The objects of his desire

2008-04-17 00:00

Asked to tender for a documentary providing black perspectives of white people for the SABC series Black on White, Yunus Vally pitched an idea exploring his personal take on what he calls “the policing of desire during apartheid”. The result, The Glow of White Women, examines South African sexual politics refracted through race and time.

“It’s not all serious,” says Vally. “It’s done tongue in cheek. I was just out to capture my experience.”

Visually the film is a vivid kaleidoscope of images drawn from magazines, pulp novels, family photographs, archive news footage, South African tourism promotional films and commercials for skin-whitening creams. The equally eclectic soundtrack boasts everything from Cole Porter to a new interpretation of Marie Osmond’s Paper Roses.

Vally studied fine art at the University of Durban-Westville before painting banners for various political organisations and working for Adult Literacy and the South African Council for Higher Education. He later moved into digital media and for the past seven years has made a name for himself designing logos and opening sequences for television programmes. The Glow of White Women is his first film and has already taken a bow at film festivals in Berlin and Milan plus the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.

Vally’s fascination with white women began as a child when a succession of haughty “madams” trooped into his house to have their wedding dresses made by his seamstress mother. “I was intrigued. I would watch my mother cutting out their dresses. I’d watch these girls having their dresses fitted in our house.”

Belonging to a Muslim family, Vally attended mosque five times daily. “I was told that if I just read my namaaz and was a good Muslim boy I would get 20 virgins in paradise. I always wondered if these virgins would be white.”

In the lowveld town of Nelspruit in the seventies and early eighties where he grew up, white women were not just obscure objects of desire, they were officially unobtainable thanks to the apartheid laws regulating such matters. “The Immorality Act and the [Prohibition of] Mixed Marriages Act were in full force,” recalls Vally. “But I became fascinated by white women. I thought, who are these people who are everywhere but who I am not allowed to touch?

“I had five sisters, all older than me, and they bought all the women’s magazines, Fair Lady, Huisgenoot ... these magazines introduced me to this idyllic beauty. Here was the Immorality Act on one hand and yet popular culture was bombarding me with images of ideal Aryan women.”

An ideal typified by Anneline Kriel. “She was literally everywhere,” says Vally. “She was on the cover of Fair Lady 17 times. She was blonde, blue-eyed and the Broederbond adored her. She was the ‘volksmeisie’ who put South Africa on the map for reasons other than race riots.”

Vally remembers other forbidden delights, the more risqué version of photocomics known as p**sboekies. “There was one called Tessa — she was an undercover cop fighting the bad guys but she was always wearing a bikini. It was soft porn really.”

And as for fighting the bad guys of apartheid, the struggle was about other freedoms as well. “By the mid-eighties many young South African activists were getting involved in politics in order to get a good lay,” says Vally. “You had to be clever, radical, brilliant, well read — what was most important was who you quoted — and the white girls would come running. Of course this meant that I had to leave Nelspruit because my sexual liberation certainly wasn’t going to happen there.”

In 1984, the year the Immorality Act was repealed, Vally left Nelspruit for Johannesburg. “I landed up in the heyday of multi-cultural Yeoville, an island of racial integration in the heart of Johannesburg. I became a Trotskyite because that seemed the sexiest thing to be. I was a Trotskyite who worshipped Anneline Kriel.”

At last Vally could sample the object of his desires and one of his ex (white)-lovers is interviewed on camera. “It’s the one place in the film I become vulnerable, when it’s very real for me.”

Yeoville was rocked in 1990 when several white women were raped by a black man. Suddenly the stereotypical images of black men were back in vogue. “The image of big black terrorists; the message was that ‘they are out to rape our women’.”

Suddenly inter-racial relationships became more problematic and then, post full democracy in 1994, came the devastation of HIV/Aids.

In a bid to get a perspective on his life and loves from Nelspruit to Yeoville to leafy white suburbia (he now lives in Johannesburg’s Westdene), Vally gets a take on sexual politics past and present from a range of interviewees including Evita Bezuidenhout aka Pieter Dirk Uys; former Publications Appeal Board head Johan van Rooyen; Aids expert Glenda Gray and journalist and rape survivor Charlene Smith.

These days Vally reflects almost wistfully on the time when your struggle credentials meant more than your bank balance. “Before, it didn’t matter if you weren’t rich. You just had to quote [Michel] Foucault and some white girl would f***k you. Now, all the women who are anything to look at are running after black economic empowerment guys in their BMWs. These days, if you don’t have money you never get laid.”

• The Glow of White Women is to be broadcast on April 22 at 9 pm on SABC 1.

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