Queer cinema in South Africa has come a long way and “No Hiding Here” as the country’s first gay romantic comedy is making more waves.
Directed by local queer filmmaker Gabe Gabriel (he/him/they/them), “No Hiding Here” is set in a small South African town, where a beloved drama teacher accidentally plays gay porn over the biggest school event of the year.
This forces him, and the event’s guest and featured artist – a closeted big city celebrity – into hiding from the outraged community.
Gabe is currently based between Cape Town and Los Angeles where he has been working as a writer, director, actor, and independent film producer since 2013.
We spoke to him about “No Hiding Here”, what it was like filming through the coronavirus pandemic and what he hopes is in store for the future of local queer films and TV.
What inspired you to make “No Hiding Here”?
Nagvlug producer, Zandré Coetzer, approached me with the idea to write a “warm and fuzzy” gay South African romantic comedy for Showmax. Working on other projects we had often discussed that so much commissioned / commercial queer content centres on queer trauma rather than queer joy or even regular day-to-day queer life with ups and downs just like anyone else’s.
Whilst the stories about the hardships of queer history are obviously valid and important; we agreed that positive representation that “normalises” the lived experience of people who are queer beyond the closet. I felt it was important to strike a balance here though.
I’m not a fan of content that ignores or down-plays queerness (hence “No Hiding Here” certainly deals with a multitude of queer-specific themes) but I knew I wanted to write a story that features multiple queer characters at different stages of self-discovery for a variety of reasons.
So I got together with two other queer writers, Kelly-Eve Koopman and Nico Scheepers.
We brainstormed ideas that would keep our story small and contained (for budget reasons!) but still feel to some degree universal and magical.
And as with all of my writing, I always take moments that happen in real life.
Let’s just say I’ve accidentally played some loud and explicit adult content through my laptop at a really inappropriate moment so… that’s sort of what inspired the “inciting incident” of “No Hiding Here”.
Why do you think it’s important to have more LGBTQI+ representation in South African film and television industry?
Despite our arguably progressive constitution, queer bodies in South Africa are no strangers to violence. Just last year, our community lost a friend and a queer mother, Kirvan Fortuin, to a senseless homophobic attack.
There is a lot of work to be done to put an end to this type of gender and sexuality-based violence and our job as artists are to tackle those issues with our work.
As such, I think paradigm shifts in culture and society happen largely in tandem with shifts in media and representation.
So while “No Hiding Here ” isn’t a story about a group of queer activists who tackle SA institutions and structures that continue to harm LGBTQIA+ people (though I’d love to see that movie, too!) instead our film attempts to win over the empathy of our country’s leading streaming platform with the hope that if there is a movement in the hearts of the TV-watching population in general, those anti-LGBTQIA+ systems and constructs will lose popular support and therefore become dated and irrelevant (or torn down altogether).
The intention with a film like ours is to “normalise” queerness to the everyday TV viewer in the hope that they can understand queerness better as I think often the threat of violence comes from both a fear of the other and insecurity around not understanding something or someone else.
And on a more personal note, as a transgender man, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the thing that led to me finally beginning my social and medical transition only a year and a half ago was representation.
Firstly on Instagram, I started to follow other transmasc accounts (most memorably, @ChellaMan) who started to normalise the whole concept of medical transitions to me.
And then suddenly content like “Pose”, “Tangerine”, “Vida”, “Euphoria” and I started to feel like if people were getting a sense that there are lots of different ways to be trans and that trans is so beautiful and so human and so layered; maybe they’d accept me if I finally got the guts to come out.
The correlation was so direct. And then regarding specifically South African queer representation.
The movie finally debuted on Showmax, what has the reception been like?
To see how many queers dropped their plans last weekend to support the film, to tune into a story that was made BY us and FOR us. It was beautiful. And the feedback has simply been that they want MORE.
What became instantly clear was that we are so eager for queer content; so hungry for that sense of representation that says “I see you; you and your love are valid”.
And the other great thing was to see that there hasn’t yet been any major backlash which I’m hoping will send the message to the powers that be at M-Net and Showmax that their audiences really can handle more than they think.
So often work like this isn’t made out of fear of audiences not understanding or accepting our stories. But look at them — they’re loving it. No harm done.
Why do you think South Africa is still lagging behind with queer representation in media?
I think our industry, in general, has been starting to pick up beautifully in the past couple of years as filmmaking is becoming more accessible so I think it’s just a matter of quantity at this point.
We don’t generate as much work locally as they do in for example Hollywood (where I lived for five years before returning here in 2019).
But let's look at the two industries comparatively: GLAAD said in its annual Studio Responsibility Index in 2018 that of the 109 releases by the largest movie studios in Hollywood, just under 13%, included LGBTQ characters (that’s not even a measurement of the lead characters or whether or not these characters were treated with dignity).
Whereas South Africa has made far fewer films with far few dollars but in recent years we’ve seen the likes of major SA films like Kanarie and Inxeba do really well.
Granted, most often the movie money is given to white cis gays and it would be incredible to see much more queer film that includes black and brown lesbians, trans people, intersex people, etc etc.
