Johannesburg - It took a series of conversations before documentary filmmaker Lerato Mbangeni became convinced the use of skin lightening products was a serious societal issue.
That’s because when she was growing up, the widespread use of these products seemed to be a norm in black communities.
It was only while working with US journalist Susie Neilson two years ago that she started questioning society’s obsessive quest for perfect - and lighter - skin.
Mbangeni initially thought users of skin lightening creams were trying to “increase their proximity to whiteness”: that by becoming lighter, they would be better respected in both white and black communities.
But as the pair began their research, they realised that South African women - and some men - have an even more complex relationship with skin products.
It’s this love/hate relationship that forms the foundation of their poignant documentary, A Gentle Magic, a title that functions as a play on one of the more famous skin-lightening creams in South Africa.
The documentary held its first screening last week at the Bioscope Independent Cinema in Johannesburg.
Mbangeni, Neilson, producer Graeme Aegerter and co-director Tseliso Monaheng travelled across South Africa, interviewing women in rural and urban areas to understand why they use skin lightening products.
Professor Ncoza Dlova, a dermatologist and chief specialist and head of the department of dermatology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, was integral to the research.
Her work has often focused on the damage caused by skin-bleaching products - she spearheaded a national campaign against their use last year.
The documentary’s initial focus is the examination of Mbangeni’s hypothesis - that society pressures black women to appear lighter and that this is considered more attractive and likely to garner more respect.
Interviews with university students, artists, writers and salon owners in Cape Town and Joburg seem to confirm this, with many recounting their experiences using lighteners.
For this group, the effects of the creams were often substantial, and they noted the differing reactions they would get from their peers and family - mostly complimentary.
One student said she had been told she was “finally blossoming”, while another had been ridiculed by her father because her skin had lightened so drastically.
A group interview with more than a dozen women at the University of KwaZulu-Natal revealed how many rely on these products to clear up acne, to even out their skin tone or simply because they are following their mothers’ example.
One subject, Nokuthula, whose face is pale from years of use, said even with the damage done to her skin, she would never stop.
The products were the only things that stopped the oiliness in her skin and she felt more confident when her acne had vanished.
“I was dark before; I got used to it. When the ointment the doctor had given me got finished, I then noticed other women who were light-skinned and asked one woman what she used. She said she was using Extra Claire. I then bought it and still use it to this day.”
A significant part of the documentary, set in a small village in Coffee Bay, reveals that the products are mostly used to combat pimples, even by men in the area.
“These are women who are so removed from our city lives,” Mbangeni pointed out. “They don’t consume the same or the same amount of media we do. So they’re not necessarily seeing the same level of pressure to be lighter.
“But they still use the same products, the same way someone in Joburg will buy a R25 container on the side of the street.
“I was so surprised by the complex relationships (these women) had with the products. The majority of people who use them, are using them for skin conditions.”
However, the discomfort and pain these products can cause is a thread that runs through the film.
Dlova’s appearance in the documentary reinforces the message that it is far better to consult with a skin doctor.
“These creams can cause irreversible thinning of the skin, irreversible stretch marks, rapid ageing, skin infections, steroid-induced acne, permanent dark marks and skin cancer,” she said.
Many of her patients have suffered a variety of negative reactions. “Some side effects may be irreversible.
“I normally refer to the skin being addicted and craving for the dangerous creams. Patients usually look great in the first six months or so, but down the line the skin conditions begins to change slowly for the worse.”
Why do women use these products?
“Our study showed that 35% use them because of societal pressure and some issues related to low self-esteem,” Dlova said.
“About 65% used these as self medication for genuine skin-related conditions such as acne and pigmentation for which patients are advised to seek a dermatologist’s opinion.”
However, the seeming “addiction” that many patients have to these products is concerning and doctors must be aware of how to ensure that those they consult do not revert back to the product, she warned.
“We also teach them that the best skin is the dark skin.”
It’s because of the potential dangers of these products that the film-makers have made it their mission to try to reach a younger audience.
Those behind the film are looking into film festivals to screen the documentary, as well as arrange screenings in all the locations where it was filmed to allow their interview subjects to see the work, said Mbangeni.