Although there are plenty of queer documentaries already in existence, the majority make the mistake of relying heavily on harrowing statistics, legislation and experiences of brutality as opposed to actual stories. Put simply, they fail to humanize the subjects they cast their lens upon. Recently-released i-D documentary Out of This World, which spotlights both the lives and work of queer creatives in Johannesburg, avoids these same missteps; directed by Matt Lambert and hosted by Mykki Blanco, the fruits of their combined labor are both uplifting and undeniably beautiful.
“We did not want to create another documentary that was just going to be a sob story,” explains Blanco over Skype from a remote Norwegian cabin. “That is not going to help anyone right now. Factual accuracy is important, but that focus on creatives is why I got involved in the first place. I don’t just want to watch another racial, sexual or political documentary that has me in tears; you can use this lens to find people who are thriving and living their lives despite oppression and injustice.”
Although the treatment had already been largely researched and written before Blanco was approached (he frequently cites the brilliance of i-D’s Kate Villevoye and Eloise King), the choice to start by focusing on Johannesburg specifically was driven by the city’s overwhelming lack of queer representation on a global scale. “There are definitely other locations which deserve mainstream attention, but none of us could trace a single film or article – besides those about the artists working there – about South African queer life,” he explains.
The team set about filling this void by casting a genuine spectrum of artists and activists including musical duo FAKA, designer Rich Mnisi, model Luke van der Burg and artist Laura Skollie (aka Lady Skollie), all of whom are given the time to tell their stories and discuss their artistry. Blanco’s questions are measured, insightful and revelatory but never intrusive: “I do think the fact that I am queer allowed me to ask certain questions and not feel nervous,” he says. “I don’t think I have ever seen a heterosexual journalist or interviewer ask a genderqueer or trans person about dating or sex. I think there is so much taboo around discussion for fear of it being demonized.”
Blanco also adds an element of his own personal narrative, explaining his journey with his gender identity. He does so in order to diversify the ‘trans narrative’ which mainstream media often leans on and over-simplifies: “It often starts, in a patriarchal way, with a man who feels as if he’s in the wrong body, and then he transitions and it’s an ugly duckling moment – that’s definitely what I think the entertainment and fashion industries have continued to promote,” he says, before reinforcing the fact that mainstream trans role models often do an exemplary job at using their platform to amplify other marginalized voices.
“Everyone has a different reason for the way they feel about their trans identity which might not fit that narrative,” he continues, highlighting the stories of Glow and Luke van der Burg. “Coming to South Africa, there is so little trans visibility, but then you speak to somebody like Glow, who has a full-time job in advertising. She only transitioned recently, but she is so in touch with her journey and her place in society.”
Although the film is deliberately optimistic and highlights the fact that many LGBTQ+ people are able to prosper despite the barriers facing them, Blanco highlights that Johannesburg can still be a “really, really hardcore” city to live in and points to the internet – which he describes as a “digital diaspora” – as a lifeline for LGBTQ+ people in particular. “Consider trans model and activist Luke, who is super young,” explains Blanco. “Even though she is one of the only visible trans people in that city, she knows that she has a place in the world because she can see that there are millions of people just like her and she can connect with them online. I think, for young people especially, that is something that saves lives.”
These various narrative threads are tied together by a series of ethereal vignettes, which Blanco credits entirely to the romantic tone of director Matt Lambert’s aesthetic. “He’s so smart, socially aware and an absolute workhorse – I think what he brings to the table is this synthesis of politically and socially relevant commentary and a sense of poetry which makes the film come alive.” It also conveys the often-ignored vibrance of South Africa, its queer communities and the self-created families within them; the documentary ends on a euphoric note with an electric club scene highlighting the solace which LGBTQ+ people can often – but not always – find in nightlife.
As for Blanco’s musical career, he says he is as passionate as ever but also “knows he [is] good at other things,” which he admits with a chuckle. “With the way the music industry is today, artists on the same tier as me have to always perform to really make money. Some people can produce or songwrite for other people, then there are artists that become mainstream and get fees and sponsorships which give them a sustainable income. Right now, I am thinking about my next album but I am also seriously thinking about applying for schools so that I can have a sustainable life outside of the music industry.”
If his words are anything to go by, Out of This World is both a sign of things to come for Mykki Blanco and, potentially, the first in a series of valuable documentaries which could genuinely diversify the already-existing representations of queer communities worldwide. It’s not an easy task to humanize people whose stories are often reduced to nothing more than trauma and discrimination; in this sense, Blanco, Lambert and everybody else involved have truly accomplished their mission.
For more like this, read our recent interview with Berlin-based DJ Sky Deep on her new parties focused on creating safe spaces in the city here.