So my point is that I don’t think we’re behind, per se. I think Hollywood itself is pretty damn behind. But I do think we have a long way to go as an industry, globally. And I’ll be very excited if South Africa paves the way for the rest of the world.
What were the biggest challenges in filming this project during the coronavirus pandemic?
Well, there was concern throughout filming that suddenly someone was going to show up feeling symptoms and then we’d have to call off the whole shoot.
Obviously, we did everything we could to make sure social distancing measures were being observed, masks were worn, actors were tested prior to doing intimate scenes together, etc… But all I’ll say is that we could’ve possibly had one more 12-hour day of shooting if not for the damn coronavirus and that would’ve just let us breathe a bit more and maybe given us the chance to work on some of the tougher scenes in which we needed every extra minute we could get.
“No Hiding Here”, as far as I know, is the first gay SA rom-com, what do think this movie will mean for the queer community?
I can already see that it means a lot to our community.
So many South African queers have approached me or messaged me to tell me how much it means to them to see OUR stories; OUR love on their screens and to be able to share that with friends and family and use the film as a tool to spark empathy in those around us so that we may be more accepted.
It’s been really touching to see.
Some baby queers have even gone so far as to say that seeing their family’s reaction to the film (which is so light-hearted and cheesy that you really can’t hate it) has given them the courage to finally come out.
So in my view, it’s done its job then. And my hope is that moving forward, the people with the power and money to make more content will see how much our audiences want and need it and they’ll go on and pay more queers to make more queer films and then the community gets to keep benefiting from that catharsis and representation.
How would describe your style of directing?
Oooh. That’s a tough one because honestly it’s still early days for me. This was my first feature-length directing job so I’d be lying if I said I’ve got a style figured out already.
At least in terms of what the audience sees. But in terms of the working process; my style is collaborative. I’m not one of those auteur directors who has a single idea of the vision and everyone has to serve that.
I far prefer meeting all the members of the massive team it takes to make a film and seeing how they respond to my ideas and make them better with their own skill and vision.
I can do my best magic if I just facilitate a safe space for everyone else to do theirs. And I guess my “style” will slowly but surely begin to emerge based on the synergy of each team I work with.
Who are the directors that have inspired you and why?
Hands down my biggest director inspiration is my father, Ian Gabriel.
He has taught me most of what I know about story-telling and creative leadership, which are basically the two main aspects of directing.
He is always kind, always keen to learn, always looking for the best in everyone else, and the above makes for a lot of incredible work that he’s been at the helm of.
And I’d have to also give a special mention to Michaela Coel whose work is so fearless and vulnerable and honest. She’s definitely inspired me a whole lot this past year especially.
How do you think your own queer identity influenced the film making process of the movie?
Films about the queer community are so often centred around “otherness”.
Gay films in particular have largely been about Aids, unrequited love with a straight person, or the pains of hiding from or coming out to loved ones.
The well of gay loneliness has been drawn out in commercial cinema for as long as non-queer actors have been winning Oscars for their portrayals thereof.
“No Hiding Here” strikes a more universal balance. It hits the mark between two truths in an attempt to bring nuance in the form of not just a light-hearted but a big-hearted gay film.
Its emotional crux does not rely solely on the particulars of the difficulties of queerness, yet it also doesn’t pretend that those particulars don’t come with a complex set of challenges of their own.
This love story speaks to the delicate sensibilities we all share – anticipation, hope and dreams on the verge of adulthood, the promise of renewed passion and romance, the whirlwind fantasy of adventure, and the potential for loneliness that at any age can give you that sweet kick in the butt to get your act together and fight for true love even if it’s knocked you down before.
Queerness at its core spurs its custodian to question, to look deeper inside ourselves, ask why we love, why we express ourselves the way we do, and how to exist in an honest way in the context of whatever community we find ourselves in.
This is why these are the perfect characters through which to discover the story’s most important revelation: that all of us – queer or otherwise – have parts of ourselves that we hide from others, making ourselves smaller, weaker, and disconnected, when in fact our universal freedom, our individual strengths, and the light that shines within each of us could all be unleashed if we just acknowledged and shared those intimate truths with each other.
The personal experience I bring to “No Hiding Here” is not just in my own history of sometimes wrenching and other times glorious queer love, but also my unique grasp of performativity as a person of transgender experience.
I believe that we all code-switch; we button up (and down) in different scenarios with different characters in our own lives; we contort for approval in work, relationships, friendships, and even chance encounters. Insecurity seems to be our nature.
And radical self-acceptance – its antidote.
Also, being newly out as a transgender person and shooting smack bang in the middle of a pandemic both influenced the filmmaking process in the sense that I could feel that all of the queer people who worked on the film were really longing for queer safe spaces.
Because it was such a queer film, it was vital that the identity of every single member of crew, cast, and production was seen, celebrated, and respected on and offset.
The shoot functioned as a queer safe space (a welcome break after the Covid lockdown forfeited most of those in our reality) which I strongly believed would translate directly to the success of each department and to the final product.
What is your hope for the future of LGBTQI+ representation in local media?
That we get to make more and more and more. That it doesn’t always have to be brilliant; the point is just that more people give money to more queers to make more content until there’s literally something for everyone. The cishets get that. Why can’t we, too?