Review by: Wik Wikholm
Reviewed on: May 01, 2011
In Dark and Lovely, Soft and Free, city-dwelling narrator Zakhi Ranebe teams up with hairdresser Martin Machapa (or "The Diva," as he is known to friends) to travel to the hinterlands of black South Africa and explore rural black male queer life there. The pair connect with gay hairdressers in rural villages and a gold mining town to gain entry into their tiny queer communities.
Director, cinematographer, and sound man Paulo Alberton exploits the rich colors and textures of village life, the buffs, blues, and browns of the countryside, and the song and dance of the villagers Zakhi and Martin visit to create a rich backdrop for the stories they tell.
The sexualities and lifestyles the film reveals are surprising because of the variety of ways queer rural South Africans have found to create communities and the incapacity of Western categories like gay, bisexual, and transgender to adequately capture villagers’ identities and experiences. Equally surprising, most male queer villagers in the film, even those who are gender non-conforming or completely open about their queer sexualities, actively participate in the life of their village communities, including their nominally Roman Catholic and Evangelical churches.
One interviewee is a respected traditional healer who wears female attire; another is a "mine wife," whom the miner’s geographically distant female wife considers her husband’s legitimate second wife. Another segment explores the way several men have adopted female names and created an all-male family that uses traditional kinship terms such as mother, daughter, and sister.
Additional segments, each organized around a visit to a different village or town, include interviews with a closeted gay farmer, the mother of Miss Gay Queenstown who glows with pride at her son’s success in the Gay Queenstown pageant, and a leader of GLORA, the Gay and Lesbian Organization of Ratanda.
Dark and Lovely, Soft and Free is an excellent film for students of queer studies and African cultures because it undermines preconceptions of rural South Africa as homophobic or desperate and depressed. While the video doesn’t conceal the absence of urban material comforts, de facto racial segregation in some towns, or the occasional homophobic slur, it introduces viewers to the highly variable, culturally rich, and sometimes even joyous life in the queer subcommunities that exist within South Africa’s rural black villages and towns.