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The thesis of Catherine Stewart’s new film While You Weren’t Looking, which opened on 2 October, is made explicit by the lovelorn, gay lecturer Mack (Lionel Stewart) who tells his students, “If you can ‘queer’ gender, you can ‘queer’ anything.” He means that the broad-mindedness of the openly homosexual, bisexual, and sexually explorative characters in the film – as well as those who accept them – is precisely what is required for South African society to become the non-racist, non-sexist, progressive state to which it aspires to be.
As noble as the film’s position may be, it fails to match this vision with artistry. With its clumsy dialogue and artificial performances, the film doesn’t take a sympathetic look at the lives of queer South Africans as much as it retreads worn-out stereotypes – the gay art lovers, the gaudy feather boas – and tries (and fails) to kindle discussion on the problems they face. We have an inclusive constitution, as the characters assert, but in spite of this – or perhaps because of it – problems still arise.
These problems include those encountered by Joe (Fezile Mpela), a former freedom fighter who happens to be the long-lost love of Mack. Joe, now married to a woman, has managed to bury his homosexual desires, but is still secretly offended when his boss wishes that we may exclude “the moffies” from civilised society.
Callous businesswoman Dezi’s (Sandi Schultz) problem, however, is quite the opposite. She feels ironically burdened by her newly normalised lesbian lifestyle, now totally legal and protected, which she finds lifeless and uninteresting. She says that she has effectively been made straight.
Rather than conveying the individuality and subjective experiences of its gay characters, the film sets them back with banal plot arcs of infidelity, nostalgia, contempt and grotesque murder. The only affecting story is that of the privileged Asanda (Petronella Tshuma) – the daughter of Dezi and her wife Terri (Camilla Lilly Waldman) – who leaves her hipster boyfriend for a cross-dressing lesbian from Khayelitsha named Shado (Thishiwe Ziqubu).
Asanda broadens her sexuality by sleeping with Shado, but also obtains an unwelcome broadening of experience, colliding with Shado’s tough, lower-class friends and being awoken by armed men robbing Shado’s shack and who come close to raping her.
The film no doubt intends to comment on society, but neglects to show the extent of intolerance in South Africa and dodges the biggest and nastiest issue of bigotry: corrective rape. It does this, firstly, by avoiding any intonations of a hate crime in the would-be rape scene, and secondly by failing to evoke anything of the characters’ outrage, humiliation, or distress.
While You Weren’t Looking imitates the very behaviour that it wishes to guard against: the personal and individualistic are subordinated to borderline stereotypes, embedded in the most prosaic of local cinema.