Many of the stories in the latest batch of Out in Africa films both affirm the power of gay sex and identity, and show a way beyond ghettoes and life on the margins. It may take a certain courage to be true to yourself, but the results are dynamic, and the film-makers of these tales seem to take pleasure in that. And yet gay difficulties remain, and these stories remain faithful to the challenges that present themselves, too.
The Swedish film Kyss Mig, directed by Alexandra-Therese Keining (translated as Kiss Me in English, but also known by its English name of With Every Heartbeat) is one such film that brings that message to light.
Mia (Ruth Vega Fernandez) is visiting her father, Lasse (Krister Henriksson) whom she hasn’t seen for some time, with her fiancé, Tim (Joakim Nätterqvist). Preparations are in full swing for their own wedding as they attend the engagement party of Lasse to Elizabeth (Lena Endre). Also at the party is Elizabeth’s daughter, Frida (Liv Mjönes), a woman Mia’s age. Mia is almost immediately fascinated by the free-spirited blonde Frida, a fascination that rests beneath the surface of the story at first.
Of more pressing importance is dealing with familial tensions as Mia attempts a closeness with her father Lasse – an endeavour that has faltered due to Mia blaming Lasse for breaking up the marriage to Mia’s father, with blame having riven a deep seam of resentment in their relationship.
A trip away to a summer cottage on an island is perhaps one way to begin repairing it but, at the last minute, Lasse cancels. Mia’s fiancé returns to Stockholm, and Mia finds herself on the island with two women she considers strangers: her future mother-in-law and the playful Frida.
While wanting to leave, Mia continues her fascination with Frida and initiates a relationship with her with a single kiss, referred to in the title. And yet the kiss is anything but simple: it calls into question Mia’s relationship with Tim, Frida’s own relationship with her partner, as well as stirring up uncomfortable feelings in Lasse as he tries to come to terms with his daughter’s alternative sexuality.
Whole worlds are turned upside down and this film shows an extraordinary sensitivity in exploring this theme, as well as the sexual love between the two women. Deeply compelling and engagingly told, this film is a poetic, visual feast and a definite highlight.
A Marine Story is more shocking in its telling and tougher in its execution. Directed by Ned Farr, it tells the story of Alexandra Everett (Dreyer Webb) a hard-as-nails muscled blonde woman returning home to a dry-baked landscape of her home town, bearing her “honourable discharge” from the Marines with some difficulty. She is asked to help Saffron (Paris Pickard), a 20-year-old who has got into trouble with the law and has been sentenced to time in the navy.
Alexandra drills her for what’s to come, they forge a friendship while Alexandra also tries to make sense of her own enforced retirement. Through flashbacks we learn the real reason why Alexandra was discharged, in spite of her distinguished record, and the fact that she has followed a career path preceded by family members. Webb is simultaneously tough, and sinewy in both character and body, while revealing just enough vulnerability to allow a development of empathy for the hard Alexandra. Set against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the US military, the reason Alex was discharged is slowly revealed. However, it is revealed a little too slowly and there are patches where the narrative drags and stretches. Still, the story remains interesting enough to remain watching.
Meanwhile Christopher and His Kind, a BBC television film and based on Christopher Isherwood’s autobiography of the same title, is a more historical look. It’s the 1930s and the young Christopher, (Matt Smith) who has recently published his first (unsuccessful) novel, heads to Berlin at the invitation of his friend, and fellow homosexual, WH Auden (Pip Carter).
The aim of his visit is to teach English and to enjoy the city’s lax attitude to gays, as well as its seeming abundance of rent boys. In the midst of this, he meets bizarre, almost tragicomic characters such as Gerard Hamilton (Toby Jones) and Jean Ross, (Imogen Poot) who will feature in his two books about these years, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin.
Within a few years the Nazis have come to power, and the previously somewhat frivolous Christopher is introduced to the realities of prejudice, persecution and oppression. A former lover becomes a Nazi and his attempt to obtain a work permit for his new lover, Heinz, collapses when the British authorities uncover the nature of their relationship.
When World War II breaks out, Christopher leaves for the US but returns to Berlin in 1952 where the now famous writer meets his former landlady and Heinz, who is now married with children. But times have changed and bonds are no longer as strong as they were before the war. Christopher and His Kind is a beautiful film, shining a light on a period that feels a long time ago, in both mannerisms and attitudes. Highly recommended.
North Sea Texas is a moving, coming-of-age story of first and unrequited love, directed by Bavo Defurne. It’s sometime in the 1970s in a depressed town on the north coast of Belgium. Pim (Jelle Florizoone) is growing up with his single mother, Yvette (Eva van den Gucht), an ex-beauty queen now running to fat, harping over a lost past and missed opportunities denied her by falling pregnant. Pim finds refuge in the home of Gino (Mathias Vergels) and Sabrina Nina Marie Kortekaas, also the children of a single mother. Soon 18-year-old Gino leads the 15-year-old Pim towards a relationship that serves as backdrop to this delicate film, but isn’t its heartbeat.
This is also a story about growing up, about losing your innocence in all ways and coming to terms with the disappointments and disillusionment that follow that passage into adulthood. “You make choices in life,” Gino tells Pim in a line that so clearly delineates the differences in their characters. This quietly powerful movie is astonishingly gentle in its telling and is anything but dispiriting. Florizoone as Pim and Kortekaas as the lovesick Sabrina deserve a special mention for their performances, but all are top-notch in this equally top-notch film.
South Africa is represented in two short documentaries, Paying Forward and Anders, and an hour-long episode of the Ekasie TV series, The Secret. Paying Forward is a 16-minute short highlighting the story of lesbian Nosipho Mahola, who recounts her difficulties in being a gay black woman, not least of which is a lack of acceptance by her four children. It is interspersed with commentary from, among others, Mosiuoa Lekota, espousing gay rights. Anders tells the story of Johan, who lives at home caring for his grandmother.
The Secret, directed by Fanney Tsimong, is the 45-minute Ekasie episode starring Generations actor Sipho “C-ga” Masebe, who plays the openly gay Mandla, who starts an affair with the married Thoriso (Thabiso Lekuba).
The two are old friends who lost contact after school, and are reunited when Mandla is invited to a birthday party by the horribly over-the-top, controlling Thuli (DJ Zinhle), Thoriso’s wife.
Thuli’s presence dominates this story of closeted love – not surprising, though, when we realise how under her thumb Thoriso really is. There’s no real reason given for Thoriso’s sudden emergence of his gay sexuality. Thoriso isn’t given to questioning his newly emerging gay identity, either, which lends an awkwardness to the story. Some interesting points are raised, though, and the ending is ultimately bitter-sweet and thought-provoking.