Not every gay film is filled with glitter, glam and pretty boys dancing to the disco beat. Some, like this bittersweet work from director John Greyson of
Lilies and Zero Patience fame, have more to say and if anything, a meaningful point to make.
Yet whilst the fate of the pair of star-crossed lovers at its centre is all but obvious, inparticular given Greyson together with collaborator Jack Lewis based their work on the official records of a sodomy trial that took place in South Africa in 1735, Greyson goes out of his way to paint his cinematic picture with his trademark photographic flair, being quite Jarman-esque at times. And like the man himself in true Caravaggio style, he makes strong use of anachronisms, with dress styles and props from the twentieth century used to counter what would otherwise have been an eighteenth century costume drama.
For this is the story of the love that develops between Claas Blank; a Hottentot native and Dutch sailor Rijkhaart Jacobsz during their years of imprisonment in a harsh penal settlement off coastal Cape Town. Only Jacobsz is not the only man with eyes on Blank, given Scottish botanist Virgil Niven is soon to enlist Blanks' linguistic services, so as to help him classify the exotic plant life of the area. Namely the perfect opportunity for Niven to be alone with Blank, just as much as it allows Jacobsz to get down to some sexual intimacy with the man himself in the unsupervised periods of time that the two are allowed to spend together. Found out by Niven and the authorities alike, both turn a relative blind eye to the pairs' sexual proclivity, until that is a change of warden seals their fate by way of a court of law that views such acts as a sexual abomination
punishable by execution. Only when Blank is found not guilty, is he prepared to let his lover walk to his death alone?
Opening with Blank being arrested and imprisoned for attempting to regain livestock stolen by white colonials, Proteus is as much a graphic reminder of homosexual persecution as it is of apartheid, inparticular given its concludes with words from the most famous inmate of Robben Island; one Nelson Mandela. Yet in depicting injustice, of which the brutal beating dealt to a prisoner for stealing an egg is particularly harrowing, Greyson injects a lighter note thanks to a subplot involving Niven's closeted sexual high jinks in Amsterdam.
Yet in doing so, the contrast between those who conceal their homosexuality in sham marriages against those who risk it all by letting their true feelings run free, is all but too plain to see. As too is the issue of how class divide was no protection from the fate administered to those engaging in 'ungodly acts' during the abhorrent period in which the Dutch government carried out a homosexual witch hunt. To that end, Brett Goldin plays Niven's persecuted lover Lourens in stereotypical 'no gaydar required' fashion, whilst Shaun Smyth as Niven aptly conveys a man whose heart in torn between his wife, male lover and object of infatuation. Yet it is Rouxnet Brown as Blank and Neil Sandilands
as Jacobsz who hold this piece together, saying more by way of facial expression, than through words and ones that in this instance are a combination of English, Dutch and Afrikaans.
That the result is a powerful story of forbidden love is not in doubt. But it is equally one in which shades of light give way to a dark side of African history. Consequently this feature is far removed from your standard gay offering, as Greyson's artistic eye for palette cinematography and lush slow-motion photography, here of the King Sugarbush plant variety, make the most of a low budget affair. Then again, this is a story that needed to be told, even though ritualised torture, coupled with the ingrained prejudice of the time make for unpleasant subject material. But in showcasing such, not only is this a milestone in the development of South African gay cinema,
but by the deliberate use of anachronisms, the Lewis / Greyson pairing have delivered the stark truth that what was deemed a crime over two centuries ago, is still a punishable offence in all too many countries, eighty-six at the last count, in the so-called civilised world of today. All of which make this a moving and all too poignant work.
screened as part of the 18th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival 2004
starring: Rouxnet Brown, Shaun Smyth, Neil Sandilands, Kristen Thomson, Tessa Jubber, Terry Norton, Adrienne Pearce,
Grant Swanby, Brett Goldin, AJ van der Merwe, Deon Lotz, Jeroen Kranenburg, Andre Samuels,
Johan Jacobs, Katrina Kaffer, Kwanda Malunga, Illias Moseko