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Driven by youth culture and a need for vocalizing a new era of radical expression and sexual liberation, the South African director Emilie Badenhorst created her most recent short film, Unsex Me. Following the undefined movement Death of Glitter, which follows the mantra ‘party art sex’, we delve into an uncensored night of fun, lust, freedom, and the search of one’s identity in the growing underground scene of Cape Town.
In the past few years, you have become known for your film productions but you are actually a theatre graduate from University of Cape Town. When did you start directing and why?
I started directing film projects in my final year at university, and it was all thanks to the two most incredible humans I met during my studies. They asked me, barely knowing me, if I had ever considered directing film projects. I told them, ‘yeah, but I’ve just never had the opportunity to’, so they responded and said, ‘let’s do it this weekend.’ And that’s what we did, and we just kept creating.
The topic of underground sex parties is, of course, rather controversial. Can you tell us a little more about this growing movement in Cape Town – how did you stumble upon this subject and what encouraged you to make a short film about it?
A dear friend of mine, Tazme Pillay, whom I studied with, actually started this movement with one or two other people who felt very passionate about creating a space for people to belong, for people to liberate themselves, and for people to create performance experiences. Death of Glitter is an ongoing and growing movement. It is not just a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll party.
So what is it about?
Tazme describes Death of Glitter as follows: “In a city where plastic is shiny and patriarchy is shinier, I became frustrated by the lack of spaces for the freaks and creatures who define themselves by the undefined. That clusterfuck of beautiful monsters I had come to identify myself a part of; in eyeliner and hooker heels, fighting through radical self-expression only to live by the principle of liberation.”
And she continues, “What was birthed upon immaculate inception from a night of drunk and high dreaming with my best friends is what I called The Death of Glitter. I still don’t know how to describe it. I suppose, an interdisciplinary-art-underground-scene founded on the principles of freedom through radical expression and the mantra of ‘party art sex’ is a good start, but honestly, I would prefer to call it home.”
The subject is quite intriguing itself. Why did you choose to create a short film instead of a documentary film?
To be completely honest with you, we weren’t shooting this film with any expectations of what we wanted it to be. It was an experiment, a test. We just wanted to capture this experience in one night, and this is what resulted. We are discussing the possibility of doing a documentary film, so I’m excited to see where it could go.
Although youth seems to be a common thread in your previous film productions, in what way does this topic relate to you?
Youth is what drives me. It is exactly the youth I experience and see all around me that stimulates, triggers and inspires me to create more work and to be more vocal about the fragmented existence of the youth in South Africa.
The short film is described as revolving around themes of sexual liberation, while allowing the performers to “express and indulge freely as sexual beings.” How did you go about this as a director? Was it all improvisation?
Everything seen on film was improvised and merely experiences that unfolded, and we had the privilege of capturing them. There was no script, no lines to go by. But dealing with the complexity of capturing a moment where one of the humans was freely expressing themselves was extremely difficult at times, because capturing something on film isn’t natural.
This is where I had to bring in slight direction – when it came to potentially repeat their actions or to change their orientation because they were facing the camera, etc. But funnily enough, the easiest parts to capture were those intense moments of sexual expression and freedom, where the protagonists never needed to repeat, direct or change anything about their experience.
This also raises the question of authenticity. The scenes appear very real, filmed intimately, yet, there are brief moments of evident staging. As a director, when do you think it’s fair to call something real or staged? Documentary or fiction?
This is a concept that I have been grappling with in my mind for a long time. The line is extremely thin. To me, personally, any form of film is not real; the mere act of capturing an experience already blurs the line of reality. Therefore, one can only describe a project as true as the process was. In this case, yes, every experience was real, but in some instances, the experiences were also repeated, repositioned and recreated. I wouldn’t call this a documentary although it was documenting a night in the life of people, a real experience. That is why we called it a short film.
How did you find the actors in the film? In what way are they similar to the characters they’re embodying?
The performers that I collaborated with were actually completely being themselves. There was no facade or character adoption taking place, even though it was extremely performative. It was actually thanks to them that we did this project in the first place, as one or two of them approached me and asked me if we could collaborate on something. And that is what we did.
The footage from the night out in the club Venus in Fur is completely captivating. As an audience, we almost feel as if we went out the same evening. Can you speak a little about this?
The filming in the club was ridiculously sweaty and invigorating. It was rough, fast and intense. There was no time or space to not capture certain moments, we were constantly rolling, and we almost became part of the people in the space ourselves. People in the space would start to interact with us as though we were merely another person experiencing the evening, which gave the footage so much power and reality.
The title is Unsex Me. How is to be interpreted? Is it related to gender fluidity? Or sexual fluidity? Maybe both, or neither?
It is exactly that. It relates to gender fluidity and sexual fluidity but also it refers to one of the most important aspects of the Death of Glitter events, which is performance – as it originally comes from Macbeth and refers to a moment of femininity. The first Death of Glitter event was called Unsex Me Here. The beginning, the start of it all.
Of course, Berlin is stealing a lot of headlines these days with their hedonistic nightlife culture, but they are not the only city to be exploring this. As we see, Cape Town is another of them. Internationally, the question of sexual liberty seems to be asked. Why do you think that is?
It is such a real struggle and concept, that so many people have been grappling with across borders, and now is the time to vocalize it. Now is the time to express and perform these struggles and liberations. By doing so, we create the motivation for other people who are potentially feeling the same to come forth and express themselves freely as well. From one person to another, from one nation to another.
You have done both music videos, commercial films and now short films. Which direction would you prefer to continue with in the future?
The more I create, the more I realize that my biggest urge and passion is to make more creative films and documentaries. I would like to continue and create films about the youth living in South Africa right now. I am currently working on a short film called Ekstasis, and there is also a docs-series in the pipeline about the youth culture of my hometown Strand in South Africa.