|It was April of 1996 and I was celebrating my first birthday in Lesotho. Friends of mine had invited me out to a night of drinks, dinner and dancing. I had just turned 23 and had spent a grueling three months as a Peace Corps volunteer acclimating myself to my new community and my new title as teacher. Coping with the cultural and linguistic differences was difficult, but I was also undergoing an additional struggle that few in my community of volunteers would know about. It was even less likely and appropriate for me to discuss or identify my struggle to my friends and colleagues at Paray High School, where I had just been assigned to teach English for the next two years. |
One of the first things that we were told upon arriving in Lesotho is that the affectionate handholding and same-sex interaction that many of the people shared with one-another was not symptomatic of homosexuality. In what the training director must have assumed was a humorous story she recounted the tale of an American volunteer who got freaked out by what she thought was a lesbian come-on by one of her co-workers and ended up terminating her service early because of this. The training director then went on to assure us that “homosexuality does not exist in Lesotho….well maybe a little bit in Maseru but never in the rural areas where you will be working….so you don’t have to worry about the physical affection having any sexual meaning.” I did not know what was more shocking: the training directors capitulation to the crass homophobia of one of the American volunteers, or her assertion that there is no homosexuality in all of Lesotho, save of course for the decadent area of Westernization symbolized by Maseru. Of course I did not dismiss the value of the cultural information, clearly signs and signals of same-sex affection need to be interpreted differently in different environments, and it was important for the training director to make us aware of this fact. Nevertheless, her assertion about homosexuality in Lesotho mimics the myth that homosexuality does not exist in Africa. Her discourse meshes completely with Roscoe and Murray’s assertion that “the myth that homosexuality is absent or incidental in African societies is one of the oldest and most enduring.” (Roscoe and Murray, 1998:xi) Tomaselli builds on Barthes to remind us that “the function of myth is to distort, but not to make disappear. Myth transforms history into nature: dominant historical processes are made to appear ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’, even ‘God-given’. Myths do not provide explanations, but invest their expression with a statement of fact.” (Tomaselli, 1996: 70).
This mythic discourse functions politically to deny the basic human rights of citizens of African countries who claim gay and lesbian identity. In 1995 Mugabe railed against Gays and Lesbians and refused to allow GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe) to set up a stand at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. In a move that was roundly condemned by many human rights activists around the world, Mugabe began to denounce gays in lesbians in a series of speeches that became increasingly bizarre. Gays and lesbians were likened to animals (dogs and pigs to be exact) and the popular myth of homosexuality as Western import was invoked to substantiate the persecution of gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe (www.mask.org.za) . Nujoma of Namibia, Arap Moi of Kenya Museveni of Uganda, and Chiluba of Zambia were the next to jump on the bandwagon of condemning homosexuality publicly, calling for the arrest and persecution of all gays and lesbians. The myth of homosexuality as foreign and non-existent in some mythical African past was strangely combined with selected readings of Judeo-Christian dogma to suppress nascent gay and lesbian/human rights movements. Nujoma went as far as to declare that homosexuals in Namibia should face deportation. (www.mask.org.za) This rhetoric fits nicely with the notion of homosexuality as foreign contaminant that must be removed. In all these instances we were dealing with leaders who were manipulating the issue of homosexuality to support regimes which were increasingly autocratic. In the case of Arap Moi and Mugabe this was to support crumbling regimes that were increasingly unpopular and resting on the brink of collapse. For Nujoma, Chiluba, and Museveni, it was to amend constitutions that would allow them to continue in power far longer than they would otherwise be allowed to do so. Such political wranglings have resulted in increased persecution of gays and lesbians and have created a climate where the general respect for human rights, dissent, and opposition is circumscribed. As Ali Mazrui mused, if homosexuals did not exist Arap Moi and his cronies would invent them to serve their needs. (www.mask.org.za)
It was within this climate of myth making that I had to contend with my own sexuality, realizing that it would be unlikely for me to find anyone in my community who was also ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ and that I should prepare myself for two years of loneliness and solitude with respect to gay life. So one could imagine my surprise when I was confronted with someone who I knew must be gay. He walked into the club that night with a few friends both male and female. So I decided to make my move. Perhaps I was possessed by some sort of urgency to connect with anyone who might be slightly like me, but I introduced myself and asked about gay life in Lesotho. From that moment we had a nice conversation about gay life and I began to learn about the differences and similarities between what one might go through in Lesotho versus how these issues would play out in New York or San Francisco. Unfortunately we fell out of touch with one another, and I have no idea of what has become of him or his circle of friends in Lesotho. However, that night at the club showed me that many of my assumptions, as well as the assumptions of people like my training director concerning sexuality in Lesotho were outmoded and outdated. From a theoretical perspective contemporary feminism, gay and lesbian studies, and its more radical offshoot queer studies, was unprepared to deal with the experiences that I was confronted with as a young gay African-American male in rural Lesotho. What I was to discover over the next two years is that gay and lesbian identity was not confined to the ‘decadent’ space of Maseru and indeed did exist in rural areas as well. It is the formation and presentation of gay and lesbian identity both rural and urban through the prism of the film Dark and Lovely, Soft and Free that I will discuss in this paper.
