'While You Weren't Looking'

A scene from the film ‘While You Weren’t Looking’

How progressive is South Africa about LGBTQI+ on screen?

As the Pride Month of June draw to an end, let’s look at South Africa’s film and television industry and how it portrays LGBTQI+ characters.

'While You Weren't Looking'

A scene from the film ‘While You Weren’t Looking’

Are queer bodies safe in this country?  Just how progressive is South Africa when it comes to a safe and free society for all?

The recent death of South African dancer and choreographer Kirvan Fortuin caused a massive spark in the LGBTQI+ community.

With Pride Month about to end, it may be time also to look at other aspects of the LGBTQI+ community, such as how television and film in South Africa reflect it.

Certainly, the representation of LGBTQI+ characters on South African television has changed from outdated stereotypes. In the past, television would portray gay men as overly feminine and lesbian woman as overly masculine.

In 2006, South Africa became the only country in Africa to legalise gay marriage and the fifth country in the world.

Discrimination against LGBTQI+ community

This opened doors for many young queer people to live out loud and proud.  However, LGBTQI+ youth are still killed or harassed purely because of their sexual orientation or gender identification.

South Africa is an overtly traditional and cultural country, with a large set of rules and morals that come along with them.

The release of the 2017 film Inxeba, for example, caused a furore among certain sectors of isiXhosa communities in the Eastern Cape.

Their complaint was that the film, directed by John Trengrove, revealed various initiation secrets. Some viewers were shocked that the film portrayed a homosexual relationship between one of the boys being initiated and their leader.

The addition of male gay characters to films or television sometimes also seems as if they are added for comic relief. However, this becomes problematic when a character’s sexuality is touched on only for humour.

In some circumstances, straight actors portray queer characters.

Queer representation on television

BET’s first locally produced comedy sitcom, Black Tax, starring Jo-Anne Reyneke, featured comedian Jason Goliath who played Jo-Anne’s “gay best friend”.

Jason Goliath in 'Black Tax'
Jason Goliath in ‘Black Tax’.

This could have been an opportunity to hire a queer person to play the queer role in the show. The way the character was written may therefore show holes in the show’s writing and casting departments.

A second example would be Moshe Ndiki’s role on Mzansi Magic’s The Queen two years ago. Ndiki played the role of a gay man on the show and mentions that the role was not easy to play. This is because although he is a queer man, he does not have the same personality or other traits as his character.

Moshe’s character is significant because of the way his character was dressed, with the wardrobe department often putting him in scarves that exaggerated his queerness.  

Moshe Ndiki, left, in 'The Queen'
Moshe Ndiki, left, in ‘The Queen’.

Queer representation in South African film

Oliver Hermanus’ latest film, Moffie, focuses on a young closeted gay man who serves in the South African military and develops a relationship with another recruit. This puts them both in danger.

Hermanus said the film had an overwhelming range of reactions — some men felt recognised and others felt traumatised.

According to the director, some experiences depicted in the film are common, but have not necessarily been addressed in South African culture.

While You Weren’t Looking, directed by Catherine Stewart, focuses on a lesbian couple whose daughter falls for a lesbian girl from Khayelitsha.

Although the film focuses mostly on the family’s life, the scenes featuring Shado (Thishiwe Ziqubu) are significant in unpacking the safety of queer people in South Africa.

Shado walks around the township passing as a man to protect herself from being attacked. Towards the end of the film, the men who break into her house, want to rape her because they realise she is a cis-gendered woman.

It seems as if the LGBTQI+  representation still has a way to go. Of course, there are plenty of other television series to mention, but some have more impact than others.