Boys on the Side

African film festival features alternative sexual identities

Africa has been characterized as many things.  A land both ravaged and blessed by cultural diversity has featured head-to-toe looks ranging from the euphemistic “necklace”—a petrol-soaked car tire set ablaze around the necks of political dissidents—to what singer/songwriter Paul Simon described as “diamonds on the soles of her shoes.” In the face of the AIDS pandemic sweeping the continent of Africa, a new image is emerging.

Africa seen as a hustling trannie, face colored to perfection, romanced by men who would be described stateside as “on the down low”  is miles away from Karen Blixen, the author also known as Isak Dinesen, memorialized in the film “Out of Africa,” but the last ten years have been nothing if not a time of seismic change for this continent.  To keep pace with that change, the eleventh annual African Film Festival at Lincoln Center devotes an entire programming track—three docs and one short film—to what it calls the “experiences of sexual minorities in the African context.”

The look ahead begins with a meditation of what came before as Capetown filmmaker Jack Smith takes a documentary gaze back at legendary District Six trannie Kewpie Fritz.  While most queer American documentaries chronicle a post-Stonewall flowering, the story of Capetown’s District Six tells the opposite tale as its highly visible “moffie” life was nearly erased by South Africa’s apartheid government of the 1970s.  Kewpie—who organized the local gay community out of his hairdressing salon—served as a virtual mayor putting on everything from drag balls to cabarets.  Those events are remembered here in the first person as well as through a wealth of archival material.  The richest moments happen when the two occur simultaneously as Kewpie sits in a director’s chair wearing a bright fuchsia cardigan with swept up blonde hair while snapshots from the moffie era are blue-screened behind him.  When Kewpie has a “girl” in his chair and the two queens carry on, they impart the treasure of buried gay history just by getting hair done.

If you think it can’t get more romantic than that, just wait for the hot pink titles and documentary subjects popping up inside candy heart outlines in the opening credits of Philip Brooks and Laurent Bocahut’s “Woubi Cheri.”  So they get a bit schmaltzy here, but let’s cut the filmmaking team known as Dominant 7 a break.  Brooks passed of AIDS last year and Bocahut associate produced the Brazilian trannie biopic “Madame Satã.”  It could be said that both moved onto bigger and better things.  Still, their 1998 doc is not without its charm as it details the differences between woubi—“he who acts like a woman”—and yossi—“he who stays a boy”—as these gender pioneers search to self-determine their own rights on the Côte d’Ivoire where homosexuality is still largely taboo.  Interview subject Laurent details a childhood where all roads lead to being a mechanic at his family’s garage while he wants to be a beautician and still other subjects find themselves strolling hand in hand on the beach while fireworks explode in the night sky.  As interview subject Tauntie Barbara explains, woubi are like “bats” and the trees are “teeming” with them.

If Dominant 7 veers toward melodrama, then award-winning documentary maker Catherine Miller is ready, should HBO ever decide to take their “America Undercover” series international.  Here the maker of “Very Fast Guys” returns to Johannesburg to focus on men who have sex with men examining the hustling trade and its toll on five black South Africans.  If “Woubi Cheri” is fireworks on the beach, then “Four Rent Boys and a Sangoma” is street hussle to a house beat.  The gritty realism works when dealing with the rent boys, all of whom offer frank explanations of what they do to survive.  “I like men, money and booze,” says one, while another, who works as an undertaker during the day and offers sexual services on a sliding scale at night admits, “I have sex with men for money.”  One even addresses the worldwide phenomenon of the down low with his simple rhyme, “My name is Steve.  I give and don’t receive.”  What’s new to this type of film is the inclusion of the sangoma, or the traditional Zulu healer.  Here, Miller’s sangoma offers a unique glimpse into mystical African traditions in which spirit healers have sex with men often times forgoing condoms so as not to block what they regard as the healing masculine powers contained in ejaculate.

The final film in the series is a lovely, lyric break from all the raw realism.  Shot on film, this short picks up the hot doc trend of world religion and homosexuality and breaks it out into a narrative by Celine Gilbert called “Surrender.”  The film, set on the tranquil east coast of Zanzibar in a tiny fishing village, introduces Amri, a young Muslim man in conflict between his traditional family and their expectations and the mysterious pull he feels toward Mashua, a hunky local fisherman.  This film is as close as the “Sexual Minority” sidebar comes in Blixen territory.  While it not exactly “The Blue Lagoon,” this film contains at least the suggestions of the kind of hot man love that puts people into seats at the Quad, and manages to do so without either Amri or Mashua donning a wig or money changing hands.

While this festival may be preoccupied with transsexuals while glossing over the AIDS crisis that’s sweeping the continent, maybe a sidebar is not the place to deal with the global pandemic. Perhaps pushing it to the margins with sexual minorities is how it bloomed to global threat in the first place and the programmers of this festival should be applauded for taking off the blinders.  Whatever the case, the programming presents a unique challenge to our assumptions about what living a queer life might mean in a place as rich in tradition and as ravaged by hardship as Mother Africa.  One can hardly wait to see what she’ll be wearing next year.

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