PART I: REFLEXIVITY AND ETHNOGRAPHIC FILMMAKING
My aim with this paper is to discuss some of the issues of reflexivity, otherness, and representation as they are encountered in the film. However, I felt it was necessary to write myself into the narrative. My interest in the visualization of African homosexuality and how these representations affect the lives of those who take on these identities is neither academic nor happenstance. It is informed by my own personal experiences, living and teaching in rural areas both in Lesotho and South Africa and my own connections with the gay and lesbian community as it has been shaped and transformed in these same spaces.
The documentary film Dark and Lovely Soft and Free is an extraordinary look at a section of gay life that we often don’t get to see. Although it has been common in recent years to discuss the existence of gay black life in townships and in the cities of South Africa the situation of gays and lesbians who live in rural areas is often overlooked or forgotten. The cities, in particular Johannesburg, are seen as the gay utopia, providing the necessary freedom and space for gays and lesbians of all colors but particularly black gays and lesbians to articulate their identities.
The film attempts to counteract this by showing a group of black gay South African men who make their lives in the rural areas. The film is structured as a journey, a travelogue, where Zakhi, a young black gay man from Johannesburg, ponders about what life would be like if he were living in a rural area. What sort of options and possibilities would he have? In addition, the voice over for the film mentions that the film seeks to explore how gays in rural areas are responding to the new constitution that prevents discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. What we as viewers realize is that there is a network of “hairstyling queens” which is known by one contact in Johannesburg whom we get to meet first.
From this first contact the structure of the film evolves. We travel first within Guateng to meet Martin, who is a member of the Hope and Unity Community Church in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. While Zakhi gets his hair washed and his dreadlocks retwisted, Martin muses about living life openly as a gay man. He speaks about the advice he offers to his customers, both gay and straight, and sings a gospel song, to prove to substantiate Zakhi’s claim that he has the voice of an angel. Although it is not made entirely clear in the film, the voice-of-God narration from the director informs us that Martin has the contacts that will structure the journey. Therefore, Martin will give the names and numbers of the gay men in rural areas that form part of the network.
We are then taken into the rural areas at the outskirts of Gauteng, Mpumalanga, the Orange Free State, and the Eastern Cape. In each rural town, what we come to realize is that for rural gay men, the space of the hair salon (where several of them, but not all of them work) is an important social and community space. It not only exists as a source of gay community life, but it also represents an important space of connection and interaction with the larger community. The concept of the gay ghetto seems almost non-existent as this group of “hairstyling queens” seem firmly entrenched within the lives and lifestyles of their communities.
