In support of Xolelwa ‘Ollie’ Nhlabatsi stunning short film, Lost In The World (2016) and Cathrine Stewart’s captivating film Whilst You Were Not Looking (2015), this essay aims to promote the interests and concerns of the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) community.
Snapshot from The World Unseen (2007), directed by Shamin Sarif, is regarded as one of the gems in South African queer cinema.
South African cinema is one of the oldest in the world but fails to expand because of the lack of superstructure needed and the lack of an artistic portrayal of a South Africa, if there is one (Maingard, 2007). Maingard suggests that Apartheid causes the subject of many South African films to perpetuate thematics of segregation, particularly emphasizing repressed male sexuality, effemination and male domination. As a result, the male protagonist in South African film plays a dominant figure in political liberation (Mapantsula, 1987) and economic emancipation (Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema, 2008). The role of the woman in South African film is silenced if not ignored or utmost ghostly. The image of the lesbian woman is, in a way, a haunting demon that needs a deadly vanquish.
Queer cinema is a term used to describe an alternative genre that consists of sexual expression and celebration of homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality and intersexuality (Doty, 2000). Lesbian women are less represented in films generally and as a result, they have to ‘watch for the sake of watching’ and have to change clothes, like a transvestite at the cinema as a result (Wilton, 2000).
In South Africa, there is an alarming rate of lesbian women who are being violated for being proud of their sexual orientations in townships and villages (Contemporary Sexuality, 2011). It is men who rape lesbians and this is called ”corrective rape”, as the rapists inculcate an erroneous assertion that raping them would ”correct” their homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation. Lesbian characters in South African film are far less when compared to gay characters, as noted above the lesbian character as well is silenced (Botha, 2014).
One of the theories in feminist film psychoanalysis is the Name of the Father and the Law, a theory that metaphorises the symbolic male body and its Order, that implies that women are and should be controlled by men by completely being submissive (Mulvey, 2000). Mulvey suggests that Hollywood’s (alluding to mainstream films and pop culture) capitalist thematics perpetuate the Name of the Father and the Law: the fact that few women are portrayed as bosses in films and that they are shown as showgirls only. This paper acknowledges the historic misrepresentation of heterosexual women in film is parallel to the silenced lesbian character, since they both have to obey The Father.
In this essay, I will discuss the representation of lesbians in a South African film The World Unseen (2007) (part A) in relation to the feminist film theory of Rule of Father and the Law (part B). I will also contemplate on the need for various representations of lesbian characters in future in the depth of my findings, since the lesbian is silenced and haunted, much like a ghost: being absent on-screen but there off-screen.
Film poster for The World Unseen (2007) showing Sheetal Sheth as Amina (Left) and Lisa Ray (Right) as Miriam.
1. Psychoanalysis of the lesbian feminist film
The lesbian spectator as indicated, has to wear several outfits to relate to all the characters since her sexuality is unusual if not allowed (Wilton, 2000):
Issues of identification and spectatorship remain moot within and between competing theories of film and audience, and are of course especially problematic for a lesbian viewer, for only a tiny proportion of films construct a lesbian viewing position or enable lesbians to enjoy uncomplicated identification with either onscreen character or voyeuristic camera. Indeed, if Laura Mulvey is to be believed, it is impossible for any woman to get pleasure from a mainstream narrative film without temporarily unsexing herself in order to carry out what is understood to be an intrinsically male set of behaviours, a la Lady Macbeth (Mulvey 1981).
2. Psychoanalysis of the post-feminist lesbian film
The expression ”post-feminism” focuses on the assumed second phase of feminism which is characterised by women’s collective movements through the 1960s to 2000s, 2000s marking ”post-feminism” (Brunson, 2000):
The key story in this popular story is that the post-feminist woman has a different relation to femininity than either the pre-feminist or the feminist woman. As a persona in the public sphere, the post-feminist woman is also not necessarily ”white”, which I think is the case historically, with the persona ”1970s feminist” which of course is not to say that white women are or were feminists.
1. Qualitative research method
The methodology for this paper is a qualitative method particularly focusing on in depth interviews with subjects and also an interpretation of the psychoanalysis of the film The World Unseen (2007) because (Shrum and Duque, 2014): Film and video are used in qualitative research as data collection tools, as sources of information and dialogue between researchers and participants, and as mechanisms for disseminating research results. The 20th century was the century of film; the 21st is the century of digital video. The 20th saw major innovations in recording and film-making, many applicable to ethnography. But owing to characteristics of the technology itself, visual approaches never became a prominent feature of qualitative research. A methodology may be viewed as the application of a technology to some feature of the world, producing the traces that serve as a basis for analysis. Current video technology offers a spectacular methodological promise, making it the first choice for ethnographers of the future. Video is a more robust and transparent data collection technology. As a reflexive prompt, it can help individuals or groups provide richer data.
2. Subjects: My subjects are three lesbian women which I have conducted one-on-one in depth interviews with. Two of them are studying at CPUT in the faculty of business and one is a filmmaker. I also used film characters Amina, Omar and Miriam (from the film The World Unseen (2007) as subjects.
