Bruised and confused

2011-02-19 13:08

Finding myself seated next to filmmaker Zola Maseko at the Johannesburg screening of Black Venus – a big screen dramatisation of the life of the “Hottentot Venus” – was a full-circle moment.

In 1998 I collaborated with Maseko on a documentary entitled The Life and Times of Sarah Baartman.

We collaborated again in 2002 on another film documenting the historic repatriation of her remains from the Musee del’ Homme in Paris.

Having worked on several projects on the Hottentot Venus, I had reservations about how the film would dramatise the life of a woman who has become an iconic symbol of misguided racial superiority and scientific racism.

My wariness hinged primarily on how French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche would approach the issues of agency and consent.

Debates about Baartman invariably boomerang back to the issue of consent, to the suggestion that she was in fact a willing participant in her degradation.

That far from being a victim, she was a 19th century precursor of Josephine Baker, that she was an impresario with agency and not the victim of exploitation.

Kechiche offers no gentle resolution of the issue.

Black Venus is a rottweiler of a film that grabs you by the neck and doesn’t let go for 165 minutes until it spits you out bloodied, bruised and confused.

Kechiche’s portrayal of Baartman’s handlers, an Afrikaner called Hendrick Caezar and a French bear-tamer known as Réaux, puts paid to any notions of willing consent.

One is sleazier than the other.

Caezar and Réaux swill about in the same muck. One peddles a tame bear and the other a savage Hottentot from darkest Africa.

The film’s depiction of Baartman’s exhibition in the freak shows of London’s Piccadilly is an unremitting portrayal of degradation.

Baartman (played by Cuban actress Yahima Torres) remains expressionless throughout the film. She endures her ordeals with mute resignation. She is a solitary figure, in a life devoid of friendship and laughter.

A distinct personality never emerges.

Agency and free choice are dominant themes in Black Venus.

Andre Jacobs, a veteran South African actor, portrays Caezar with a benign menace.

When the abolitionists raise a rumpus about his treatment of Baartman and he is forced to defend himself, he is at pains to explain that he and Baartman are business partners embarking on a “grand adventure”; that Saartjie is “a free woman and an artist”, and not a slave; that she breastfed two of his children and was “like family”.

Black Venus is graphic and unrelenting. Kechiche never allows the audience much respite, and just keeps piling on the pressure.

In Piccadilly, Baartman is caged and chained and sold to the audience as a wild animal. Punters are encouraged by Caezar to paw her.

When the hue and cry in London makes his life untenable, Caezar strikes a deal with Réaux and they decamp to Paris.

There, Réaux takes over the show and the Venus Hottentot does the rounds in the aristocratic salons of Paris.

It is here that Kechiche really turns up the heat. Réaux, (played by Olivier Gourmet) realising Baartman’s utility as both a savage attraction and a sexual one, changes the act into a sado-sexual exhibition for the libertines of Paris.

These scenes proved too much for many at the Johannesburg screening and it was at this point that many people walked out. (Maseko walked out after 45 minutes.)

Kechiche’s unending scenes of humiliation of the Hottentot Venus, which went on for a staggering two hours and forty-five minutes, left me wondering if the filmmaker simply lost control of his film.

Or whether the remorseless repetition was meant to drive home the unrelenting horror of her life.

And even after Baartman dies a sad and lonely death in Paris, signalling the prospective ending of her ordeal, Réaux delivers her body to George Cuvier, the pre-eminent scientist and naturalist who conducts an autopsy.

The film is bookended by scientific racism and begins with Cuvier’s autopsy report on Baartman to distinguished scientists at the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle and ends with his gory autopsy, when he is able to finally fulfil his desire to look between the legs of the Hottentot Venus.

While alive Baartman thwarts all his attempts to establish the existence of the “Hottentot apron”.

Guy Lodge, writing on the film’s debut at the Venice Film Festival in September last year, wrote: “Expectations were appreciably high, and the press screening queue consequently doubled back on itself, for Abdellatif Kechiche’s historical drama Black Venus. By the time the credits rolled?.?.?. however, applause was more scattered than one might have expected for a display of such voluminous craft and ambition; the silence, one suspects, was that of an audience assessing which lines had and hadn’t been crossed.”

By the time the credits tried to roll at the French Film Festival screening in Johannesburg (but didn’t thanks to a technical glitch) the cinema was almost empty and the applause was tentative.

At the end of Black Venus I felt as if I’d been mauled by a pack of wild dogs.

Kechiche’s film is a cutting indictment of 19th century French and English colonial superiority and of scientific racism. It is ultimately a vindication of the humanity of the freaks and savages displayed for European consumption.

It has proved controversial internationally, and thus far no South African distributors have picked it up.

Which is a pity in a country that?– thanks to the Sushi King?– is grappling with notions of agency, consent, and inappropriate exhibition.

» Black Venus was screened as part of the French Film Festival 

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