Friday, June 21, 2024

Pride Month: Valley of a Thousand Hills

As my Pride Month viewings get further along, I'm noticing themes develop beyond the original themes.

At the outset of this June, I decided I was going to watch four LGBTQI+ movies that I had never heard of before, plucked from my streaming services, one per week. The first two were both on Netflix, so I've decided not to try to diversify and go only with stuff on Netflix. 

But as I chose my third movie this week, I noticed a second theme emerge, which is that this has become a bit of a world tour.

I started, appropriately enough, in Australia in week 1, with Ellie & Abbie (and Ellie's Dead Aunt). In week 2 I shifted to Italy, which played host to The Invisible Thread

Now, week 3 finds me in South Africa, where the action of 2022's Valley of a Thousand Hills takes place. 

It'll be easy enough to stick the landing on this secondary theme as long as my fourth movie is not set in Australia, Italy or South Africa. 

One of the things that drew me to this movie -- other than it appearing in the LGBTQ filter on Netflix -- was the title. Having watched the film, I now know and love what it means.

Bonie Sethibe's film doesn't put too fine a point on it, but I caught it. When the woman you see in this poster, Thenjiwe (Sibongokuhle Nkosi), tells her secret lover, Nosipho (Mandisa Vilakazi), about the life they could have "just beyond these hills," it's suggesting a future free from worries about being ostracized or shaming their families -- or possibly even violence directed at them -- that is so close they can almost see it. But the true measure of their distance from this dream? What seems like only a few comparatively small hills is actually a thousand summits they have to cross -- the thousand roadblocks to a future happiness they should not have to fight for.

Nosipho is the daughter of an elder in their rural village, which keeps up some of the connections to the old ways but incorporates all the modern conveniences. The traditional outlooks are one of the connections to the old ways they keep, as Nosipho knows her father would not accept anything from her other than marrying a man as is expected of her. It isn't so much that any one person in this film is homophobic, but that they just have such an ingrained belief in what is the normal way and what might be a sign of someone being possessed by demons. Her mother has died, and her father is sick. Fortunately, she has a sympathetic auntie who knows and supports what Nosipho is without her having to spell it out in so many words.

We see the vociferous objection to their sexual preference more in Thenjiwe's mother, who overrides the gentler disposition of her husband in trying to marry their son, Thenjiwe's brother, to Nosipho, to strength ties and for the traditional exchange of cows and the like. Thenjiwe is more comfortable in her sexual orientation than Nosipho, more rebellious by nature and happy enough to cut herself off from her family and move to the closest big city, Durban, if that's what she needs to do to pursue a life that is true to her authentic self. But she's in love with someone who doesn't have the same sort of confidence, and that's a problem.

When I first started watching Valley of a Thousand Hills, I thought it might be one of those movies that does a lot more telling than showing, all the signs of a novice filmmaker. (This is indeed the only feature listed on IMDB for the writer-director.) As it went, though, I developed a real appreciation for some of the sophisticated things it's doing that don't call attention to themselves. One particular shot I loved showed Thenjiwe on the floor with the man who is meant to be her husband standing over her. We see her straight on and we only see him in the three mirrors behind her, a tryptic of reflections that loom over her. I'm not saying it's a new device to show a character who is in power from an angle that emphasizes his power. I'm saying that the image of three of him surrounding her, representing the obstacles of society at large, was executed excellently and with clarity of purpose.

At first I was not sure if the movie would be a bit tame, in adherence to the more traditional values of its expected audience. Like, I can make a movie for my fellow South Africans in which characters are lesbians, but showing them kissing would be a bridge too far. But we do ultimately see them kissing, and even in bed without any clothing, though it is all pretty tasteful and the bedsheets are in all the right places to keep it so. 

The movie reminded me a bit thematically -- and in other ways I won't spoil -- of my #5 movie of the 2010s, Tanna, in which the forbidden romance also has to do with an arranged marriage, though the characters there are heterosexual. In that Vanuatu-set film, Wawa and Dain are kept apart because she's been promised to the son of a chieftain from another tribe, also in that case to solidify ties between the previously warring tribes. (Ain't that what they've tried to do throughout history, am I right?) However, I did take from Tanna what I thought was a secret "love is love" message, thematically a movie about gay marriage even though it was overtly about heterosexual marriage. So this film just takes it one step further. And yes, I do realize it may seem like I'm comparing them primarily because they both involve characters with black skin, living in or with ties to the traditional ways, which I suppose is my own shortcoming. Though since you probably haven't seen either movie, you'll just have to trust me that the similarity is there.

In another way the film defied my expectations, I thought the performances might seem like real novice turns. But I really liked what both of the leads bring to their roles, perhaps especially the conflicted Vilakazi as Nosipho. It was a film that majorly grew on me as it went, culminating with difficult truths that prevent what we hope can just be a happy ending. With gay people still fighting the prejudices of their own families, especially in parts of the world where progressive thinking is in short supply, the endings don't always get to be happy.

One more movie to go next week before we wrap up another Pride Month on The Audient. I'm choosing between two different titles, but each of them involve gay men, to get the gender balance right.

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