1. Representation of women in a pre-feminist era lesbian film, The World Unseen (2007)
The film is set in 1952 in Cape Town, where Apartheid’s oppressive laws prevail. The story is about two women, Miriam and Amina from traditional backgrounds who fall in love regardless of the demeaning norms they have to conform to, to be socially accepted. Miriam (played by Lisa Ray), a housewife accustomed to her duties of taking care of the household business and the children, shows her commitment to the Name of the Father and the Law:
1.1. In a scene where Miriam tells Amina (played by Sheetal Sheth) about her life story, the camera is still and framed in a medium shot. Miriam speaks softly in a sombre tone and looks down on the table as she reveals to Amina that she landed in South Africa from India because of the arranged marriage. Miriam’s life as a result, has become monotonous: forever bowing to her husband, Omar (played by Parvin Dabas) and his orders.
Snapshot from The World Unseen
1.2. The scene where the film climaxes also reveals the popular castration of the Father (Omar) by the follower (Miriam). In a candlelit dining room, Miriam rebukes Omar that it is her right to learn how to drive to go to work. Omar is terrified by her confidence and as a result, stands up from the dinner table and marches angrily to flip the counter to the ground. Omar’s aggression symbolises the agony of being castrated, this implies that he has lost his power and control over Miriam and that she is not his object anymore (Mulvey 2000; Doane 2000; Brunston 2000; Doty 2000; Clover 2000). Omar yells to Miriam: ”You will not be my wife at work!” Miriam replies, ”But I will work and take care of the children and the shop.” Omar loses his temper again, ”I don’t like it. If I don’t like it, that should be enough.” Miriam answers boldly ”It is not enough. It has never been. I just didn’t know what to tell you until now.”
Snapshot from The World Unseen showing Parvin Dabas (Left) as Omar (Miriam’s husband) and Lisa Ray (Right) as Miriam.
2. Representation of lesbians in ”post-feminist” era films
2.1 The interviews revealed that Rule of the Father and the Law still dominates in South Africa’s films and television series at the moment. This implies that the Law has not been demolished and the lesbian character is still silenced and at the same time ghostly – parallel to the frame of the post-feminist heterosexual woman trapped in the ”pretty woman” image. One of the lesbian women mentions: ”…Everyone on TV is straight, there are few if not no lesbians on TV.” This remark recalls that parallel between lesbian women and heterosexual women – that women are being indoctrinated with heterosexuality and are being othered if they choose to disobey The Father. In other words, the ”straight” characters in films are not being themselves and are simply obeying the Law: To be straight and accept patriarchal rule or be ghostly, and in this case no one wants to be a ghost for it will be difficult to come to life. The Father in this context is the collective, masculine driven possession and obsession of the female as the castrator and as the symbol of visual pleasure (Cook & Johnston, 2000; Mulvey 2000).
2.2 The interview with a lesbian filmmaker, inevitably highlights the elixir of Rule of the Father and the Law, she mentions ”… SA television lesbians are not portrayed well. Instead of portraying the real side of lesbianism like the kind of love between the two women, the lifestyle and family, television always portrays the negative side like being raped, unchristian and how the society sees lesbianism.” Since the Rule of the Father implies that women epitomise the fetish for erotic visual pleasure, the spectator, whether male or female subconsciously obeys The Father due to recurrence of the female being the castrator (Mulvey, 2000). As a result The Father orders his followers to have one main vision of the female body and her sexuality, which Mulvey describes as ”to-be-looked-at-ness”. The lesbian character as a result, has to be a ghost, since the heterosexual woman is forced into early sexualisation from birth for scopophilic purposes by The Father.
The Rule of the Father and the Law prohibits the cinematic development of women characters regardless of their sexuality (Doane, 2000). The Father, the collective masculine identities in films enforce women to follow their orders literally and figuratively. Literally, the depiction of women as metanarrative for voyeurism and fetishism have violated their right to freedom of expression. Figuratively, the depiction of women as showgirls shows the analogy for the fear of the male to be castrated – that is denying that women have power and not just their ‘womanliness’ which is is innate (Mulvey, 2000). The findings reveal that the historic misrepresentation of women as erotic objects and castrators still persist and that heterosexual women are trapped in the order of obeying the Father (making their souls perish) for his sadomasochistic pleasure, whilst the lesbian/bisexual women are seen as ghosts as their lives are deemed as not that important to crossover on screen.
See the trailer for The World Unseen
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1. Contemporary Sexuality, 2014, Retrieved on May 01, 2014 from CPUT’s EBSCO HOST database.
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1. Mapantsula, 1987, Directed by Oliver SCHMITZ, Haverbeam: South Africa.
2. Gangter’s Paradise: Jerusalema, 2008, Directed by Ralph ZIMAN, Muti Films: South Africa.
3. The World Unseen, 2007, Directed by Shamim SARIF, Enlightenment Productions: South Africa
4. Lost In The World, 2016, Directed by Xolelwa Ollie NHLABATSI. Blackweather Productions and Hand Drawn House Productions: South Africa
5. Whilst You Weren’t Looking, 2015, Directed by Cathrine Stewart. OIA Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Phat Free Films and Puo Pha Productions.