“Two South African films Skoonheid and Inxeba, in spite of their diametrically opposed socio-racial contexts, broach violent and toxic queer masculinities. Framed against post-apartheid South Africa, the films present male protagonists who negotiate their sexuality in very conservative societies, Afrikaner in the case of Skoonheid and Xhosa in Inxeba,” said Gibson Ncube of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of Zimbabwe and STIAS Iso Lomso fellow.
Ncube presented a comparative analysis of the two films which will form part of a larger book project in which he will examine the ‘screening’ of queer bodies in Africa.
“I view the body as an accumulation of not only the physical and the material,” he said. “The body is a text embedded with codes and meanings.” The study will try to understand both the actual projection onto the screen as well as the selection issues inherent in the bodies projected.
“There exists solid scholarship on the centrality of screen media in documenting queer identities and practices. However, these studies have primarily aimed to make sense of queer subjectivities. This study sets out to go beyond the analysis of screen texts by focusing on the screened queer bodies as living texts that have the potential to articulate narratives normally sidelined by mainstream literary, artistic and media discourses.”
“The project will examine how queer African bodies projected on screen articulate the intersection between atypical temporalities, race, gender and sexuality,” he continued. “Screened queer bodies have the potential to reconstruct not just media and filmic forms but, more importantly, how non-normative sexualities and gender identities are constructed and come into discursive being.”
A violent society
South Africa offers a particularly fascinating setting because of its history.
“The violence of colonialisation and apartheid created a particular context for violence in South Africa,” said Ncube. “Whilst political violence that enflamed South Africa might have ended in 1994, the same cannot be said about interpersonal and gender-based violence. This violence transcends gender, race and class. There is almost a ritualisation of violence in post-apartheid South Africa.”
“There has also almost been a Hollywood-type glamorisation of such violence,” said Ncube. “To some extent, as feminist author and Dean of Research at University of Fort Hare,Pumla Dineo Gqola and others have pointed out, this violence has been depicted as natural and acceptable. As an example, imagery of the threat of underlying violence has even been used in Drink-Driving adverts like the hard-hitting Papa wag vir jou series screened by the South African national broadcaster.”
“My particular interest is in understanding whether violence by queer masculine bodies can be understood using the same vocabulary and grammar as that used to understand the violence of the so-called ‘normative’ bodies.”
“Although the two films studied depict diametrically opposite socio-economic situations they both encompass hetero-normative scripts of violence.”
Skoonheid – Beauty, which was released in 2011, received five Cannes nominations and won the Queer Palm Award. “It depicts hegemonic Afrikaner masculinity, patriarchy, the subordination of women, and characters dominated by outdated ideas of religion and nationalism,” said Ncube. “The protagonist, stripped of his previous power, is disillusioned and subject to internal conflict. He has a public image of heterosexuality while his homosexuality is acted out secretly and not recognised as part of his identity. His failure to reconcile these two worlds leads to outbursts of violence.”
“Inxeba – The Wound – made in 2017 – depicts different versions of masculinity through its male protagonists – hyper–virility, violence and sexual prowess, marginal and fragile masculinity with a fear of being outed and acceptance. The depiction of sexual acts focuses on power and domination, penile erections and penetrations, a phallocentric vision of sex.”
“l believe that the violent outbursts of the queer protagonists in both films point towards a poetics of violence embedded in internalised homophobia,” said Ncube.
“We need to ask why violence is a viable avenue to channel shame and homophobia,” he added.
Public reactions to the films also tell a lot about attitudes towards these issues.
Inxeba faced violent protests on its release which led to its rating being changed to X – equivalent to porn. “Ironically it was circulated at the same time as the second film in the 50 Shades series was showing,” said Ncube.
Ncube pointed out though that the public outcry was not about homosexuality but about the depiction of a traditional space which is usually only open to men. “Most of the demonstrations happened during the first screening,” he said. “So they were probably a reaction to the trailer. They mainly came from Xhosa men in the Eastern Cape who believed the traditional initiation ceremony should be protected.”
“Both films were well received by the gay community. They were seen as breaking the silence, challenging perceptions of queerness and showing that the struggles and violence faced by gay people are the same as for others. Inxeba, in particular, was praised for its daringness in approaching homosexuality in a traditional setting.”
“I think the films assist in deconstructing gender stereotypes and offer different but compelling ways of thinking about gender and identity.” These are among the issues which Ncube will unpack in much greater detail as the project progresses.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw