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Queer visual activism in South Africa

“Strip me naked of my organization, strip me naked of my title as an activist. Strip me naked of my views and opinions--the ones I have come about on my own and the ones that have been imposed on me. Teach me everything that I have learned. Make me to unhear everything that I have heard, even when I was not listening.

What is left behind? I, me, myself, my body, my heart, my mind, my soul, the person, the personal. When I come forth and give myself to the cause, the struggle, the politics; it all starts with me. The personal is a political. My body is a battleground--my politics, my armor, my weapon, my words.

This reflection is excerpted from a short film, a visual essay, produced by young filmmaker and artist Sandisiwe Dlamini at a UN Women film festival.

Whereas most of the other filmmakers in the series chose to submit films about external events and people, Dlamini directed the lens inward. She produced an intimate sequence of black and white shots featuring her own face, hair, and other parts of her body, over a voiceover and the sound of a heartbeat. Dlamini photographed her own body with the same sense of urgency one might use to take stock of a contested landscape. In voiceover, she affirmed, “My body is a battleground”.

Sandisiwe comes from a lineage of Black queer South African artists such as Zanele Muholi and Beverlea Palesa Ditsi, who have documented the joy, pain, and beauty of their communities through (respectively) self-portraiture and autobiographical documentary film. In a national context where they face worrying trends like  femicides and the targeted rape of lesbians, self-exploration is tantamount to resistance.

Here, Sandisiwe describes her foray into visual activism, her aspirations, and ongoing book project.

AWID: Can you tell us more about your latest short film, “Hands Off” (which was screened at the last Commission of the Status of Women (CSW)? It seemed like one of the most up-close and personal of all the films. What led you to this approach?

Sandisiwe Dlamini: So far I have received positive feedback about my film. I was a bit nervous about it because it was experimental but I believe that it was received well.

The biggest challenge I faced when preparing my film was accessing other activists to interview. I was unable to interview the activist who had confirmed with me while I was in South Africa, as he had also confirmed with another filmmaker; he was not aware of the fact that me and another filmmaker had planned to interview him for the same project. I had difficulties getting other activists to interview, people had busy schedules and some were unreachable by email. Finally, on the day before submission, I managed to line up activists to interview. But I ended up not using that video and re-shooting because I was not happy with the audio quality.

But, as I said, I got positive feedback for my film and this encouraged and inspired me to do even even more. When it comes to my work, I have always taken the traditional educational approach, but after my film being viewed and the feedback I got, I was encouraged to use an artistic approach as a means of educating through my films. I thrive when I can advocate for human rights through film and the artistic approach proves to have greater impact on viewers.

AWID: You’ve worked as a videographer for Iranti-org, a media advocacy organisation that defends the rights of LGBTI Africans. Can you tell us about how your work there has enabled you to address these issues?

SD: Iranti-org has tremendously influenced my work. It has made me aware of so many challenges and issues faced by LGBTI Africans and because of this, the main focus of my writing is stories about being queer in South Africa, and although they are fictional, they are influenced by real life events.

My country is also facing a femicide; a large number of women have been raped and murdered since the beginning of this year and it is only getting worse. Every time a woman steps out of her home she faces the risk of being harassed, raped and murdered, and so I decided to turn the camera on myself, a black, queer, African female body, to say that this is beauty and has the right to live. Many young Queer South Africans are kicked out of home when they are outed as queer and this results in dropping out of school. The reason for this is mostly the fact that a large number South Africans are Christians and so homosexuality is associated with satanism.

Many rapes go unreported and the perpetrators unpunished because victims believe that not saying no is consenting.

AWID: How did you decide you wanted to tell these stories, and how does storytelling effect change in your context?

SD: I’ve always loved writing. As I child, I was a bookworm and wrote my own stories. Growing up, my love for writing also grew. In high school, I decided that I would love to turn my stories into film so I decided to study film.

Studying film was both an exciting and stressful experience. The challenges I faced were managing the workload as well as finding a way to pay my fees. We did 50% theory and 50% practicals, which meant that we were attending class, doing assignments, studying for tests, shooting, editing productions, all at the same time. It took me a while to juggle the load and finally find a way to manage my time.                                                                                                

I grew up a lot during the years I studied film, I learned how to stand on my own two feet, how to manage my time, prioritize and I learned the importance of interacting with people. I was an introvert and people made me feel awkward, while filmmaking consists of teamwork, and it taught me that I can’t and don’t have to do everything on my own. I got to work with amazing classmates as we were each other’s crew during production. I got to learn different styles of storytelling from working with different people on their films. The experience was amazing.

After graduating and interning I ended up working for a human rights organization and even though it is not my stories that are being told, I love the fact that I tell stories that create visibility and awareness for issues faced by the LGBTI community. Giving visibility to issues faced by LGBTQI people influences change.

I live in a country where homophobia is a big issue, the stories we produce are mostly in response to these hate crimes. Because I work with this on a daily basis, I feel the need to discuss these issues through my films.

As I am still very new to this industry, I have not yet had the opportunity to collaborate with other artists. However, I do plan to and look forward to working with artists from various walks of life.

For example, I look up to Beverlea Palesa Ditsi, a South African filmmaker and human rights advocate. She has been in the advocacy movement for over 20 years, and although she started her activism during a time where there was no space for it, she found a way and persevered, without letting the challenges she faced discourage her. After all these years and all that she has been through, she still pushes forward and fights for change. I find that to be motivating.