Out in Africaby Kavish Chetty / 18.10.2013
Out in Africa announces itself this year with a curious line-up. I shoulder through a fog of colliding colognes, and low-slung in this shadowy theatre, sit through a gracious rehearsal of thanks and acknowledgements. Next to us, someone’s arm candy, a rare black guy with two analogue watches hanging off his wrist, is already napping. Soli Philander has apparently forgotten that he’s delivering tonight’s keynote address – his amnesia is my mercy – but just as they surrender hope and cut the lights, he comes breathlessly bursting in to do two things: firstly, recite a joke which I swear I’ve encountered before in a well-thumbed Funny Money pamphlet; and secondly, read out a self-penned poem about the trials of alternative sexuality – only, he strangely mixes some of the bleakest thematics (rape, exclusion) with a kindergarten rhyme-scheme and the result is, perhaps, a little too glib. Tonight, we are promised three short films which thematise queerness (and its fraught terrains; and its comic possibility), all of South African origin.
Leaving the representation of marginalised sexualities to AFDA students/graduates, as the evening’s first two films amply demonstrate, results in aesthetic and intellectual disappointment. I’m unimpressed with myself for being so harsh, but this institution seems incapable of educating its aspirant film-makers into the traditions of subtlety; they favour instead narratives so obvious as to verge on the didactic. At this point, documentary seems the form best suited to these topics (corrective rape; masculinity and initiation/circumcision), because South African script-writers cannot be trusted to fictionalise these stories without exiling all discursive complexity from them. All three films also raise a crucial question: what is queer cinema, precisely? It doesn’t strike me as sufficient to merely have queer protagonists (queer characters should happily proliferate among all categories of cinema; their “queerness” alone is not cause enough to rename the genre). Instead, these films should elaborate queer issues – whether tragic or celebratory – as part of their primary drive.
The Brave Unseen is a brief thriller-romance about Grace Hope, a black lesbian cop working in a district unadorned by colonial wealth. Her department is dominated by homophobic males, and even as she walks to the office in the morning, she is hounded by insults (“dyke”, others). Grace develops an attraction to the white social worker, Emma, who’s hanging around the office trying source case files for rape victims, from an uncooperative gang of policemen. When Emma invites her around for pancakes one evening – pancakes after dark, with two empty wine glasses languishing on the table in sober melancholy? – they begin to find themselves in a romantic entanglement, one which curiously bridges class and race divides without much interrogation. Obviously, such Sapphic compatibility cannot come to pass unravaged, and a rape and murder provide the pivot for a straightforward “justice” narrative. As to the question of “corrective” rape, the act itself is overdetermined by a vengeance plot – and the film explores its themes (lesbian romance, atmospheres of homosexual hatred, rape and the difficulties of its prosecution) in an unadventurous, non-provocative manner. Its chief failing, other than its ambivalence to rouse difficult questions in interesting ways, is its less-than-assured dialogue, which sounds better suited to the page than dynamic performance.
Somagwaza is the second work – a rather shorter affair of about twelve minutes, which is about initiation-circumcision. This one is a bit more difficult to place as gay cinema, given that the queerness of its protagonist, Umkhonto, is almost arbitrary, and the kinds of personal conflicts it generates too neatly resolved. Two boys are sent into the lonely mountains of the Eastern Cape for their initiation, where they explore the question of masculinity – “what it means to be a man” – and whether this inheres in being bereft of foreskin (it doesn’t) or in breaking with the compacts of tradition to look after the well-being of others (closer). Umkhonto’s fellow initiate falls ill during the period of healing, which threatens a dangerous fate as a recent Mail & Guardian exposé makes clear, and he is tasked with trying to get the unfortunate guy to a hospital. The film is tonally dark, and its most enthralling moment is an eerie dream sequence. It asks some important questions about manhood and the ritual itself, but being an undergraduate research project, as its opening credits makes clear, it doesn’t do this in a particularly engaging or innovative manner.
The last film of the evening, and one far less sombre in tone, is White Lies – a barbershop comedy of ten-year vintage. This is, undoubtedly, the highlight of tonight’s trio, acted out with superb comic timing by its principal actors, Alan Committie (Roland) and Jason Ralph (Ryan). The pair run an ailing beauty salon next to Chef Pon’s, but after a few experiments in feng shui, business starts to pick up: only they have to deal with a fresh corpse in addition to a new deluge of customers. The film is funny, charming – a kooky detour into black comedy that triumphs because of the strengths of its dialogue and the charisma of its performers. It ends very quickly, however – and we are rushed outside to the canapés: fishcake and sliced roti with cold butternut – there is surely a sexual innuendo in here somewhere, but I’m far too unimaginative for the job. In closing: while the rest of the Out in Africa line-up seems enticing, and you are encouraged to check out the schedules online, the South African programme would be difficult to recommend in good faith.
The Out in Africa 2013 programme can be found here. The South African programme plays again on the 20th (Cape Town) and the 27th (Jo’burg)