Peter is the first “hairstyling queen” that we meet. Zakhi repeats the ritual he followed in Johannesburg with Martin by asking Peter to do his hair. Afterwards, a few members of the community join them in a song, and then Peter has an opportunity to address the camera via an interview with Zakhi. Most interestingly, Peter expresses his preference for dating a “straight”, man a theme that will emerge as we continue to travel with Zakhi throughout rural South Africa. When pressed, Peter reveals that a straight man has the qualities that he wants particularly that of strength. He also reveals his love of the rural areas. After leaving Peter, the journey traces back slightly from Mpumalanga into a rural area of Gauteng. In this town, the person that they were supposed to interview does not want to participate, “for reasons only known to himself” as Zakhi informs us. Instead one of the members of the Gays and Lesbians of Rotunda Association (GLORA) speaks with Zakhi. In the on camera interview with Stephen, (One of the GLORA members) we learn of a member of GLORA who has just died from the “flu”. Then Stephen tells us about his adopted child (from his sister) and the respect that he is afforded in the rural community. He is adamant that the city life is not for him. Subsequently, Zakhi travels through a family of all “women” a group of four gay men who have made an alternative family for themselves in Mpumalanga, and a hairstyling queen from the Eastern Cape named S’thembele, who was able to acquire community and consciousness through the network. The film ends with a number of interviews in both the Orange Free State mining town of Virginia and S’thembele’s home town in the Eastern Cape.
What emerges as we travel through the film is an understanding that not only is the hair salon a place of community interaction and support for gay men in rural areas, but that the Church, and organized religion and spirituality play an extremely important role in the life of these men. Most belong to churches, and are very active in their church. In the case of one of the participants in the documentary he is the treasurer of his Zionist congregation. Musicality in the form of church choirs and singing forms an extremely important part of the life of gay men in rural areas. In addition the importance of beauty pageants and drag competitions, which function as community events, is highlighted in the film.
We are left with an understanding that although life in rural areas may be different for many of the black gay men who live there, they are surviving through the social networks that I have discussed above. The film succeeds at counteracting several myths that circulate about homosexuality in Africa. It suggests that in fact it does exist, even in fairly remote and rural areas. The film challenges the urban bias of cultural studies by highlighting the lives of those who exist outside these spaces. In addition, it challenges the myth that gay life in rural areas must be either non-existent or extremely closeted. What is visualized shows us that these men do not have gay bars, and other trappings of urban gay life, but that they are not lacking in agency. In several of the cases shown, men were members of an organization that they had started to provide the beginnings of social and community services for gays in their area as well as educate the local populace about gay issues.
Although laudable for these traits the film is not without its problems. What I would like to suggest is the way in which adding some self-reflexivity to the film may have helped the audience gain more from it, assuming that the film is intended to have some ethnographic meaning. In addition, I would like to also suggest and bring up difficult questions about how African homosexuality gets visualized particularly with respect to the South African case of how black homosexuality gets treated and the discourses that have already been shaped from outside. My contention is that while the film succeeds at commenting on homosexuality in Africa as it exists at this crucial political moment, it fails as an ethnographic film. My criticism is based on my belief that employing the theoretical concept of reflexivity to the documentary could have helped the film attain greater ethnographic presence.
The notion of reflexivity as discussed in work by Ruby, Tomaselli, and other film theorists draws heavily on Fabian’s distinctions between PRODUCER-PROCESS- PRODUCT. It is Ruby’s contention “that most filmmakers present us with the product and exclude the other two components.” (Ruby 1977:3) The revelation of the producer is thought to be rather self-indulgent, while revealing the process is considered “ugly and confusing to the audience.” (Ruby 1977:3) It is Ruby’s opinion that being reflexive is necessary in order to make a film that succeeds as ethnography and that the filmmaker has an ethical responsibility to reveal him or herself. However, simply revealing yourself and your relations with the people whom you are making the film about is not enough “being reflexive means that the producer deliberately and intentionally reveals to his audience the underlying epistemological assumptions which caused him to formulate a set of questions in a particular way, to seek answers to those questions in a particular way and finally to present his findings in a particular way.” (Ruby, 1977:4) Thus in the case of Dark and Lovely, Soft and Free the lack of reflexivity calls into question not only the ethnographic nature of the film, but also its ability to serve the function of queer theorizing. For in a truly self-reflexive film, not only would the relations between the filmmakers and the subject community be revealed, but also the epistemological framework (in this case queer/gender studies) that informs those relations. Thus “reflexivity is a way of encoding crew assumptions in a programme to alert both subject communities and audiences as to how meanings have been constructed.” (Tomaselli 1996: 214)
At the beginning of the film it is unclear exactly who the director(s) and makers of the film are. We know from the names on the cover of the videocassette that Zakhi is not one of the directors (or scriptwriters for that matter) of the film. The question then becomes, what is his use and purpose in the film? Zakhi is the narrator of the film, and it is he who is visible to us at all times. He seems to be the person who knows Martin, and this forms the basis of the contact that structures the journey that becomes the film. In each instance it is Zakhi who asks the questions and usually holds the microphone. We follow Zakhi into the khumbi’s as he goes on his journey, first to the East Rand, then to the outer reaches of Gauteng, Mpumalanga, the Free State and the Eastern Cape. It is entirely unclear to us whether Zakhi actually knows any of these guys before he interviews them. We know that Martin has given phone numbers/contact information to Zakhi, but it is unknown to us whether Zakhi contacted each of these people or whether the directors did. Zakhi’s use in the film therefore becomes somewhat problematic when we probe who was behind the film and why the film was made.
