The quiet battle: gender and laughter at the South Sudan Film Festival

(TW: discussion of domestic violence to follow after the cut.)

I always get nervous when presenters at Nyakouron theatre ask for audience participation.  You’re never quite sure how many beers the audience has had; I’ve seen audience members climb onto the stage to shove money down women’s tops, set fire to aerosols, and more prosaically attack performers.  So when the representative of Rhino Star got up on stage last night and asked the audience who the ” biggest enemy” was for South Sudan at the moment, I was a little bit nervous.  But of course it was tribalism – followed closely by poverty, with corruption coming a close third.

What wasn’t mentioned by any of the six enthusiastic volunteers, or any of the shouts from the audience, was the topic that actually formed a theme throughout the evening’s films and theatre: gender relations.

I personally think that, despite the current hot topics of tribalism, cattle raiding, Juba crime rates and the freedom of the press, that the huge battle over gender roles, women’s rights in society, and masculinity in South Sudan is one of the most important and most pervasive issues here.  Domestic violence and maternal mortality, as UN speaking points, are talked about, but in relative isolation; however, they are really only parts of a broader fight, going on for years now, about the changing relationships (at least in relatively urban areas) between men and women.

The shows and films at the festival last night all centred around relationships and gender; most of them involved portrayals of domestic violence.  Although the performances were clearly denouncing domestic violence, their methods – and the response of the audience – highlighted some of the current issues with discussions of gender in Juba.  There was no resolution in any of the cases of domestic violence shown; other men interceded for the women, but only to persuade the man to stop: and the abusive character in the last performance of the night got howls of laughter from the crowd when he turned, at the end, to his wife and said: “I’ll stop, I’ll stop!  …but just you wait until I get you home.”

The most surreal element of one play, though, was the deus ex machina that ended domestic violence against one poor pregnant character on stage: the “UN”, turning up in suits bearing what appeared to be a scroll of the human rights act – now published in scroll form, for emphasis of importance? – and berating the protagonist about his wife’s human rights.

Other, more subtle discussions of masculinity and gender relations played out in all the offerings: the men discussing women in terms of marriage only (nothing last night passed the Bechdel test, obviously); the men ordering women around, to the amusement of the audience; the “sluts” tempting innocent businessmen.  The UN failed to intercede as heavenly (and impotent) hosts in these instances.

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2 Comments

Filed under Current affairs, South Sudan, Women

2 responses to “The quiet battle: gender and laughter at the South Sudan Film Festival

  1. Rebecca

    Again, thanks for your reportage from the film festival!
    My area of analysis in my work with the theater troupe was “kinship and performance” – so how kinship relations were imagined, analyzed and critiqued in the plays put on by the troupe, and how the troupe itself served as an arena for the making of new kinships. A major topic in the plays was the transformation of kinship relations in the urban and peri-urban settings of Khartoum. Of course gender relations and kinship relations overlap: the only reason I chose “kinship” was that I felt it emphasized the importance of relationality whereas sometimes gender studies elevates the individual (structure and agency, etc) (criminally quick gloss and generalization, I know!, sorry!) (and a quick aside: the UN figure shows up in those early plays too!) So, I am not at all surprised to hear that kinship/gender relations and their transformation is the prime topic in this new crop of films. Really look forward to seeing some soon… Also, the comic artist Kulan appears to be targeting gender relations in his comics recently (sometimes as a topic in and of itself and sometimes as entry point to critique other things (corruption, for example) fyi: https://www.facebook.com/Laughter.in.times.of.pain?ref=ts&fref=ts

  2. mary

    Honestly gender imbalances which is rooted in masculinity need to be tacked.Most interventions try to address symptoms of gender violence and for get that fact that gender inequality which is rooted in traditions and belief have to be critically singled out and address by every sector.
    Its true that gender inequality is a cross cutting issue but has only one major root cause-Masculinity rooted in traditions.hence while addressing the effects which is seen in Health (HIV/AIDs),education (low enrollment and dropout,early marriages ) etc changing attitudes must be in the center.
    Please keep on the good work and let’s try to design interventions that meets the needs of the community.

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