Today marks the 19th Out in Africa film festival, a South-African Gay and Lesbian film festival launched to celebrate the inclusion of the clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the South African constitution.
Headlining the festival is triple Oscar nominee Albert Nobbs, a film about a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive in 19th century Ireland. Additionally, A Marine Story, an award-winning drama about the US military’s invidious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy told through the eyes of a white American female soldier, and Kyss Mig (Kiss Me), a lekker lesbofliek which was named Best Breakthrough Film by the American Film Institute last year, will make their African film festival debuts.
There is, obviously, no shortage of films about women in the festival — an achievement worthy of note given how often the LGBT community is depicted as male. Yet, within the context of Africa, the LGBT community is also frequently perceived (and depicted) as white and western. So, the question is: where are all the black South African films in this African LGBT festival?
Out in Africa — which runs from March 23rd to April 1st, 2012 — states that its mission is to address the lack of visibility of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex individuals (LGBTIs) in South African social and cultural life in order to counter negative images of LGBTIs that prevail in traditional and religious communities after decades of apartheid repression i.e. segregation by skin color. Given the historical context of their mission statement, it’s hard not to wonder about the lack of racial diversity in the feature films.
Out of 9 feature films, just one of them is based on a black South African narrative: The Secret, a film about a married man in denial about his sexuality. This feature film is being paired with Paving Forward, a 16-minute short about the evolution of gay rights through the eyes of a lesbian love story. The pickings are slim for black South Africans eager to see their experiences reflected on film, but to be fair, these selections are part of just the first installment of the festival’s three-part format.
Last year, rather than showcase new films in one long weekend (as is typical for many film festivals), Out in Africa implemented a new format of hosting three mini-festivals spread out over the course of the year in different parts of the country in order to optimize their outreach efforts (perhaps also to include more racial and class diversity?). The 2012 second edition is planned from 27 July-5 August, with the third edition scheduled for 17-28 October 2012. So there’s still a chance that future installments will showcase narratives from South Africa’s black community, which faces marginalization not just along the lines of sexual orientation and gender identity, but race and class as well.
The task of depicting LGBTI Africans in a manner that presents multiple and intersecting facets of their experiences is far from easy. But Out in Africa was the only LGBTI film festival shouldering this burden until Kenya made its debut with its OUT Film Festival in Nairobi last year. Originally meant to cater to just 60 people, the Kenyan festival ended up having to turn people away after over 200 people showed up, proving that there is a thirst for Africans (straight and LGBT alike) to see the lives of LGBT Africans reflected on screen.
However, film festivals can’t meet this need alone; the world needs more filmmakers to brave the relatively uncharted territory of producing films for and about LGBT Africa, a sure challenge given that many African countries have outlawed homosexuality, not just reinforcing the subject as taboo but threatening the lives of those who dare to even broach the subject with imprisonment and even the death penalty. Documentary films like Call Me Kuchu (about David Kato, the prominent Ugandan LGBT activist who was murdered last year), along with other South African films such as The Sisterhood (about transgender women farmers competing in a beauty pageant) and Waiting For (about white lesbian couples adopting black children) are rare gems simply for the fact that they give LGBT Africans — whose identities are too often silenced and erased — a chance to feel seen, a chance to feel hope.
From across the ocean in the US, a country with a deep-rooted history with racism and thus similar in context to South Africa, an African-American actress comments on the importance of seeing one’s identity reflected on screen:
The way I watch movies, I’m really searching for myself, because I don’t get to see enough of myself, and I don’t get to like myself enough…. But if I get to see myself on screen, then I know that I exist.
To follow, Africans — perhaps even the ones who claim that “homosexuality is unAfrican” — will know that LGBT Africans exist if they see their lives represented more frequently on screen. Thus, beyond empowerment for the individual, the potential for cultural shifts brought about by nuanced LGBT films makes pushing for greater inclusion of African and Diaspora LGBT films in film festivals absolutely critical, especially if they’re taking place in Africa.
Check out the Synopsis of The Secret and Paving Forward (the two black South African films featured):
The Secret (Imfhilo): The closet was never fashionable, but living the DL is super trendy. Down Low means living under the radar as a straight man having gay sex, or having two separate lives. In Fanney Tsimong’s soap opera-like story of a gay man’s affair with a closeted married man, it gets neatly transported across the Atlantic from the US into aspirant township life. Generations actor Sipho “C-ga” Masebe’s plays Mandla, openly gay, good looking and searching for love. He bumps into old college buddy Thoriso at a birthday party. Thoriso is married to the controlling Thuli, bent on nothing so much as getting ahead in the upwardly mobile world of the BEE nouveau riche. As Mandla chases Thoriso, worlds and assumptions are overturned and lives altered forever. The climax of the film is a credit to the writer – there’s no preachy quick-fix, rather a reality check of what’s really going on out there. Intriguing contemporary South African cinema. (Dir: Fanney Tsimong SA / 2011 / 45min)
Paving Forward: Mosiuoa Lekota is hardly the man you’d expect to be headlining Lembethe’s snapshot of where black gay rights are today. But, keeping it real is Nosipho Mahola with a tale of lesbian love that has torn her family apart. (Dir: Mthokozisi Lembethe SA / 2011 / 16min)
For more information about the Out in Africa film festival, visit www.oia.co.za.