EVERY ONCE IN a while, you may be lucky enough to come across a piece of documentary work which is so direct and simple, so clear and deep that it takes your breath away from its opening frame to its credits, and you emerge with something new in your soul. This is what you can expect in Carl Collison’s 10-minute film entitled Covid-19 and Cape Town’s Homeless Transgender Sex Workers.
Distinguished by its total lack of artifice and its rich sense of integrity, the work offers everything that a good and intelligently edited film interview should. The voices that tell their story do so with an artless candour that sums up some of the most difficult horrors a person can face, rejected by family, community, and on a plight to find a context not filled with hatred and violence, where they may lay their heads at night. Even if it is under an urban bridge.
These are the trans women of Cape Town. Sex workers. People who are plying the oldest trade in the book to keep body and soul together. But people who hold something far more explosive than the oft taboo reputation of their job alone. Gender, if you’re a member of a traditional Xhosa or Muslim community, is a given determined by the sex you’re born with and involves rituals as complex and simple as circumcision, marriage, childbearing. To break these ties and find your own takes a courage that would crumple most.
And yet, the film is not a moralistic or sensationalist tale where the journalist queens it up and reigns supreme. It’s also not one drenched in tears. It’s one in which the interviewed tell their stories with the journalist’s support. And here, the work resonates with the potency of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the bare and monumental language of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was given reverberations in translation, and of Chapter 2, Section 9, a play by Phyllis Klotz, dealing with how lesbians are sanctioned by South Africa’s Constitution but broken by society.
Above all, it’s a piece of journalism which balances everything together with a frankness and a sense of narrative that allows you, on the other side of the tale, to hear something which you might not know already. Focusing on urban landscape rather than individuals, and respecting privacy and honouring beauty, the work segues with that of South African photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi in giving potent, unflinching and real voice to what mostly remains our society’s voiceless.
- Covid-19 and Cape Town’s Homeless Transgender Sex Workers is written and researched by Carl Collison and edited by Esther Badenhorst. It is available here and will be screened at the Mbawula Youth Film Festival at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, Northern Cape, during the first week of September 2021.