PROTEUS (John Greyson). Subtitled. 103 minutes. Opens Friday (August 19) at the Carlton. For times, see page 90. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Anyone who thinks queer cinema is at an impasse should rush over to the Carlton to see this engrossing film. Inspired by a 1735 sodomy trial in South Africa, it examines the decade-long relationship between two prisoners - one a Dutch sailor, the other a Khoi herder - who are doing time, and each other, on Robben Island.
Not that this is an 18th-century version of Oz, despite the brutality of the penal colony and the fact that the men understandably spend a lot of time shirtless, digging ditches.
The script, by John Greyson and South African video artist/activist Jack Lewis , is more concerned with the idea of identity and nomenclature. What do you call gay love if it doesn't have a name? Does it in fact exist?
The story of the two lovers, played with complete commitment by Rouxnet Brown and Neil Sandilands , is interwoven with that of a botanist ( Shaun Smyth ) who has a lascivious eye on the herder and hires him to help catalogue and name South African plant species. Through the botanist, who's been known to cruise the Amsterdam docks, we get a glimpse of the sociosexual climate that led to the routine executions of gays in the Netherlands.
There's lots of research and period detail here, about everything from scientific treatises on race to execution invoices. But there's an equal amount of heart. The connection between Robben Island and apartheid is subtly underlined in a tasteful, poignant quote at the end.
Greyson's technique of fusing historical narratives with the occasional contemporary set and prop isn't just a postmodern joke or a nod to his limited budget. It shows us that history is alive and struggles continue.