Monday, August 15, 2011

Out in Africa film festival

Gay movie festival highlights gays’ struggles, writes Arja Salafranca

Getting Out, one of the documentaries being shown at the Out In Africa festival, is a probing, hard-hitting documentary which looks at the raw face of homophobia in Africa. Ranging in space from Uganda to London, to Cape Town, filmmakers Alexandra Chapman, Chris Dolan and Daniel Neumann follow the lives of a number of Africans who have been forced to flee their countries simply because they are gay. With anti-gay laws being promulgated in Uganda, and practised in Malawi and Zimbabwe, gay people in Africa sometimes find themselves being raped in an effort to “correct” their perceived deviance, arrested, ostracised by their own communities, and forced to flee for their lives.

The documentary follows the stories of Ugandan gays Florence, Val and John, as well as Zimbabwean Tatenda, a transgender seeking asylum in South Africa and sexual reassignment surgery. The stories are harrowing.

Tatenda finds herself forced to leave her home in Zimbabwe, with her mother being aware her daughter must leave and powerless to help. In South Africa, Tatenda is penniless and homeless for a large part. Some of the more shocking scenes include the long queues of refugees at Home Affairs – over 500 people queue all night, only a handful are dealt with in the morning. Some refugees queue for over a year before they are attended to – and think death by returning home might be the only solution.

Stories of the corrective rape are horrifying – as well as the insidious treatment by British authorities of the refugees, with some officials advising the gay refugees to return home and “live discreetly” in order to escape the wrath of their communities and government. Such statements are outrageous.

There are some happy conclusions, and work by tireless lawyers in order to secure citizenship for these gay refugees, but the suffering undergone is equally shocking to hear.

In 80 Days (80 Egunean) two septuagenarians meet after a lifetime apart and a marriage in between, to find that sometimes society’s expectations force you into a mould you may not have inhabited if you had been born in a different time. We’re in the Basque region of Spain and encounter Axun (played by Itziar Aizpuru) and Maite (Mariasun Pagoaga). Maite, feisty, youthful in spirit, and on the verge of retiring, is visiting her sick brother, while Axun is, paradoxically, visiting her daughter’s ex-husband who has been wounded in a car crash. The daughter lives in California.

Liberated, determined to enjoy life to the full, Maite lives alone in her flat, surrounded by memories. She’s made peace with her trajectory of her life – and yet, life isn’t over yet, an attitude she exudes through her playful demeanour. Axun lives a quiet, uneventful life with her husband of many years. The quiet boredom and conventionality of her life is tellingly captured in a few choice scenes – from attending church with women friends she has known for many years, to silent evenings at home, cooking for her husband, her telephone calls to her daughter a lifeline out of the quiet desperation of her everyday existence.

When Axun and Maite recognise each other as childhood friends, a touching, strong re-connection follows. Maite soon takes Axun out for the day to an island, memories are rekindled, a childhood attraction comes to the fore – but it’s more than Axun can take. Uncomfortable feelings have been stirred up, and Axun remains ill at ease with the notion of lesbianism. Still, the burgeoning relationship continues – and when Maite reaches out when Axun comes to supper, the resulting scenes are inevitable.

This extraordinary film by Spanish writers and directors Jon Garano and Jose Mari Goenaga moves slowly and quietly towards its conclusion, and is brave in its telling. We don’t often see older people on screen, playing out games of sexual desire, but the writers rip the lid off this taboo. A beautiful, meditative piece about the choices we make, and the choices foistered on us by our own acquiescence to society’s demands.

Meanwhile, a very different story of lesbian experience is encountered in the local documentary, Waited For, directed by Nerina Penzhorn.

Waited For takes a look at lesbian couples who have chosen to adopt children, interviews and scenes of family life are interspersed with the wait for a baby by trans-race couple Kelly and Leigh-Ann. We watch as they are interviewed by social workers, visited in their home, and drive with them as they shop for their eagerly-awaited child. It’s an agonising experience: waiting for the phone to ring, waiting to hear if they will become parents. As gay women they are at the bottom of the adoption hierarchy.

Other issues come to the fore in the home of New Zealander Pip and South African Lee as they debate the benefits of leaving this country to bring up their children in a place where one daughter has already experience racism from a white New Zealand child. Single mother Paula talks openly about being a recovering addict and lavishes love on her adopted son. An engaging positive portrait of gay adoption emerges in Waited For.

We Were Here travels back to the 1980s and is an absorbing, eye-opening look at the impact of Aids on gays and lesbians in San Francisco’s gay district, The Castro.

Interviews with those who were there are interwoven with archive footage. In the 1970s The Castro was the place to be for America’s gay community, a safe haven of acceptance as gay rights took off, and gays took their place in the sun. But by the end of that decade and the early years of the 80s, menace arrived in the form of a strange “gay disease” in which sufferers wasted away, deformed by Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions.

Five Castro residents who were there tell their stories – stories of watching loved ones fall ill and die, all helpless in the face of this plague. Eileen Glutzer, a lesbian nurse who helped to administer many of the Aids trial drugs, is the only woman to be interviewed. Others are HIV-positive artist Daniel Goldstein, who lost two lovers to Aids, and speaks movingly of these losses, gay flower seller Guy Clark, Paul Boneberg and Ed Wolf. Ordinary men and women who lived through an extraordinary time.

With the advent of antiretroviral medication and the public surge of support for Aids sufferers which is more prevalent today, it’s hard to recall a time when Aids sufferers were treated like lepers through sheer ignorance. There was literally no hope, just palliative care as one by one friends and lovers died, the plague decimating a significant proportion of San Francisco’s gay community.

*This is the second season of Out in Africa, showing in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Other documentaries being shown include Lauren Beukes’s Glitter Boys and Ganglands, a peek behind the drag curtain. Other feature films included are Children of God, directed by Kareem j Mortimer, set in the heart of the Christian Bahamas, while Man at Bath (Homme au bain) is described as no-holds barred French film by Christophe Honore. See for the full line-up.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, August 14 2011)


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