It would seem that South African movies have finally come of age. I don’t mean foreign ones shot there but the home grown variety. I remember as a schoolboy watching Afrikaans films in their infancy that were truly dire, especially the so-called comedies, but an Afrikaans film recently out, “Skoonheid,” which means ‘Beauty,’ is causing shock waves.
A Cape Newspaper The Daily Maverick that proudly describes itself as ‘Politically incorrect since 2009 (Hurrah!!! Hurrah!!! Long may it flourish) describes the film as confronting truth both beautiful and ugly.
It exposes the private shames and secret obsessions of a conservative white Afrikaner named Francois van Heerden who has quite a neat life. He is a family man in his mid-forties who lives in Bloemfontein and is well established. Van Heerden has all the trappings of a peerless Calvinist existence, but beneath the veneer of this seemingly faultless Afrikaner lives a seething nest of internal conflict.
“The dénouement in the film is violent and could prove difficult for people to watch, but may make audiences wonder about the choices they make in their own lives. I am so curious to see how people in South Africa experience the film. They may be compelled to see the movie from a sense of pride or because of the language, but the film will definitely challenge them. The characters are people they will know. They will recognise Francois and the fabric of his world, but his private life and thoughts will make for an unnerving ride,” says the young director Oliver Hermanus, who has insisted that “Skoonheid” not be relegated to the art circuit.
“This will predictably cause sectors of the community to take umbrage, but for those mature enough not to succumb to knee-jerk reactions, it could prove to be an epiphany.”
It was a bizarre advert in the classifieds section of a Cape Town newspaper that gave writer and director Hermanos the idea. The advert was specific; its author was looking for white, married Afrikaner men to join in a twice-weekly all-male orgy. You had evidently to show your marriage certificate to prove you were legit.
An all-male orgy of married Afrikaners is just one of the scenes from ‘Skoonheid’ that shocked -- and impressed -- the Cannes Film Festival judges recently. It won the Queer Palm award, a prize that acknowledges movies that deal with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues.
The Queer Palm judges did not mince their words: "It is a true cinema film, a quite unpleasant one at first sight, and very disturbing, hard-hitting, radical."
The main character in the movie distances himself from homosexuality, identifying himself instead as a "straight man who has sex with men". The movie demonstrates his struggle to deal with his desires, which run counter to his cultural upbringing as a traditional Afrikaner with deeply embedded conservative, heterosexual values.
He meets Christiaan at his daughter's wedding in Cape Town and becomes obsessed with this beautiful young man. His desire unravels his neatly compartmentalised life, ending the movie with his violent possession of the "beauty" society will not allow him to have.
Francois might be a fictional character but he is not the only man dealing with these issues. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, more than three million men in the US who identify themselves as straight have had sex with other men and I would imagine there are many more who were not canvassed or who will not admit it.
And well-known American sex columnist Tristan Taormino says heterosexual men have sex with other men for many reasons. In his column in the Village Voice in 2008, Taormino says they do it "for anonymous, no-strings-attached sex; to explore homoerotic desire without a gay identity or relationship; or to fulfil a fantasy, including one of dominance and submission".
"The reality of the film is that the main character is not gay," says Hermanus. Rather he is infatuated, "like a 15-year-old", and dealing with the object of his love being considered inappropriate by society. The actor says he never played the character as a gay man but as someone who is very confused. "It's a story about a man going through a difficult time in his life, and I hope that the audience feels empathy for him." But the film explores more than just sexuality in the Afrikaner community -- its title comes from the concept that "beauty is poisonous". Francois's desire for Christiaan is the start of his spiral to self-destruction.
"We all want something, and invariably it is something beautiful," says Hermanus. "Beauty ruins you."