Difficult Love a Film by Zanele Muholi

Difficult Love will be showing at the Toronto LGBT Film Festival

Review of Difficult Love by Nadia Sanger

Difficult Love and Faces and Phases do more than merely sketch Muholi’s life, however, or document the existence of black queer people — it can be read as a practice in post-colonial feminist research methodology. In Difficult Love, the centering of Zanele’s role as the viewer/ the gazer, disturbs the often invisible and ‘objective’ role of the producer of images. Through zoning in on Zanele – her words and experiences – we see how power is distorted. Her attempt to channel power to those who make her images possible, who tell their stories through her photography, visibilises black queer people, and turns on its head false ideas of the objective position of the photographer/filmmaker. Zanele’s focus on subverting power and disrupting norms around gender and sexuality is clear throughout the book and film. Principles of reflexivity, located-ness, being-in-the-world, the complex, but often ignored relationships between the ‘viewer’ and the ‘viewed’ are central to Zanele’s work. The ‘owning’ of an image, and the ‘owning’ of a life, which Zanele refers to in the film, is clearly articulated in the black and white photographs in Faces and Phases. The portraits reveal that a life cannot be owned by anyone other than oneself. The expressions on the faces of the individuals in the photographs express pain, frustration, happiness, arrogance, sadness and joy. These photographs reveal diverse and complex human expressions that scream ‘we are here to stay’ in a social and political context that is unkind to gender and sexual non-normativity

In the film, Difficult Love, notions of ‘race’ are dismantled, while the material ways in which ‘class’ works are highlighted. In the current South African context, ‘race’ still matters, and ‘blackness’ and poverty are often simplistically aligned in ways that might exclude those who continue to exist marginally in South Africa’s townships. Through conversations with Petra Brink and Pra-line Hendricks – a couple living under a bridge in Cape Town, and rejected by the shelter because they are openly lesbian — Difficult Love explores how class and sexuality are linked, and how they work to ensure the marginalisation of nonconforming ‘coloured’ women. This is significant because it reveals the specific moments in current South Africa where the materiality of socio-economic realities and gender non-conformity intertwine.

Petra and Pra-line’s lives expose how sexual difference is mediated by class, and class mediated by sexual difference — their lives embody the feminist theoretical position that argues for intersections and context as significant in people’s daily lives. Similarly, the viewer’s glimpse into Zanele’s relationship with her partner, Liesl Theron, allows us to see the ways that racialisation, class, gender, sexuality, and slavery intersect. It is clear from this glimpse that the dissection of power relationships is central to Zanele’s work — her 2008 Massa and Mina(h) project referred to in the film, is grounded in the life of her mother, Bester Muholi, who served as a domestic worker to a supportive ‘white’ family for forty-two years. Through this project, Moholi queers the master-slave relationship and reveals how power works in complex ways.