In an interview with the co-director Graeme Reid, I learned that the film was made to discuss the stereotype of the effeminate hairstyling queen. To posit the hair salon as a space of gay community that was not however separated into some ghettoized notion of gay identity that has become popular in the West, particularly the United States. This work grew out of Reid’s thesis work on the Hope and Unity Metropolitan Community Church in Johannesburg. This church functions as an important gathering place for many black gays and lesbians in the Gauteng area. His contacts came out of this work and he basically followed the information from his contacts. According to him, they went out on the trip without a camera first and had a number of interviews. What we as viewers see is the second trip, which was the trip that happened with the camera.
What then is disturbing about the use of Zakhi in the film is that it seems to function to give an air of legitimacy to the project. We as the viewers are fooled into thinking that Zakhi is the person who has structured the meaning of the film. He asks the questions, we follow him in the khumbi, and it appears that the film is perhaps coming from the perspective of a black gay man from Johannesburg who is questioning the possibilities of gay life for himself in rural spaces. However the voice over of the film, tells us otherwise. From time to time the voiceover comes in to tell us where our next stop will be on our journey. Usually this occurs while Zakhi is apparently traveling in the khumbi. We are then given a map during these times to trace our route. What is unclear is whether Zakhi himself structured any of the dialogue for the film. Since he does not get credit as a co-writer then I have to assume that the dialog for the questions he asked was written by one or the other co-directors. This may be a false assumption, and obviously only an interview with Zakhi himself would help uncover this, but then that would bring up the more problematic possibility that his work for the film went partially unacknowledged. The point that I am making is that it seems as if the filmmakers wanted to conceal their role in the film from the public. This is apparent in several instances, but the question becomes why?
It is unclear whether Zakhi was a part of the initial interviewing team that went out to contact these gay men. However, if he was not, what was the purpose of his insertion for the sake of the camera? It seems to me that the directors wanted to give the impression that Zakhi had more of a hand in the project than he did. Was this because they felt that Zakhi could elicit responses to their questions that they themselves would not be able to get? Was it more politically acceptable to have a black man in front of the camera, both for the marketability of the project as well as to satisfy donor demands for what is politically correct and acceptable? There are not necessarily any steadfast answers to these questions. In fact it may be as simple as they needed a third person to come along with them during the filming and it may have been more practical from a technical know-how standpoint to put Zakhi in front of the camera rather than one of them.
However when one watches a film like I am Clifford Abrahams, This is Grahamstown, one sees that it is possible even with a limited budget and a small film crew to expose the actual relations between the subjects of the films and the crew. This aspect of the filmmaking in Dark and Lovely Soft and Free is glaringly absent. We know nothing of the directors’ relationship with the people they are filming, and by placing Zakhi into the position of the narrator while concealing their own bodies (but curiously enough not their voices) from the frame, we are left with the assumption that this is a film which is coming from a black gay voice when in reality it is not and in fact the film reveals this in its Voice of God voice over. As Feldman reminds us in his critique of subject generated documentary, “ the best way to screw subjects may be to emphasize their participation in a project to the point where the complex interactions between maker and subject seem obvious, or worse yet, disappear.” (Feldman, 1997:23) Although I am not trying to suggest that the subjects got “screwed” in the case of Dark and Lovely Soft and Free, the position of the narrator Zakhi and his function in the film must be rigorously critiqued in the light of raucous debates about racism and cooptation within the gay community in South Africa.
