QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
James (Paul du Toit) is a 30-something-year-old television actor whose career has hit rock bottom. His latest soap opera character has been killed, and he has been left without any roles despite securing a two-year contract. His financial problems are beginning to pile up. His wife is despondent, questioning her husband’s talent and threatening him with a divorce. She is particularly uncomfortable with his new stint in a drag queen cabaret: “the only thing keeping me and our children from the streets is your ability to connect with your feminine side”, she complains to a fully cross-dressed James. Most of their conversations take place in the backstage of the cabaret. In fact, virtually the entire film does.
The narrative is not chronological. The story zigzags back and forth in time. At the very beginning of the film, we discover that a murder has taken place, claiming the life one of the drag artists. Eventually, it is revealed that it was James who semi-accidentally killed her. The death scene is repeated several times, perhaps in order to suggest that James is struggling with guilt. Then another murder takes place, seemingly conducted in order to conceal the evidence from the first one. James’s motives are never entirely clear. The murder plot is unimaginative and half-baked, as is most of the film. The conflicts too are hardly creative: a wife bemoans her cross-dressing husband, a drag queen sticks bubble gum on her foe’s wig, and so on.
Overall, the dialogues are extremely contrived, the delivery is stilted and the humour is stale. The puns and the jokes are very uninspiring: “con-DRAG-ulations”, screams one of the artists; a voice on James’s mobile phone (presumably from a YouTube video) explains to him how to shove his penis and his testicles into his body (to horrific results: at one point he ends up with blood in his fingers). Oh, how hilarious (not). Despite the various attempts at humour, Stiekyt remains a mostly cold and soulless film. The drag performers (even the gay ones) are deeply masculine and mostly unpleasant. There’s nothing funny, lighthearted and enrapturing about them. The dance acts are laboured and dispassionate. Strangely, no audience is ever present. It is regrettable that a film about acting should be so poorly scripted and dramatised. And that a drag story should lack vim and vigour.
The director, who also penned his script, seems to make a connection between liberation and cross-dressing, but how this could equate to murder is a plot fit for JK Rowling’s transphobic new book. This mostly tedious and pointless South African film, almost entirely spoken in Afrikaans and without a single Black actor at sight (bar the barely discernible extra), will scarcely resonate with LGBT people, cross-dressers, actors and South Africans in general. It might do so with deeply frustrated married straight men with latent murderous tendencies.
The only aspect of the film that deserves significant praise is Eduan Kirching’s cinematography. He uses an extravagant colour palette combined with flashy and gaudy lighting in order to create a dreamlike world with an elegant touch of kitsch. The director, who also happens to be a painter, deserves credit here: he sketches and draws each scene on paper for the DOP to bring them to life. This is a visually accomplished films; it’s just a pity that such panache is matched by neither the script nor the performances.
Stiekyt has just premiered in the Official Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.