‘Out in Africa’ Film Festival - LGBTIs in a newly founded African democracy

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Out In Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival is running in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa until 30 October 2011. Kevin Kriedemann caught up with festival director Nodi Murphy to chat about running a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex film festival in a continent where being queer is illegal in the majority of countries.

Out In Africa (http://www.oia.co.za/) is now in its 18th year, making it the same age as South Africa’s democracy. Nodi started the festival with Jack Lewis and Theresa Raizenberg after an enthusiastic response to a gay film she’d helped screen while working on The Cape Town International Film Festival. “The cinemas were heaving,” she remembers. “So I realised that there was a marketplace.”

She was right: Out In Africa sold 18,500 tickets in 1994. “Film is the most powerful communication tool, so it was important for all of us to see ourselves affirmed on screens for the first time.  That was true for 23 million black South Africans but also for a million queers,” Nodi says. “I don’t see gay and lesbian films as a tool to help straight people understand us; I see them as a tool to assist gays and lesbians to come out, to love themselves, and to be amused and affirmed by seeing themselves on screen.”

17 years later, does South Africa still need a gay and lesbian film festival? “Although the majority of South Africans still don’t have the internet, these days its easier to access gay and lesbian books, newspapers, websites and DVDs,” says Nodi. “It’s now more about creating a critical mass in safe public spaces. The fest is a peaceful gathering of gays and lesbians, not a protest, but it speaks volumes. We’re less likely to be abused when we come out in force in these sorts of public spaces.”

Her concern with abuse is real: stories of corrective rape remain fair too common within South Africa. Nodi says hearing about people coming-out during the festival makes all the stress and hard work worthwhile. “I meet people who’re already in their 30s, but who’ve only just managed to come out after circling the fest for three years or so or before they get the courage to walk in the doors,” she says. “You can see the obvious peace the festival has given people – they now know they are not alone.”

One of the highlights of August’s Out In Africa festival was Getting Out, a documentary by Alexandra Chapman, Chris Dolan and Daniel Neumann about gay Africans seeking asylum because of the persecution they’ve experienced. “We are sooo lucky to live in South Africa,” says Nodi, who adds that Out In Africa has worked across the continent. “We assisted Namibia to have a couple of film fests and we send our DVDs to Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia, as well as a lot of countries where we have to quietly slip over the border and work surreptitiously because it’s legally punishable.”

She’s happy that Out In Africa Is no longer the only gay and lesbian film festival in Africa, with Kenya’s Out Film Festival taking place for the first time this year and another queer film festival planned for Durban later in 2011. “We need a new generation of activists,” she says.

She says that there’s more of a familiarity with gay and lesbian characters on mainstream screens, thanks to shows like Will & Grace and Brothers and Sisters, as well as films like In and Out, Brokeback Mountain, and The Kids Are Alright.

“Everyone thought those were major breakthroughs,” says Nodi. “They showed that big Hollywood stars are not going to lose their careers if they take a gay role. But for lesser Hollywood stars that’s still a difficult thing.”

She believes it’s easier for people to accept homosexuality on screen than in real life. “When people watch gay and lesbian characters on screen, it’s fine because it’s out there. But when it’s your family, it’s a problem. Even if your parents don’t hate you, they’re certainly going to be concerned that other people will hurt and hate you, so there’s always an anxiety around homosexuality.”

While she says gays and especially lesbians have been flavour of the month on screen recently, she warns, “We go in and out of favour. The truth is we are at least 10% of the population anywhere in the world. I would say we are a little more than that – even 35% - because there are another 25% who are hiding away, but I might be upping it too much. So we can only reasonably expect that 25% of our stories would deal with homosexuality and that if a film or TV series has 25 main characters, one would be queer.”

World cinema, and especially African cinema, is a long way from that 25% ratio and Nodi believes there are problems even when homosexuality is addressed. “How many of the gay and lesbian characters are interesting, or are they just relegated to being limp-wristed, listening hairdressers?”

South Africa has submitted Oliver Hermanus’ Skoonheid for the Foreign Film Oscar, but Nodi doesn’t believe this is a sign that the country has embraced queer cinema.

“It’s very brave of South Africa to make that choice and hats off to Oliver, but the film community is always different,” she says. “It’s interesting that so many people have remarked that the film is less about homosexuality and more about the white Afrikaner male psyche. Skoonheid is still a hard sell – happy works better than tortured - and being submitted by South Africa doesn’t mean that it’s going to be seen in Africa or even here.”

Out In Africa regularly holds filmmaking workshops, like on Thursday, 27 October 2011, when Africa-American director Dee Rees will talk at Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking about her debut feature, Pariah, which won Best Cinematography at Sundance this year and is screening at Out In Africa.

But Nodi doesn’t expect a rush of African gay and lesbian films.
“The problem is always the marketplace,” she says. “If you push it out as queer, you will only get queers and the few straights who want to see good cinema. Documentaries seem easier to fund and distribute, but features are hard. I find that the films that make people laugh at themselves and their fears generally work best.”

This year, for the first time, Out In Africa split into three editions. “Film festivals are declining everywhere,” Nodi admits. “It’s slow and certain and incremental. The same is certainly true for gay and lesbian film festivals.”

The other challenge is the increased accessibility of content and the shorter windows between multi-platform releases. “If we do one festival a year, by the time it ends, the next three big gay films will come out and they’ll be gone by the time the next festival arrives. Queers aren’t going to wait a year – they’ll get it through Amazon, Kalahari, or Pirate Bay. We must meet that need.”

With the third and final edition currently underway, it seems the experiment has worked. “It’s a lot easier to choose ten films and create a ten page booklet,” Nodi says. “And if we maintain the same figures – around 3 600 per edition – we’ll be up on last year.”

Interested filmmakers can visit www.oia.co.za for submission details. Out in Africa is made possible by Atlantic Philanthropies, The National Lottery, The National Film and Video Foundation, The Times, Cape Film Commission, The US Embassy, Rutland Lodge, Graton Guest House and 6 Spin Street.