity and have become “flesh computers”. In this place, people such as those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, who exist outside the state’s chosen norms, are dubbed “dirty computers” and hunted down for noncompliance.

One such computer is Jane 57821. We watch as the memories that have shaped her into an individual, one who harmlessly lives on the outskirts of the state’s oppression, are erased in an attempt to make her fit in. Erasing memories removes her uniqueness.

Though the movie and the album resonate with one another, Skin Diver, unlike Dirty Computer, has an open ending that leaves haunting questions. Perhaps this unresolved plot is what led me to watch the film multiple times in order to understand and confront its themes?

Skin Diver comes at a time when many mainstream texts that encourage us to embrace our uniqueness promote an othering of those who are considered the norm. There is very little room for kindness and communion between opposing parties, and perhaps this is what makes Skin Diver a refreshing offering.

Skin Diver will be shown at Cape Town’s Labia Theatre on June 15 and at Johannesburg’s Bioscope on June 20

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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