Road to Pride
A still from Lesedi Mogoatlhe and Inger Smith's Road to Pride.

Springtime means all things queer are top of the Johannesburg events menu. The first weekend of October saw gay pride marchers take on Zoo Lake and now it’s the cinephiles’ turn with the 17th Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

The festival, which opened on 14 October at Hyde Park Nu Metro and The Bioscope, has a formidable line-up of films, 24 international, seven South African (all new), and seven shorts. There are also several guest speakers and a healthy dollop of discussion panels. The festival is in Cape Town a week later and moves on to smaller towns like Ermelo, Kimberley, Mafikeng and East London later in the year.

Even more formidable than the line-up is festival director Nodi Murphy. She and her Out in Africa (OIA) team have worked tirelessly since 1994 through sponsorship thick and thin, without skipping a beat, to keep this celebration of gay identity alive, well and high-kicking.

It was controversial back in 1994 and, as Murphy recalls with characteristic Irish charm, “We decided we would never be in the closet. We worked with mainstream cinema from the start, because in 1994 we knew there was going to be a clause in the bill of rights enshrining sexual orientation.

“We have expanded and contracted over the years due to funding and other crises, but it’s kept going mainly because I’m unemployable!”

It is this reliability coupled with Murphy’s personal passion to keep it going that gay filmmakers have come to see it as an important platform for independent work. Thus far only a handful of South African features have been screened at the festival. But a host of documentaries and short films have been made, making it arguably the best and most unfailing local platform for work, gay or otherwise.

This is what attracted filmmakers Jacque Oldfield and Adelheid Reinecke. The duo submitted their film The Cutter for this year’s festival. For Oldfield, the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival "is the best way to get your film out there".

“I don’t see myself as a gay filmmaker first and foremost," she says. "But even as a just plain filmmaker, support [in South Africa] is not great, so this is a fantastic forum. We now try to make one film every year for the festival.” Last year she and Reinecke made Dykumentary, a mockumentary about lesbian stereotypes.

The Cutter is a deeply personal film where parallel worlds of fantasy and reality collide. It’s a tale of obsession, possession and control – or the lack thereof. “Cutting” is a film industry term used to mean film editing, but it’s also slang for the act of bodily self-mutilation.

So, as the fictional editor creates with an on-screen clinical precision, as a kind of coping mechanism, the object of her desire – the other “cutter” – is destroying perfection in the form of her own body, willingly. It’s a homage to both filmmaking and mania, with Oldfield and Reinecke both performing and filming each other.

Lesedi Mogoatlhe and Inger Smith are partners in creating Road to Pride. This topical documentary is about two young Cape Town lesbians who decide to take the slow road to attend Joburg Pride, Johannesburg’s annual gay pride event.

Their national road trip takes them through diverse landscapes to reveal authentic testimonies from a kaleidoscope of women. The film is a contemporary window on the thoughts of women, lesbians, bisexuals and straights, They talk about dating, marriage, having children, parenting, coming out, toys, men, sex and the spaces women make for themselves.

“We wanted to take the audience on a journey, literal and symbolic,” says Smith. “We explore the acceptance of sexuality and the culmination of this idea is pride ... being out there and proud of who you are.”

For Mogoatlhe, the film also about creating a voice for lesbians: “We have a really progressive constitution but are people really sharing the fruit? How do we express our multicultural identity within our sexuality?”

The range of people interviewed in Road to Pride is striking – from married women to parents to interracial couples and teenagers. This was a conscious decision. “We wanted to show how ordinary people are experiencing gayness in South Africa,” says Mogoatlhe.

Smith hopes the film will dignify pride, both as a concept and an event. “A lot of people, some gay but mostly straight ... think that pride as a thing where naked people run around going crazy,” she says. “It has a much deeper meaning, and we wanted to capture that.”

The spread on offer at the festival is diverse with a time-honoured mix of dramas, comedies, romance films, documentaries and art flicks. The other local films are Joan & Verne’s Wedding, Kind of Language, There Comes a Time, The Sisterhood, and Difficult Love.

And just in case you are wondering, there are films for boys too. More of them in fact. (Yes, identification and taste differ at a queer festival: girls go to girl films and boys go to boy films, mostly.) Murphy’s reason for staging more boy films is pragmatic. “We choose more films for boys because they come in bigger numbers and have more money,” she says. “It’s still a boy’s world, even for us lesbians.”

So what is the appetite for gay and lesbian films in 2010? If the mainstream shows gay films anyway (they were rare before 1994), why does Murphy think a festival is still relevant today?

“I am not so sure about the appetite right now,” she says. “I think there is an appetite for material all the time. The distributors show as much as they can in the commercial cinemas. But I would like to see a permanent [gay] cinema.

“A festival like this is hard on the pocket and hard on your social time. People miss good films because it’s just too much, too concentrated.” And as for the place of a permanent cinema in a world of specialist DVD stores, Amazon.com and impending uber-broadband, Murphy is strident: “I want a gathering! I want to see people in numbers, meeting up, socialising ... that’s also part of being queer, having a community and having it validated.”

The films for the festival are chosen on a basis of price and availability. We get to see a good crop, even if the majority are foreign.

“We are in contact with festivals around the world,” Murphy says. “We collect films through the year and review about 300 in the end, including unsolicited submissions. This year there is a huge variety. China, Australia, Peru, North America, France, Germany, England, Italy ...”

A few of the films over the years have been experimental. Murphy believes it is the birthright of any gay festival to stretch the imagination. But many are conventional, or just fun and silly, or “downright amusement.” You have to cater to taste. “South Africa missed out on a lot of growing up with regard to film appreciation,” she says. That was the unfortunate legacy of the cultural boycott.

The festival has had regular sponsors for some years now, including the British Council, the Goethe-Institut, the National Film and Video Foundation, the National Lottery, Avis and Atlantic Philanthropies.

But it is the surprise participation of the media heavyweight Avusa that sets a precedent this year. Avusa’s Nu Metro and Exclusive Books have always been supporters of the festival but this year the Sunday Times chipped in R250 000 for the pink film patsy in the form of 14 large newspaper ads. Now that’s formidable.

A novelty this year is the participation of The Bioscope. This new independent Joburg cinema is downtown east in the heart of an area of architectural and artistic regeneration and next to Arts on Main. So people in the south and east of the city now have a venue close to them while Hyde Park still caters for the northerners. Nu Metro is cool with that, says Murphy. So everyone is friends. And why not. Being queer, out and proud means being nice and being nice back. The year 1994 is indeed a long time ago.

The 17th South African Gay and Lesbian Film Festival runs in Johannesburg at Nu Metro Hyde Park and The Bioscope (286 Fox Street) from 14 to 30 October and in Cape Town at V&A Nu Metro from 21 October to 7 November 2010.

For more information, visit the Out in Africa website.