A lot of the arguments that are used in South Africa ... [are] that being gay is somehow "un-African"; it's somehow white, Western or colonial. What this documentary is about is the people who are standing up and saying, "Actually, no, I was born in this township, I grew up here, this is where I work, this is where I love, and I've chosen to be here, and don't tell me this space isn't my own."
When journalist and documentary filmmaker Laura Fletcher speaks about her latest work, her enthusiasm comes across so easily that it's contagious. However, that enthusiasm is intertwined with a heavy realization that she has dealt with many dark moments in people's lives, a task that she has not approached lightly.
Fletcher recorded over 120 hours of footage for her documentary African Pride, which takes a look at life for LGBT people in South Africa. As Laura explains, it was a difficult challenge, as South Africa's stance on gay rights is an unusual one. While some countries' inhabitants are more liberal than their laws would suggest, South Africa's situation is the reverse. The Constitution of South Africa protects same-sex relationships, and the country introduced marriage equality in 2006, but a 2013 survey revealed that 61 percent of South Africans felt that their society should not accept homosexuality. In comparison, a similar study from 2008 found that only 8 percent of South Africans felt that homosexuality was not wrong at all.
For a journalist to cover such a story in one's own country is one thing, but what happens when a foreigner tries to do it? Fletcher has lived and worked in South Africa, which meant that she wasn't completely oblivious to the social context of what she was dealing with, but she is not from South Africa. Did this make things more difficult when gaining the respect and trust of those she wanted to feature in African Pride?
"I think it was quite difficult," she notes, "not least because they were super-dubious of me! I mean, I was white, I was foreign, I was Irish. They didn't even know where Ireland was! They had no reason to trust me at all!"
Despite her joking and laughing about being an Irishwoman so far from home, it's at this point that Fletcher reveals a painful truth about the media's responsibility toward those they interview or feature. She explains that while townships in South Africa aren't completely unused to media attention, many members of the media are insensitive when covering issues such as women's or LGBT rights, two subjects that are often met with the same cold reception.
"A lot of [the people I interviewed] have been really chewed up and spat out by the media in the past," she explains. "I was talking to activist groups who have, in the past, had journalists come in and say, 'Hands up in here: Who's been raped?' So [...] I was very cognizant of the fact that this story had been told in the past, but it had been told in very sensationalist ways.
"People were almost being re-victimized in a way, whilst [the media were] raising awareness. What I really wanted to do was talk to people who wanted to talk to me. I did talk to people who had survived very difficult experiences and had lost loved ones, but I went and talked to them on their own terms. It was all very much about them telling their stories."
Fletcher makes sure that her documentary is all about those she has interviewed, and not about her; she's doesn't spend a single moment in front of the camera. While it is all about those interviewed, Laura makes it very clear in our conversation that while the documentary cannot ignore the negative background of the story, it has some beautiful and heartwarming moments in it as well.
"It's knitted together with the stories of these amazing people," she explains, her face lighting up as she almost relives the moments in her head. "They really are amazing. They're funny, vivacious and strong, and they slag each other off [the Irish way of saying they make fun of one another]! And there's such lovely, lovely humanity in it."
However, as Fletcher herself describes, African Pride may be an African story, but the story of how LGBT people have been treated there is not exclusively African. "The more I come back to Ireland and the more I look at international news," she says, "I really see the parallels everywhere."
The parallels Fletcher describes include Russia, which has had both politicians and the LGBT community worldwide on something of a red alert. While Russia and South Africa are thousands of miles apart, the type of language used against their respective LGBT communities is almost exactly the same, alleging that somehow, being LGBT is the result of some corrupt, alien, Western influence.
"If you look at the ban in Russia," Fletcher explains, "it's the banning of 'propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships.' In South Africa last year you had a group of traditional leaders trying to remove the protection for same-sex relationships from [South Africa's] constitution. This idea of owning what's traditional, owning what's perceived as normal, and gay as being other, foreign and introduced by somebody else and somehow taught or learned behavior, those parallels are absolutely the same."
African Pride is not intended for television; instead, Fletcher has produced her documentary to be screened at film festivals both in Ireland and, hopefully, abroad. Her crowdfunding campaign to raise €5,000 ($6,640) was recently achieved, much to Fletcher's delight, and work is underway now to complete the documentary. The stories of those featured in African Pride are almost ready to be told, and Laura is now more excited than ever.
Check out a teaser of African Pride:
This interview was first published in the August digital issue of EILE Magazine, an online publication for the LGBT community.
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