Some films are triggered by a photo in a gutter, a conversation on
a bus, a song in a taxi at midnight. Proteus
began with a chunk of concrete on an island. Six years ago, South African
filmmaker Jack Lewis dug up a 1735 court transcript in the Cape Town
archives—the true story of two prisoners, one Dutch, one native,
who were executed for sodomy. Reading between the lines, he realized
they’d been lovers for over a decade, despite the vast racial
and sexual taboos of the period—but then something changed, and
they were prosecuted for this “unspeakable vice.” He wanted
to make a film about what had changed. More, he wanted to collaborate.
We’d been friends for a few years, but this was a unique pitch:
co-writing and co-directing a feature-length low-budget sodomy epic,
shot on location in English, Nama and Afrikaans. How could I refuse?
The first thing we did (once I figured out a way to come for a visit
from Toronto) was catch the boat to Robben Island, site of our prisoners’
incarceration. Though best-known as Nelson Mandela’s jail through
the apartheid era, Robben Island has in fact been a prison on and off
for three centuries. Bleak, windswept and barren, pounded by waves and
punishing currents, it boasted an almost perfect track record: only
one prisoner had successfully escaped during those three hundred years.
We wandered the island, searching for the ghosts of Claas and Rijkhaart,
our two forgotten convicts. The slate quarry where they’d hewn
rock was overgrown and abandoned, but it wouldn’t be hard to make
it work visually as a location—except for the reverse angle, which
looked across the water at the emphatically twentieth century city of
Cape town, nestled in the shadow of Table Mountain. The site of their
prison garden was now an overgrown field—again a perfect location,
except for the 1950s lighthouse in the distance. The penguin colony
where they poached eggs was similarly untouched—except for a row
of concrete doloses, those unique South African breakwaters that resemble
nothing so much as a scattering of giant jacks waiting for house-sized
rubber ball to be bounced.
And that’s when the ball bounced, or rather, the penny dropped.
The pristine past of 1735 that we sought to recreate didn’t exist,
couldn’t exist—it would always be haunted by the present,
by every image we know from our century, by Biko and Soweto, by whites-only
beaches and black townships, and now, by ten years of democracy when
South Africa became the first country in the world to enshrine gay rights
in their constitution. No matter where we looked, there would always
be concrete chunks interrupting the view.
We filled Proteus with such anachronisms,
especially those that referenced 1964, the year that Mandela was incarcerated.
We shot the trial of Rijkhaart and Claas in the actual Cape Castle where
they were convicted, but added a Greek chorus of sixties stenographers,
complete with cat-eye glasses and beehives. We made the convicts fetch
water from a water tower surrounded by barbed wire, collect shells in
green plastic bags and smoke dagga using a broken coke bottle. The Governor’s
wife presides over a drawing room done up in proper Dutch décor,
but a baby-blue portable radio sits on her dining room table. The botanist
who runs the prison garden sketches with a bright yellow HB pencil.
A German Shepard guard dog keeps the prisoners in line, and two Dutch
settlers chase Claas in a jeep. Indeed, some audiences don’t seem
to credit our anachronisms as intentional. At a screening in the Hamptons,
one audience member indignantly informed us that jeeps weren’t
invented until the twentieth century.
For Jack and me, this way of picturing history made more sense to us—because
history is always an exercise in looking back through glasses clouded
with the dirt of our present moment. It’s impossible to know what
Claas and Rijkhaart really experienced, impossible to know what they
felt and dreamed, because we weren’t there. We could only invent
our version of their story, a version that’s specific to our imaginations,
and our lives today. Because we weren’t pretending to be ‘pure,’
the beehives and concrete breakwaters allowed us to be ‘true’
to our 1735 story, and most important, true to the memory of these two