Beauty and the beastly ...

2011-08-05 15:42

If you were to be introduced to a married middle-aged Afrikaner male from Bloemfontein with a slight pot belly, two daughters and a 4x4, closet homosexuality is the most improbable identity complex you would imagine for him.

That’s the central character tackled by Oliver Hermanus in his latest film, Skoonheid.

The film won the Queer Palm Award Cannes – on the fringe of the prestigious yearly film festival in the south of France – in May and hit the local circuit on Friday.

I catch up with Hermanus at the Durban International Film Festival on the morning after the film’s debut screening on African soil. We talk about the meaning of Skoonheid’s international success and the controversial slant of his chosen narratives in the film.

The root word in the movie’s title is “skoon”, which is Afrikaans for “clean”. Note how this easily plays into puritan ideas of what beautiful means – it requires some particular idea of “cleanliness” or “cleansed-ness”.

To introduce the movie to its Durban festival audience, Hermanus remarks that it explores how a man possessed by his desire for a “beautiful” thing turns bad and loses himself. Hence there is a lesson or appeal for restraint in the message.

Consider that Hermanus’s story also documents François’ (Deon Lotz) closet activities with other church-going, married farm men of Bloemfontein.

Once all the major characters are introduced, Hermanus piles these men up in a farm house for a charged spectacle of explicit gay sex.

Here the picture pushes the homo-erotic envelope the hardest. Once the audience is fully sold on the director’s daring, he sketches a tense image of a man coming apart at the seams.

We witness François dragged by his obsession with a younger man Christian (Charlie Keegan) – a son of his old friend.

Above its charged literary content, Skoonheid is a controlled and beautiful picture.

The palette of colours chosen helps to create a very sedate atmosphere of an isolated sunburnt small town on the edge of the Karoo.

There are no bright reds or loud cold blues, but a tame glare of olives, browns and earth tones. This warms up the mood when seen in the wide, slow and calculated camera shots.

Hermanus has made a considered movie.

At the time of our chat, only those who’d attended the screening at the festival had seen the film.

Most South African responses have generally been to the Cannes award. Hence it’s hard to talk about any real opinions from members of the Afrikaner community.

So Hermanus is right to say: “It’s a (potential) double-edged sword – they just like that we’ve put Afrikaans cinema on the global map, but they haven’t seen it yet.”

Asked why he chose to tell this story, Hermanus first points out: “I hate that people give me scripts about Cape Flats gangsters just because I’m a so-called Cape coloured.

“The Afrikaans community fascinates me. There’s this tension whenever I meet old Afrikaans people, so the whole thing about this film was about me confronting those tensions. I’m able to access their social discourse and they feel comfortable with me.”

The 28-year-old filmmaker says: “I also wanted to see how they would react to me going into their community.”

Being a well-received filmmaker has opened many other doors for him, especially into his space of fascination: the Afrikaans community. But the young man feels there’s a downside to his success.

“I become aware of being the lone coloured guy in the room. That is happening to me more often than I’d like. I wonder where other creatives of my community are.”

Hermanus was born and partially raised in Montana in Cape Town before his family moved to Cleary Park in Port Elizabeth. He is now back in the Mother City.

At home with uncles and aunts, success tends to mean a special kind of alienation too.

“They don’t see where all my influences come from because I was raised in the same context as my cousins and everyone else,” Hermanus says, while acknowledging the warm affirmations that come with the love and support of family.

Slumping slightly into a sofa, Hermanus is clearly not a prisoner of Skoonheid’s success, in fact far from it. He says “getting to Cannes was great but the new challenge is staying there”.

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