In November 2022, South Africa opted not to submit any film for consideration at the 95th Academy Awards. The Oscars may not be the be all and end all of a film’s respectability, that much is for sure, but viewing and dismissing every one of the 9 viable submissions from local artists was a real slap in the face by the National Film and Video Foundation. If any had a chance to break through and command some attention, it would have been Stiekyt, though some safely corporate language by the NFVF suggests that that film may have been excluded “due to either non-compliance with the [Academy’s] selection criteria and/or a concern regarding the representation of marginalized communities”. Not a good look after the Inxeba-debacle, when that film was slapped with an X-rating for its content and in short order placed on the International Feature shortlist.
At this time, drag is under threat in America, once its most pioneering source. Is this a good time to platform a film which plays with a complex relationship to the artform? Ultimately, we can hope to bear in mind that drag is today and was always an act of bravery. Let’s then admire a film that is made with reckless bravery.
Substantially less daring is the act of self-betrayal; of obscuring your true and fundamentally necessary self to leave a patriarchally masculine ‘idealised self’ unspoiled. These two identities trade truth and lies, pressure and assurance between each other within the courageously complex persona of James (Paul du Toit), struggling actor turned secret drag queen at the centre of Stiekyt. The film’s setting, the drag club James has interned himself in, is restricted by the confines of its covid-production but fitted with wonderfully coloured glows; all spaces seem made up of corners with receding shadows and gathered mould (call it Birdman-chic). Most of the film is shot within the labyrinthine corridors of a single ‘backstage’ set, during a covid production, a fact which ultimately lends to the overwhelming sense of captivity.
The language, too, is colourful, and carries its authenticity unscathed through humour, doled out by a Fellini-esque parade of characters (competing drag queens) aggravating a man mostly disappointed with himself, but unwilling to accept the fact of his life. Nevertheless, their lingo is prone to incorporate overly… ‘gentrified’ terms from the drag vocabulary, an obstacle for the performers to make real these detailed eccentrics. Regardless, many of them represent a more legitimate self-assurance than James’ need to distance himself from his profession. Some are empathetic and others calculating, cattily going behind each other’s backs, vying for the spotlight, but none use performance to lie about who they are.
The toxic element of the character’s self-deception rears its head in an argument with his spouse which calls to mind the gaslighting excuses of Breaking Bad’s Walter White. “Do you think I want to do this? I only do it for our family. Who do you think pays for this? Where would you be without me and what I do for our family?” James can only allow himself to embrace drag as an act of breadwinning, a casual misogynist’s ideal. And he’ll go so far as to bet the house on it.
Personal and professional conflicts both follow as a melodramatic thriller appears on the other side of this character study. James’ increasingly unhinged attempts to keep the show on the road and appearances upturn more sinister and recall The King of Comedy, though here he maintains that he absolutely does not want to have to be a comedian (transposed to a drag performer). No need to spoil the details or nature of the campy thriller. Its strongest element: the character that’s under study of this natural born understudy.
What does one make of the flashbacks first played out with reversed footage, then intercut with the now? Then a conversation in a parked car adorned by a delicate and idyllic bouquet, turned sour. Even before things take a turn, James admits he has no interest in any ‘other’ women. Do the flowers then seem more like looming, petrifyingly feminine vagina dentata? The accuracy of the last is contested. Are these happy memories and an irreparable present? A desire to erase a choice? Lies?
“James! James! James!” he yells both as self-admonishment and to forcefully remind himself who he is. And who is that really? James is an actor after all. It’s not to say there is definitively a buried sexual or gender-affirming element to James’ drag identity, but rather that drag does hold a recognition of a refined, professional showmanship, though sublimating a vocally-reticent character with obscuring make-up draws certain cinematic conclusions. James wants to be an actor, and he naturally feels driven and challenged by drag’s inherent performance. If James truly engages in nothing but begrudging and resentful involvement in drag, then there is a sense in which he has perverted an artform’s liberating intentions. Invasion of the Wigsnatchers.
Cleverly, the film is narrated by James himself, from within an overarching, narcissistic fantasy of a confessional tell-all interview. Another way to control how others interpret his motivations. The tongue-in-cheek potboiler-isms and flashes of tripping humour are a lifeline to this pleasantly robust ‘Talented Mrs. Doubtfire’, especially since it is a bit overlong. Chopping up the timeline can also counter the momentum of a portion of the film or seem a bit of a wrenched-in writer’s aid to parse out expository character revelations. Some may roll their eyes at a film about queer-culture underpinned by a tension in a heterosexual relationship. Catching this is then worth it for the first spark of creativity in the character of James which keeps the film afloat.
Stiekyt is admirable simply because it has a fiercely unwavering creative voice. This is exciting werk.