After the furore that erupted this week over Edwin Cameron’s statements about homophobia in the film ‘Spud’, and the embittered response by the film’s producer, Ross Garland, I decided to go and watch the film to see for myself.
Now let me confess that I haven’t read the book, and so can’t comment on whether the film was a fair depiction of homophobia in ‘Spud’, the novel. Having spent a year at a private Anglican girl’s high school, I’ve experienced enough of the ass-groping and nun’s fanny/fart jokes by the lower Michaelhouse-types to not want to trawl through another 200 odd pages of these. In addition, one of my closest friends (and an incisive literary critic) described the book as ‘lank unfunny, hey’, while another stopped reading after a few chapters when the unrelenting anxiety of the protagonist (which is portrayed in the film by the protagonist’s overuse of the word ‘terrified’) brought on a bout of mild nausea.
If the film is an accurate depiction of the sanctioning of homophobia in the book, so much the worse. The film itself is unquestionably homophobic and misogynistic. It fails to problematise the bigotry and brutality of its characters, and portrays these as a part of the casual, romping good fun of boarding school life (together with sneaking out for a night swim or howling at the moon). Spud’s art teacher/failed sports coach is a mincing caricature of a gay man, who the viewer is invited to deride and ridicule for his campness as much as his incompetence. The film’s portrayal of women and girls is as crude, although it fails to elicit the viewer’s sympathy in at least one instance. The supposedly ugly girl character, Christine, is obviously gorgeous, despite her mussed hair and the wet, slurping sounds that have been engineered to accompany her graunching of every boy she can lay her hands on. The message here is that the ugly girls are often also the sluts, who must use sex to compensate for their loss of social capital resulting from their wearing of braces (a trite proxy for hideousness).
What intrigued me the most about the press controversy over the film was the rage of producer Garland, who accused Cameron of violating freedom of expression in his critique of the film. This is about as ridiculous as accusing Pregs Govender of misogyny. Cameron has spent decades working as an advocate for greater human rights protections in South Africa, and continues to do so. Garland reported that he was seeking legal advice to ascertain whether Cameron’s comments constitute defamation, with the implication that he may decide to charge him if such a case could be made. It can’t.
Garland is obviously very attached to the book and the film, and has invested a lot of money and professional prowess in the latter. He described the book as ‘the nation’s most beloved novel’, although surely a stronger case could be made for ‘Jock of the Bushveld’, one of Annelie Botes’ novels or even, perhaps, the bible. So what if the film is the best grossing in South African history? This doesn’t give it a shred of value (besides, of course, the monetary). Just because Steve Hofmeyer sells more albums than Thembi Seete doesn’t make his music suck any less.
So don’t watch ‘Spud’. It isn’t worth it. Take your R45 and send it to the Triangle Project or Rape Crisis or Equal Education. All of these organisations conduct workshops to help South Africans to confront sexual violence and the practical harms wrought by callous stereotyping in the media. Garland should attend one, I’m sure a red carpet entrance could be arranged.
Editor’s Note: If you would like to read Spud’s reply to Justice Cameron, you can do so here