/ 25 May 2022

OPINION | How film can shape our understanding of African queer realities

Queer Community By Queer Community
(Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

Gender and sexual non-conformity remain unacceptable and criminalised in many countries in Africa. Waves of homophobia have swept across the continent. These waves of homophobia have been fanned by nationalists who have argued that queerness is foreign to the continent and that it is a Western imposition. 

The late former president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, for example, labelled gays and lesbians as worse than dogs and pigs. Former president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, went to the point of stating that one of the chief enemies of his government was homosexuality. 

Even in South Africa, which is lauded for its very progressive Constitution which offered protection to queer individuals, the words of politicians such as the former president Jacob Zuma have ensured that queer individuals continue to face diverse forms of violence and challenges that have an impact on the full enjoyment of their rights

What such criminalisation and demonisation of queerness has done is to ensure that queer individuals live their difference in private or in sub-communities and cultures. As we celebrate Africa Day on 25 May, we should also shine a light on the stigmatisation, discrimination and assault queer people in different parts of the continent face.

Queer themes are not new in African cultural productions. There has been, over the years, a growing body of literary and visual texts which have focused on queer lived experiences in Africa. These cultural productions have played an important role in making visible queer lived experiences. 

Although there is a longer history of African literary texts representing queerness, films give a more palpable visibility to the complexity and materiality of queer lived experiences. The impact of the visual is, of course, more profound compared to the written word. 

South Africa’s archive of films which have documented queer lived realities covers a longer period than others on the continent. Even before the advent of democracy, filmmakers in South Africa were producing films that broached non-normative sexualities. The end of apartheid in 1994 and the adoption of a constitution that openly defended the rights of sexual minorities saw an even greater proliferation of films that represented queer sexual and gender identities. 

Films by Franz Marx such as the 1975 film Seuns van die Wolke (Wing Commander) and the 1979 film 40 Days are among some of the pioneering films that attempted to depict non-conforming sexualities in apartheid South Africa. Although these films did not offer a positive representation of queer lived experiences, they were important in transgressing the prevailing sociocultural norms. 

Contemporary filmmaking from South Africa has been kaleidoscopic. Films have been in diverse languages. Inxeba/The Wound, which is largely in isiXhosa and directed by John Trengove, depicts queer experiences within the traditional ceremonies of rite of passage.

There has also been an almost deluge of films in Afrikaans. The most notable are Skoonheid and Moffie directed by Oliver Hermanus as well as Kanarie directed by Christiaan Olwagen. These recent films have foregrounded non-normative sexualities and provided a space for the representation of non-conforming gender and sexual identities in nuanced and diverse ways.

As seen with the case of Inxeba/The Wound, these films have also elicited strong reactions from viewers. This is significant in that it has allowed such films to insert themselves into the public sphere and incite necessary conversations on what it means not just to be queer in Africa, but also what it means to be human.

However, beyond South Africa’s large archive of queer-themed films, other parts of Africa have also seen a bourgeoning body of queer films. Nollywood, films produced in Nigeria, has in terms of quantity the greatest number of films which deal with queer themes.

Nollywood films continue to be characterised by moralistic tones, which are based on homophobic laws and religiosity that play out in Nigerian society. The 2016 film Hell and High Water is a classic example. This film shows how queer love between two men is rendered impossible by the combined effects of religion and cultural beliefs exerted by the families of the two men. The film suggests that queer sexuality is a “sinful lust”. 

In North Africa, filmmakers like Nadir Moknèche, Raja Amari, Nouri Bouzid, Nadia El Fani and, more recently Abdellah Taïa, have in their films dealt with queer sexualities in Arab-Muslim societies of this region of Africa which according to scholar Taiwo Osinubi has been perennially overlooked within African studies because of its linguistic, cultural, historical, and political differences from sub-Saharan Africa. 

Taïa’s 2014 film L’armée du salut (The Salvation Army) is emblematic of North African films. These films portray queer sexuality through a cinematographic technique of stripping down diegetic sound to its barest minimum. Such minimalist sound foregrounds the portrayal of queer protagonists as they explore their bodies and sexualities. What most of these films also have in common is the way in which queer sexuality occupies a peripheral position therein. 

East Africa has also produced some queer-themed films. The 2018 Kenyan film Rafiki directed by Wanuri Kahiu stands out in the region for its representation of a lesbian relationship. Although the film was banned in Kenya, it is not just important in East Africa but in Africa as a whole. This is because filmic production continues to be dominated by representations of male queerness. 

Scholars Ashley Currier and Thérèse Migraine George highlight that female same-sex sexualities in Africa reveal that these sexualities have “largely been shaped by silence and secrecy, oppression and repression”. 

Through its vibrant technique which the Kahiu terms afrobubblegum, Rafiki challenges the simplistic ways in which gender and sexual identities are considered in Africa. The film complicates what femininity and masculinity are perceived to be on the continent. 

These films from different parts of the continent create important inter-regional and intra-continental discussions of African queer lived experiences. They are fundamental in capturing the diverse and competing complexities and multiplicities of queer experiences in Africa. 

Films are part of the discursive interventions that allow for a revisioning and renegotiation of queer experiences in Africa. Read as a corpus, African queer films engage in what scholar Adriaan van Klinken terms “a queer pan-African discourse”. This discourse takes into cognisance the linguistic, cultural, religious, and historic diversities of the continent.

The queer pan-African discourse attempts to decentre the exceptionalism of South Africa by showing that films detailing African queer lived experiences have indeed developed beyond the hegemony of South Africa. A queer pan-African discourse undoubtedly shows that queerness exists in Africa and is also productive in making visible and legitimate these marginalised and invisibilised ways of being. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.