As we move from journey to journey there are numerous pictures of Zakhi climbing into and getting out of khumbis. The question immediately comes to mind, did he actually ride these khumbis and if so was he accompanied by the film crew? If the film crew did not accompany him then what was the purpose of showing him riding the khumbi? Once again, I believe this was part of the artifice of the filmmaking. The filmmakers wanted to show how these hairstyling queens (or most black South Africans for that matter) travel from place to place. Travel to rural areas that are still relatively close to urban areas generally occurs through the long distance khumbi’s. However I seriously doubt a film crew lugging film equipment (no matter how lightweight and portable) would take a khumbi, and as the camera shows us someone had to be outside the khumbi while Zakhi was filmed getting in and out of it and the khumbi drove off. What is unclear was whether the film crew followed the khumbi routes or whether this was all for show, with the khumbi stopping to let Zakhi out down the road. My point is that the numerous shots of the narrator embarking and disembarking from khumbi’s is another piece to the puzzle of lending a false notion of realism and black gay (subject) participation in the film. As Trinh Minh-ha warns us “the emphasis is again laid on the power of the film to capture reality ‘out there’ for those of us ‘in here’. The moment of appropriation and consumption is simply ignored or carefully rendered invisible according to the rules of good and bad documentary.” (Minh-ha 1991:35)
My last point revolves around the use of language in the film. One of the first things that I noticed was that the performance for the camera began at the level of language. In all of my years living working with and socializing with black South Africans it is extremely rare for them to greet and begin discourse in English with one another. However this film shows numerous instances of Zakhi meeting and greeting the hairstyling queens in English. In this instance one has to assume that this is an obvious example of a performance for the camera that is neither acknowledged nor disentangled. As Tomaselli reminds us “People under observation often act and react for the camera rather than behaving as if it was not present.” (Tomaselli 1996: 197) Some of the interviews were not conducted in English. This is an obvious space where Zakhi may have been needed to translate and be an intermediary, however I would still contend that this should be exposed and not hidden. Therefore the white South African and or Brazilian co-director should have been in the frame with Zakhi as he translated so that we could see this level of production and meaning.
The use of subtitles itself becomes a contentious and point in the existence of documentary film. The filmmaker and critic Minh-ha suggests that subtitling is simply another way in which people of the “Third World” are othered. She decries the way in which subtitling has become mandatory by suggesting “there is a certain veneration for the real sound of the film and for the oral testimony of the people filmed. There is also a tendency to apprehend language exclusively as meaning. It has to MAKE SENSE. WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THEY THINK AND HOW THEY FEEL.” (Minh-ha, 1991:59) She goes on to state that this practice allows the Other to “paternalistically speak for themselves and since this proves insufficient in most cases…they must be made audible through dubbing/subtitling; transformed into English speaking elements and brought into conformity with a definite mentality. This is astutely called giving voice, literally meaning that those who are/need to be given an opportunity to speak up never had a voice before. Without their benefactors they are bound to remain non-admitted and non-incorporated and therefore unheard.” (Min-ha 1991: 60)
While I am not suggesting that the use of subtitles in this film, or the use of English by some of the subjects can be so easily reduced to paternalistic liberalism, what I would like to propose by remarking on Trinh’s quote is that there is sometimes power embedded in the untranslated emotion of the subject which is lost when the subtitles are placed onto the screen. I am reminded very specifically of Kat River and the performance of Peter Dragenhoeder. This scene was actually more powerful untranslated than translated. That the filmmaker chose to put in both versions gave the audience an appreciation for the raw emotion and energy of the moment. Although I am not trying to suggest that anything akin to Dragonhoeder’s lament exists in the space of Dark and Lovely Soft and Free, it might have been an interesting experiment to either expose the necessity of translation by first letting us hear the spoken emotion of the interviewees then later