JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Proteus (Directors: John Greyson, Jack Lewis) - May 22, 2004
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Proteus

4 4
104 min.

Reviewed for the 2004 Insideout Lesbian & Gay Film and Video Festival
Even shape shifting not enough

Interracial homosexual love in the 21st century is, in some countries, tolerated if not openly endorsed (even in the gay community—seen any “black-and-white” couples featured in gay-stream media lately?); in 18th century South Africa, the sodomy laws were enforced with impunity by the governing Dutch in response to the then (1730s) “monstrous [moral] panic,“ that manifested itself in trials, scaffolds and terse midnight meetings of the damned.

Convicted sodomist Rijkhaart Jacobz (moodily portrayed by Neil Sandilands) is already the resident faggot on Robben Island when Hottentot, Claas Blank (brilliantly interpreted by Rouxnet Brown who carries the film with his emotional versatility and captivating good looks), sentenced to ten years hard labour for insubordination, arrives to serve his time, soon sparking the interest of prisoner and capture alike.

With an evocative original score—metaphorically featuring a string quartet alternating with indigenous instruments and drums—the story of lust, love and betrayal intriguingly bemoans racism and prejudice of bygone times while peppering the “history” with more modern references (the ’50s typing-pool trio debating the correct translation for “fucked” speaks volumes; having the Dutch dungeon-master, Willer—played with eerie vigour by Grant Swanby—mete out water or whipping punishments wearing a uniform of modern enforcement officers (or leather-bar aficionados) simultaneously confuses our outrage and stimulates thought: masterful touch.

The sex scenes between Blank and Jacobz are tasteful, if brief, moving from initial, lightening-speed, animal penetration and release to a playful romp on the beach before, finally, demonstrating tenderness and care where Blank yields and offers himself “as your mare.” The evolution from fuck buddies to lovers is wonderfully set up when Blank surreptitiously gives Jacobz the necklace that was hand-fashioned for him by his mother (weven as she passes on the aural history of his culture). That passed-down history, Blank—in an excellent example of opportunism rewriting historical “facts,“—later relates to Scottish botanist Virgil Niven (Shaun Smyth). The happily married Niven—himself no stranger to “beneath-the-pier” encounters in Amsterdam—silently witnesses the unspeakable love of the smitten convicts, yet fails to report it, hoping his silence might be leveraged into a personal tasting of the “inferior” species.

Time goes on. Blank will soon be released, but Jacobz has another five years to serve. Their last coupling is again observed, but this time by an over-weight con, previously spurned by Jacobz. Unfortunately, revenge comes in many forms. Soon the two lovers are on trial together—tortured to confess by their own imaginations (a drowning cell that Jacobz has described so vividly that Blank, as he dreams, merges the terrifying chamber and Willer into one colossal cauldron of betrayal). Awake again, everyone changes shape.

Convicted of sex crimes in absentia, Niven returns to the Cape where his astonished wife (Jane Rademeyer) blurts out “I’ve known you my whole life, and now I know you not at all,” as she instructs her husband to leave.

Jacobz“s I’m always too careful,” cracks and confesses during the tribunal, assuring his final demise. Blank has the choice: speak up or go free. Beautifully captured, at peace with himself, he shapes three words: “Di ta go,” in a moment that transcends the centuries, as courageous then as, in many, many parts of the world, they would still be today.

The film tracks another historical martyr whose story unfolds on the same piece of real estate as modern-day leader Nelson Mandela. JWR

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