Strand Releasing,

Jack Lewis,
John Greyson

Rouxnet Brown,
Neil Sandilands,
Shaun Smyth,
Kristen Thomson,
Dean Lotz,
Jeroen Kranenburg,
Grant Swanby

Unrated, 97 minutes

Our Lady Of The Flowers
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, January 2010

You would think we were back in the dark ages. As I type these words, Uganda is proposing loathsome legislation that has come to be known as the "Kill the gays" bill. This manifestation of pure hate has made me remember Proteus (2003), a film that I missed on its first release. Proteus, set in 1725, tells the story of two South African prisoners who were executed on sodomy charges. It was co-directed by one of my favorite queer filmmakers, John Greyson (Lilies, Zero Patience). Also sharing the helm is South African gay activist Jack Lewis. The film mixes homophobia, Dutch colonialism, botany and a touch of 20th century Apartheid into an evocative, but ultimately convoluted narrative.

Proteus is based on historical events. Lewis found the story in old court records and pitched the idea to Greyson. The setting is the penal colony on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. This is the same prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for thirty years. Rouxnet Brown stars as Claas Blank, a native South African. The people of his tribe, the Khoikhoi, were called Hottentots by the early Dutch settlers and were generally considered to be subhuman. Claas has been wrongfully imprisoned for stealing back the horses that were taken from his village by white colonists. His sentence is ten years of hard labor.

The races on Robben Island keep to themselves and everyone avoids "the faggot." That would be Rijkhaart Jacobz (Neil Sandilands), a moody Dutch sailor sent away on sodomy charges. Claas initially views Jacobz with contempt but slowly, over time, the two men will become uneasy friends and then lovers. Helping to set the forbidden romance in motion is a Dutch botanist named Virgil Niven (Shaun Smyth) who comes to the island to categorize the native flora. Claas and Jacobz are amongst the men chosen to assist him in his work. Claas speaks Dutch and English, as well as his native tongue, and he becomes a valued assistant when he teaches Virgil the native folklore. Claas and Jacobz's work detail allows for many unsupervised trips to the water tower and, alone, they are free to seize the moment. Their affair lasts for ten years.

We soon learn that Virgil is also gay when Jacobz tells Claas that he saw the botanist cruising the Dutch waterfront back home. Virgil will see the two men, in a shed by the water tower, enjoying carnal relations and, thereafter, he gives them the job of fetching water so that they can be alone. Virgil eventually returns to Amsterdam to publish his findings but is forced to flee when scores of "sodomites" are arrested and sentenced to death. He returns to Cape Town and, shortly afterwards, is horrified to find Claas and Jacobz facing trial - and death - on sodomy charges.
The directors' hearts were in the right place and Proteus was made with the best of intentions. There is much here to admire but, alas, Proteus is one of those films where the intent surpasses the execution. This is a pity because there is so much going on in the film. Proteus is a splendid piece of agitprop; it engages the intellect but fails to ignite the emotions. However, this is also true of many great films (2001: A Space Odyssey for example) where the characters are merely pawns in an ideological stew. This film will confuse the average filmgoer but a close viewing will reveal a rich tapestry of themes for those who are willing to make the leap beyond conventional storytelling.
Claas and Jacobz aren't about to replace Ennis and Jack in Brokeback Mountain as iconic figures in the queer canon, but they are a very complex study of male love. Unlike the European invaders who sought control and dominance by the assigning of new names, our befuddled heroes don't have, and refuse to accept, a name for what they are. This is hardly a case of love at first sight or meeting cute. Games of alpha dog dominance transform slowly into genuine affection over the course of a decade. At first there is only antagonism. It culminates in Claas taking Jacobz from behind and it's a scene straight out of Genet. Is this rape or is this something more? Claas vainly clings to a more traditional gender role and asserts his masculinity by speaking of a woman "with big titties" waiting for him back at the village. Jacobz, bearded and butch, has embraced his queer self and often gazes with longing at his sometimes indifferent friend. After many years pass, their mutual need will evolve from mere fucking to something more akin to love. But it isn't until they are facing death that Claas finally looks at Jacobz with the same love in his eyes.
Protea Cynaroides is the name given to the flowers being studied, and the film is named after the shapeshifter in Greek mythology. This is important because the plot dynamics are driven by the theme of shifting sexuality and, most importantly, shifting public attitudes and mores. A number of flashbacks depict a Dutch pier where clandestine homosexual pickups are conducted openly while the authorities seemingly turned a blind eye. Like the raids on 20th century gay bars, the police probably intervened now and then to make an occasional example - hence, in all likelihood, Jacobz's arrest. But a public shift in attitudes leads to a purge. The same happens on the Dutch-ruled Robben Island and there is a change in the guard at the prison. Claas and Jacobz's trysts seem to have been ignored for years but now they stand before a tribunal and their lives are in peril. Such winds of change throughout history are common. Consider a more modern example: the gay nightlife was brazenly open and thriving in 1920s Weimar Germany until the Nazis seized power.
That such a thing could happen again, and is happening in some parts of the world, is the heart of Proteus. Being gay is a crime in many Middle Eastern countries and don't get me started on what is currently being proposed in Uganda. To drive home how some things still haven't changed, the directors follow Derek Jarman and Tom (Swoon) Kalin's lead and employ deliberate anachronisms to tie their themes to the modern world. A trio of church ladies recoil in disgust while transcribing the trial on typewriters. Modern and period dress is employed within the same scene. It was problematic to some viewers to see Jeeps, radios and barbed wire in an 18th century milieu but the filmmakers are obviously making the same point that Jarman did when he presented gay King Edward II's troops as ACT UP protesters.
Greyson's films have always been unconventional. Lilies (1996) embraced its theatrical roots and created its own reality by having a group of men in prison play the parts of both genders during a performance and its subsequent flashbacks. Zero Patience (1993) used AIDS as the subject for a political musical. Proteus, like Lilies, is compelling visually, and a film of rare beauty, but it lacks the cohesion of his earlier efforts. It is shot on video and it shows. This will turn off some viewers but the stark, often overexposed photography suggests a documentary and this works in its favor. The performances are fine. The multi-lingual film is in Africaans, English, Dutch and Hottentot. For some reason, a few of the subtitles are in another language and this is needlessly confusing. The sublime and the clumsy rub shoulders but, even so, it is still an ambitious and worthwhile film that deserves an audience.

My own critical judgment may have been compromised because I didn't view it under the most ideal conditions. The DVD that I rented was scratched and it got stuck four times while I watched it. Each time this happened, I was taken out of the movie and its flow might be better than I am giving it credit for. Period pieces about homophobia like this one are important and there aren't many of them; only Wilde, Maurice and Bent come immediately to mind. There is a wise old saying that goes, "those who don't learn history are condemned to repeat it". Even though Proteus doesn't the deliver the sucker punch that it could have, it is still a politically correct historical drama and definitely worth a look.


More on John Greyson:
Zero Patience