In her documentary film The Commission: From Silence to Resistance, feminist activist and filmmaker Bev Palesa Ditsie manages to do something nearly impossible; tell the story of nearly a decade of advocacy efforts at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. The Commission chronicles the journey of the Coalition of African Lesbians’ resilience in the face of great hostility while attempting to gain deserved and earned Observer Status at the commission. Despite the African Commission’s sessions being days and weeks of meetings with long conversations, dense legal language and negotiations, generally a space that rarely inspires creative expression, Bev has managed to successfully capture the stories behind the story, of the collective of people, individuals and organisations that rallied with CAL. You get to see powerful moments of resistance and organising, tense moments of confrontation and eventually, how solidarity and resolve forced the reluctant Commission to yield to the will of the people.
What makes this film truly unique is that it tells the story of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) activism at the African Commission. With the current climate towards people of non-conforming gender and sexuality perceived to be hostile, and Africa dubbed ‘the most homophobic continent in the world’, the story of not just presence, but resistance in a deeply politically polarising space becomes a process of making history. The documentary is proof that in spaces between the oppression of a false homophobic history and ensuing cultural, legal and social conditions that make intolerance the norm, lie collectives of people pushing back against this slanted narrative of Africa as a place that is intolerant of diversity. Bev’s telling of these stories writes the names of queer women and men into history, ensuring that these moments are documented and that queer people’s struggles and triumphs are not erased.
The Commission debuted on the opening night of the Mzansi Women’s Film Festival in July 2017 in Johannesburg, to a full room and a curious crowd that engaged with Bev, as well as representatives from the Coalition of African Lesbians. Also present were Sibongile Ndashe from the Institute for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA) and Berry Nibogora from African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR). The Coalition, along with AMSHeR, ISLA and Heartland Alliance together formed the Consortium of Sexuality and Rights in Africa (CASRA), which led SOGIE work and spaces at the Commission. The documentary film chronicles conversations from both sides of the narrative, featuring Honourable Advocate Pansy Tlakula, who is the former chairperson of the African Commission. This film offers valuable insight into the work that many civil society organisations do in advocacy spaces such as the Commission, and also shows that change is not a liner process, and often takes more time, resources and resolve than people realise.
The Coalition of African Lesbians hopes that this film, beyond documenting the years of work done, can also be used as a tool to spark conversations on the continent about SOGIE and other sexuality and gender issues that are seen to exist in the margins of a decided norm. The content spans the continent, with activists from all over Africa featured and their experiences at the African Commission captured. In many ways, the victory of finally acquiring Observer Status was not just for the Coalition. It was a pivotal moment for SOGIE work, presence and contributions to the African Commission, and indeed an important political moment for the continent. It gives hope to activists as proof that the Commissioners take seriously their political mandate, and set aside any personal prejudice, whether based on religion or tradition and adhere to the established provisions in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.
The Commission: From Silence to Resistance, was recently screened at the 61st Ordinary Session of the African Commission in Banjul, The Gambia.