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South African Queer Cinema Exposes Double Standards

Ten years after the first democratic elections, black South African queer film has come out of the closet.

The Suid-Afrikaanse Uitsaai Korporasie is the former public broadcasting corporation and used to be the domain of television evangelists. These days it is a regular broadcasting station that has practically shown each one of the fifteen gay film productions that were made in the meantime. Most films had their opening night during the Out in Africa film festival that was held for the eleventh time this year. Thanks to the Video Suitcase, put together by the festival organisers, these films also find their way to gay groups in the country side.

‘My Son the Bride’, is the name of the documentary about a gay wedding in KwaThema, a township near Johannesburg. Mpumi Njinge, a young film maker, completed the document shortly before he died of AIDS in 2002. Njinge's film recounts the story of a boy who fell for another boy. Mother angry, the church involved, a fight and a feud that lasts for years. But then something begins to dawn on those who don't understand, perhaps because Kgompie, the main character, announces that he wants to marry his lover. Just like a heterosexual couple, what could be more normal? Then we witness the wedding preparations, the negotiations about the lobola (the dowry), slaughtering a calf, picking the wedding dress. Happy newly weds, a mother who is ecstatic, an exuberant church choir. A happy ending against the background of the South African township landscape: matchbox houses, an iron-wire toy car, red sand.

Before 'My Son The Bride' Njinge produced his first film: ‘Everything must come to light’. He visits the sangomas in Soweto, female traditional healers, many of them lesbian. They recount the moment of their calling, their education to become a healer. They demonstrate throwing the bones and the wisdom they derive from that. During the course of the film, the spectator realises that it more a matter of choice rather than calling. Sangomas are respected and protected by the community. Lesbian women, however, are the subject of ridicule and agression. The Johannesburg website 'Behind the Mask', that follows developments in the field of gay sexuality in Africa, contains a series of heartbreaking witness statements by lesbians who were the victims of gang rape. ‘You lesbian? We are going to fix you’, say the offenders.

Behind South Africa's constitutional gay fairy tale – the country was the first in the world to include 'freedom of sexual orientation' in the constitution in 1996 – there is the harsh reality that is a lot less cheerful. The films sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Archives of South Africa (GALA) also give an account of that reality. Film makers Paolo Alberton and Graeme Reid, for example, take the audience on a tour of the gay hairdressers in the townships. The stories we hear are those of marginal existence and survival of a subculture that does not have a getto. That is actually the most mysterious aspect of these new gay films: there is a very fine line between being an outcast and being accepted. They even seem to be interchangeable every now and then. It is a reality that is often impossible to understand and can't be fitted in the neat frameworks that are typical of western gay life. Tradition and culture, therefore, play a crucial role in the quest of young, gay people for their own, African history.


Movie maker Mpumi Njinge
Still from My Son the Bride
More information:

BEHIND THE MASK: A website on gay and lesbian affairs in Africa

The Gay and Lesbian Archives of South Africa

Still from Everything must come to light