receive the translation so as to help us come to a fuller meaning of the visual text. When I spoke with the director he stated that although some of the subjects could barely speak English, they wanted to interview in English because it was more cosmopolitan and they wanted to be seen as educated and capable in the language. Although I do not dismiss this, I feel that this once again shows how the camera plays a role in what is said and how it is said. Therefore the camera and the presence of a white man and a foreigner has to mediate the interaction. As the film is currently conceptualized, “the relationship between mediator and medium or the mediating activity is… ignored- that is assumed to be transparent and as value free as insentient as an instrument of reproduction ought to be.” (Minh-ha, 1991:36)
My point with my critique of this film is to suggest that there are important ways in which the lack of self-reflexivity led to an unconscious othering on the part of the filmmakers. What happens in this instance is that the combination of language use, narrator voice and action create an impression that the subjects as black gay men are structuring the narrative of the film when in fact the exact opposite is happening. While this does not necessarily make the film a “bad” film, it does create the problem of investigating who is speaking and to whom do they speak? Ultimately my critique of the film rests on the fact that it hides and glosses over these important questions. There is nothing wrong with white gay men or Brazilian men making films about rural black South African gay men. However, when the processes through which the film is made and the relationships between the director and the subject is erased, we must then question the politics behind the images that we are presented.
PART II: THE PRAXIS OF QUEER THEORY IN DOCUMENTARY FILM
Although it is my desire to confine my analysis of this film to a discussion of issues of self-reflexivity and othering, I must also deal with the fact that the film was a gay film. It is marketed as such and according to the director he has no problem with the film being used ethnographically to show an aspect of gay life in South Africa. I have already discussed what some of the problems of using the film ethnographically might be, however I would like to move towards a brief analysis using queer theory to suggest how the film structures its meaning and how it might possibly be improved.
One of the most obvious things that we can see while we watch the film is the fact that most of the men shown in the film are effeminate, and fit the more stereotypical image of black gay men shown in popular media and television shows in South Africa. Their more masculine, “butch” partners do not appear in the film and most of them do not consider themselves gay. This model of homosexuality in queer studies has been labeled the transgendered model. As Peter Drucker explains, “ In many cultures same-sex sexualities are transgenderal. They involve assigning a gender identity to one sex partner, different from his or her biological sex, while the other partner is considered a “real” man or woman. Often in these cultures for example, a man who penetrates another man sexually is still considered a masculine man and may often be expected to marry a woman and have children.”(Drucker 2000: 11)
When I spoke to the film director he contrasted this type of sexual relationship and “gay” identity with a more “modern” one, suggesting that we might see more modern types of gay identities in other types of spaces. This meshes well with Donald Donham’s research on the modernization of gay identities in Soweto and to some extent on my own interest at studying newer forms of identity formation in urban spaces such as Durban rather than focusing on sexuality, as it existed in some mythical traditional culture or mine spaces. However Drucker cautions us against perceiving of these types of identities in a discourse drawn from development studies. ”The implication is that Third World lesbians and gays are simply latecomers, adopting identities wholesale that had already achieved their finished form in Western Europe and North America (and by extension white South Africa?). If they don’t quite fit in on Castro Street now, this logic suggests, they will sooner or later. Progress is inevitable.” (Drucker 2000: 13) In this way the film contributes to a discourse that imagines that this type of articulation of gay identity in Africa is pre-modern, and in a way echoes Fabians contention that “anthropology has been a science not of emergence but of disappearance.” (Fabian 1985 :19) Thus, what we are seemingly witnessing in the film is a negotiation of sexuality that has ‘disappeared’ from Western culture and is beginning to disappear under the creation of more ‘modern’ gay identities in African culture.
In this way the narrative that ostensibly escapes one type of stereotype then capitulates to another type of stereotype in that African sexuality is imagined as not being quite as developed as that of the industrialized West. Drucker suggests that the types of identities expressed in the film are not inherently ‘primitive’ or ‘backwards’ and that they won’t necessarily be shed to undertake new ‘modern’ definitions of gayness. Drucker borrows from the Marxist conceptualization of combined and uneven development to suggest the existence of combined and uneven social constructionism. This notion rejects the strict interpretation of the social constructionist school of queer studies that suggests that no same sex identities existed before the nineteenth century only same sex acts. As Drucker reminds us, this assertion “cannot withstand even a superficial examination of pre-colonial Asian or African cultures.” (Drucker 2000: 13) Under combined and uneven social constructionism within queer studies, what we can then see is that it will help us understand how different indigenous cultures with different types of same sex relations, different relationships to the world economy and different social and political contexts, can combine to produce very different results- “while still producing identifiable common elements of lesbian/gay identity in one country after another.” (Drucker 2000: 15)
Thus we can begin to see how at the level of narrative, the film in some ways perpetuates this notion of pre-modern African sexualities. Young men, take on gender identities that are feminine, and perform feminine tasks. In some senses, they even dress and live completely as women. Their boyfriends do not have gay identities. Traditional culture in the form of the gay sangoma (indigenous healer) is used to legitimize this rearticulation of gender identity, as the spirits of the female ancestors enter and compel one of the interviewers into becoming a traditional healer. In one case, the mother and boyfriend of one of the “queens” is interviewed to substantiate the notion that he was always and is considered a “she”. The mother laughs at the notion of receiving lobola, stating she would happily accept it, given that she hadn’t received any lobola for her two daughters. In this way we are made to see that the “queens’ are quite integrated into society and that even very foundational aspects of “traditional” culture such as lobola (brideprice) can be molded to fit into these new realities. While this is fascinating and poses challenges for queer studies the dangerous notion behind the visual narrative almost suggests that life in some ways is easier for the “queens” in rural areas than urban areas. The film leaves unexamined many of the problematic aspects of their existence, although it touches on them briefly with a discussion of one of the gay men dying of “flu”.
This discourse is reminiscent of Kendall’s (1998) piece on lesbian sexuality in Lesotho in which she concludes that gay and lesbian identities as developed in the West may not be so liberating after all. Therefore these ‘pre-modern’ (or are they post-modern because they refuse classification?) gay identities become seen in some idyllic fashion vis a vis Western queer discourse. However the question becomes in what ways do the relationships that these men have with their boyfriends replicate the most problematic aspects of heteronormativity? One of the ‘queens” who is a sangoma, talks about his jealous boyfriend who tries to control his movement and beats him often because he is jealous. The problematic of domestic abuse goes unexamined in the film. Furthermore many of my gay friends have to struggle with various aspects of their lives and identities. They often live double lives, as they cannot possibly inform their families of their sexual identities, and struggle with the pressure to bear children and get married. This notion is absent in the film which leads me to conclude is it because these queens take on this transgendered notion of gay identity that it is perhaps more acceptable and palatable to the larger community, than two men living together in which the transgendered model does not form the basis of the relationship? This is only speculative, but in the end the film seems to suggest that life is not so great in the rural areas after all. Zakhi, the narrator states that he needs to go back to Johannesburg now. This would suggest that there was definitely something about gay life’s options and possibilities in the rural areas that did not suit him, although the film does not really explore these tensions.
PART III: SHOULD WE BE MAKING FILMS AT ALL?
There are some theorists of visual anthropology who believe that the power relationships endemic in ethnographic film cannot ever be adequately destabilized, either through subject participation or reflexivity. According to theorists such as Faris the desire to make an anthropological/ethnographic film is always premised on the consumption of the Other. (Faris 1992: 172) This desire for consumption has the possibility in turning the representation into fetish. Admittedly, part of my reservation on viewing films on African homosexualit(ies) rests on just such a notion. The media scrutiny on exposing and finding indigenous African sexualities does seem to draw from a fascination that delves into the most prurient construction of racial and sexual otherness. As Faris reminds us oftentimes the arguments presented in visual anthropology “boil down to nothing more than arguments Westerners are having with each other - even if they are arguing about the Other.” (Faris, 1992: 178) According to Faris, the ethnographic subject is always object, always situated within Western discourse and the Western gaze that inevitably involves an act of aggression, regardless of our good intentions and regardless of who does the filming, as long as “we” are the viewers. (Faris, 1992: 172-173) Faris seems to conclude that the Western based anthropologist/filmmaker is not needed at all.
