African filmmaking has been affected by histories of colonialism and imperialism, and in South Africa the effects of apartheid further complicate the politics of how people are represented in film. Over the last few decades, many African filmmakers have striven to reclaim agency through depictions of our own people and stories, and to gain liberation from limiting Western visions of African people by “speaking back” to condescending stereotypes.
One identity group that was completely erased from the South African public imagination for the greater part of the twentieth century is that of queer females – including lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. This is changing, specifically in the realm of South African documentary film.
There are links between different systems of oppression such as those based on gender, race, class and sexual orientation. These different aspects can be intricately connected in a person’s identity, to the point where it is counter-productive to consider one in isolation from the others. For instance, an unemployed black man may be oppressed because he does not have access to wealth or a role in the formal economy, as well as because of his race.
This awareness of the inter-connectedness of the elements of identity politics informs some recent documentary films depicting the experiences and concerns of black South African lesbians. They include Lovinsa Kavuma’s Rape for Who I Am (2006), Zanele Muholi and Peter Goldsmid’s Difficult Love (2011) and Breaking out of the Box (2011), directed by Zethu Matebeni and S’bu Kheswa.
South Africa has progressive laws regarding discrimination based on sexual orientation and it was the first African country to legalise same-sex marriage. Yet there has been a spate of so-called “corrective” rapes whereby women who identify as lesbian are brutalised in attempts to “punish” them for their identities or “cure” them of their sexual orientations. The people most affected by these acts of violence are black women living in townships, and the poverty that is rife in these communities aggravates their vulnerability. This is an aspect of gender-based violence that is rooted in patriarchal belief systems.
These films address this atrocious situation. Importantly, they highlight the fact that “corrective” rape is not only about sexual orientation, but also influenced by race, class, gender and culture. They also reveal the apparently increasingly common belief that homosexuality is somehow “un-African.” This is ironic, since the anti-gay laws in most African countries are remnants of colonial-era legal systems. Academics have discovered evidence of same-sex relationships and activities in various African cultures prior to colonial times. The films’ portray the diversity found within black South African lesbian communities, including lesbian sangomas.
The significance of these films is reinforced by the fact that they are predominantly made by female and/or queer directors, an under-represented group. They give voice to identity groups that are too often ignored and made invisible in local media and highlight the experiences of an under-represented portion of our society. More films are needed that empower local women to tell their own stories.