It’s a tragic state of affairs when there is only one South African film being screened at the Out In Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival this year (other than three shorts). Apart from the difficulty in finding funding for gay themed films, we also have almost no platform to express ourselves on local television: M-Net and e-tv would rather stay away from the potential controversy and the public broadcaster has buried its head in the sand despite the fact that it must by law reflect the diversity of the country.
The film in question is a one hour documentary titled Black Beaulahs (‘Beaulah’ means ‘beautiful man’ in South African gay slang – know as Gayla). It is a character study of three “gay” men who live in Soweto. There is Chix the bodybuilder, who might have sex with men but doesn’t identify as gay; DK the bubbly funeral director; and Somizi, the openly gay and well-known talk show host, choreographer and occasional drag artist.
The film is a rare thing indeed; a not-often-seen portrait of South African gay life, which may account for its success at film festivals around the world. Sadly, due to a contractual dispute between the production company and the SABC, which commissioned it, Black Beaulahs has been sitting on the shelf for close to a year. Its screenings at Out In Africa, will thus be the film’s local premiere.
The documentary brings with it the contentiousness of homosexuality and sexual identity within an African context. In this sense Black Beaulahs is a landmark project. I sat down with its director, Fanney Tsimong, who I got to know during the making of the film (I was one of its executive producers), to talk about the documentary and its subjects.
Tsimong worked as a dancer and choreographer for the late Brenda Fassie, Andile, Amu, Malaika and the late TK before embarking on directing film. He’s made a handful of short films and was series director of the 13-part talk show, Intimate Connecxionz (2005) – which was hosted by Black Beaulahs’ Somizi – for SABC2. In 2006 he was selected by the Mail and Guardian, Umsobomvu Youth Fund and British Council South Africa as “one of the 100 young South Africans you should know and take them for lunch.”
Where did the idea for Black Beaulahs come from?
I had the idea in 1999 – when I saw Somizi performing at Skyline in Hillbrow. He was doing Gigi [his drag persona]. At first it was only going to be about Somizi – and then I started to develop it. It just seemed like a nice idea to do a doccie about gay subculture in the townships.
What do you want to achieve with it?
Everything we see about gay life is white. My first gay movie that I ever saw, Get Real, had a white cast. I really wanted to show people that homosexuality exists in the black community. And that being gay is not about sex – it’s so much more than that. I’m one of those people who believe that black queer filmmakers must be stimulated. Especially lesbian stories – no-one is telling or documenting lesbian stories. Film and documentaries are a history – an archive of our lives.
Who do you want to see the film?
Homophobic people. Christians especially. A lot of people [in the townships] are curious about gay men. They have a lot of questions and misconceptions about gay people. For example, they think that all gay men are feminine…
How difficult was it to get funding?
Not very. I applied for a SABC brief. They didn’t take me at first because I was not a production company. So I was told to find a production partner, which ended up being Underdog [producers of numerous local gay-interest documentaries].
“There is not enough African gay content in the world. People want to know about gay black communities in Africa.”
What were the challenges in making the film?
Our subjects sometimes wouldn’t co-operate. We had to postpone shoots to accommodate them. To deal with the commissioning editors at the SABC was also a challenge. It was very difficult dealing with the approvals of the outlines and the edits. It was a learning curve. We ended up having a lot of commissioning editors [due to staff changes] and they all had their own ideas. Some input was constructive, but there was also a lot of negative criticism. It confuses you. You can end up losing your original vision.
Was it difficult to find black gay men who were willing to be in the film?
Not really. At first they [the three subjects] were all very excited. I think people just want to be famous. It’s only when we started filming them that we had problems. Chix was difficult. He was worried about family and friends. The camera changes everything. When you bring the crew in they suddenly get unsure. They were sometimes reluctant to express themselves on camera.
Was it difficult to negotiate how their sexuality would be represented on screen? I remember there were some issues with that…
There were boundaries. Somizi was open to everything but not about his sex life. Chix often contradicted himself; at times he’s gay, sometimes has sex with men and then he doesn’t. I was disappointed that they didn’t reveal so much about themselves – especially Somizi.
Were you upset with them?
I got upset with Somizi. He knows that. I told him. But he just laughed. I don’t think he takes me seriously. (Laughs)
Do you think that gay men – and black gay men specifically – have a responsibility to be role models?
They do. They shouldn’t hide themselves. I could not have achieved anything in my life without Somizi [as a role model]. He’s inspired me in many ways. We need people to look up to. We should be proud of them.
But you don’t like to identify yourself as gay? Isn’t that a contradiction?
No. I just don’t like to be put in a box. I have no problem telling people I sleep with men. I love men. But I don’t really feel comfortable calling myself gay or being in the gay world all the time.
What would you have done differently with the film?
I would have put in more sex scenes! (Laughs) I would have liked to have shown Somizi in his boudoir with his partner.
How do you feel about the fact that it’s not been seen in South Africa?
I’m upset. After four years and all the hard work to make it… and then it hasn’t been seen. It seems to have been a bit of a waste… There are conflicting stories about whether it will ever be shown on TV [in South Africa]. But it’s been shown in festivals in New York, Canada, London, Philadelphia… Even an Italian film festival in Hollywood, which is very bizarre…
How has it been received overseas?
Very well! There is not enough African gay content in the world. People want to know about gay black communities in Africa.
Have DK, Chic and Somizi seen the film yet?
DK loves it and Chix has seen it. He loves the title sequence because he’s naked in it. (Laughs) For him, the exposure is more important than being afraid that he’ll be outed. He loves fame. Somizi will only see it on the night [of its SA premiere at the festival]. He didn’t want to spoil the moment. They’re all coming to the screening…
Black Beaulahs will be screened at the OIA Film Festival in Joburg on Saturday 10 March at 9pm and Sunday 18 March at 6.45pm and in Cape Town on Tuesday 20 March at 6.45pm and Wednesday 28 March at 6.30pm. Visit the