This pessimistic view of the possibility of visual anthropology is exactly one that I reject. Although I am concerned about the way in which fetishism, desire and voyeurism implicate us in the project of filming African homosexualities, I would not feel that it is impossible to make an ethnographic film that can actively construct subjects as subjects. I believe that reflexivity and subject participation are important steps in the right direction to ameliorating some of the problems of visualizing African homosexualities. However I am most concerned with the inclusion of epistemic influences into the film, as much as I am with crew-subject interactions. Why were you interested in making the film? What was it about the event or situation that you are filming that could not be communicated in another format? What theories and presuppositions were behind how you constructed the communities filmed? These are the important questions that should be exposed if the film wishes to adequately serve ethnographic purposes. In addition, I believe that Faris does not allow for the ways in which different communities may receive materials about themselves and others. Films will be read differently by different audiences and Faris’s model seems to disempower the audience, negating the possibility for alternative readings.
In conclusion, the film Dark and Lovely, Soft and Free is a breakthrough in gay and lesbian filmmaking and queer studies in South Africa. It offers a riveting portrait of a lifestyle that many would not have access or knowledge of otherwise. However, in its failure to reveal much of the artifice in making the film, it fails as an ethnographic study. We are left wondering what message was the film trying to get across? In showing that gays and lesbians do exist and live productive lives in rural areas the film succeeds as an important and necessary political counter to those who would deny their right to exist and function in society. But, it would have been more successful if it helped to interrogate the power relations between the filmmakers, the narrator and the subjects of the film. As Ruby reminds us, “Sooner of later the documentarian is going to have to face the possibility of assuming the socially diminished role of interpreter of the world and will no longer be regarded as an objective record of reality. If this is the case, then it is not difficult to see why these filmmakers are reluctant to explore the idea.” (Ruby 1977: 10) Although ceding this type of power is difficult, it is a necessary step to the true political empowerment of the communities which those who make documentary films which to serve, and unlike some of the more pessimistic theorists, I do feel that this is possible within the space of the film.
Drucker, Peter. Different Rainbows. Gay Men’s Press. (London, 2000)
Fabian, Johannes. “Culture, Time, and the Object of Anthropology.” Berkshire Review 20 (1985) 7-21
Faris, James. “Anthropological Transparency, Film Representation, and Politics.” in Film as Ethnography . eds. Peter Crawford and David Turton. Manchester University Press. (Manchester, 1992) pp. 171-182
Feldman, Seth. “Viewer, Viewing, Viewed: A Critique of Subject- Generated Documentary. Journal of The University Film Association. V34 N1 (Fall 1997) 23-36.
Kendall, “When a Woman Loves a Woman in Lesotho.” In Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities. Eds. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe. MacMillan Press Ltd. (London, 1998). 223-241.
Minh-ha, Trinh. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. Routledge (New York, 1991)
Murray Stephen O. and Roscoe Will eds. Boy Wives and Female Husbands : Studies in African Homosexualities. MacMillan Press Ltd. (London, 1998)
Interview with Reid, Graeme, 26/09/01, Witswatersrand Univerisity.
Ruby, Jay. “The Image Mirrored: Reflexivity and the Documentary Film.” Journal of the University Film Association. Vol XXIX No. 7 (1977) pp1-10.
Tomaselli, Keyan. Appropriating Images: The Semiotics of Visual Representation. Intervention Press. (Hojbjerg, 1996)
Dark and Lovely Soft and Free. Dirs. Alberton, Paolo, and Reid, Graeme, 2000. HIVOS VHS. 58min.
I am Clifford Abrahams, This is Grahamstown. Dir Hayman, Graham. Rhodes University, South Africa 70 mins.
Kat River- The End of Hope. Dir. Jeff Peires. Technical Director Keyan Tomaselli, ed. Graham Hayman. Produced for the 2nd Carnegie Conference into Poverty and Development.