By Stephen Aspeling22 September 2023
Stiekyt: The Afrikaans dark comedy set in a drag club
Drag has been an ever-present force thanks to influential figures such as Ru Paul, the late Dame Edna and our very own Evita Bezuidenhout. From drag festivals to TV shows and movies, the intoxicating flamboyance, exotic escapism and playfulness of the pursuit has captured the imagination of audiences the world over. Embracing the real you and being fabulous are the mainstays of these legendary figures, the spirit of which has led to the mainstream proliferation of queer culture and festivals such as Wigstock, TV shows like Drag Race and movies such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
While we’ve had drag comedy films such as Kinky Boots, To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the subgenre has only recently gravitated towards crime. From the drag awakening of a mobster in Dress Code to the immersion of an actor into the role of a drag queen in Stiekyt, the crime element typically infuses obscured identity and family secrets. Moving from the United States of Ru Paul to Tannie Evita’s homeland, as much as she’s become a local legend in South Africa, it’s still curious and provocative to see a drag movie in Afrikaans. No wonder it’s called Stiekyt – he meaning of which translates to stand out, speaking to the lead character’s alienating predicament and desire to give his best performance.
The dark comedy crime drama centres on James, a soap actor who takes on a gig moonlighting at a drag club to bridge acting jobs. Keeping the role a secret from his wife, he finds himself under immense pressure to perform to pay the bills and recover from a period of unemployment. Struggling with self-worth after having his soap character written out and trying to fit in with his new “colleagues”, things ramp up when his wife discovers what’s really been keeping him so busy at night. Trying to save his acting career, marriage and the dilapidated drag club, James resorts to whatever means necessary to ensure the show goes on.
Brave for a number of reasons, Stiekyt is a coming-of-age film for Etienne Fourie, the writer-director behind Die Windpomp, Liewe Kersfeesvader and Dis Koue Kos Skat. Tending towards the edge, Fourie’s movies are characterised by comedy with a dark twist and Stiekyt is no different. Starting as a fish-out-of-water dark comedy, there’s more than one transformation at play as the genre contorts into something more sinister. Taken from the perspective of an interview, the nature of the conversation becomes more interrogative as the story unfurls to reveal James ironically in the performance of a lifetime.
Led by Paul du Toit, this glitzy and gritty film features a stellar cast, featuring some of South Africa’s finest talents in Albert Pretorius, Cintaine Schutte, Jacques Bessenger, Illse Roos, Charlton George, Wessel Pretorius and Roberto Kyle. Playing James, du Toit leans into the leading role without flinching, allowing the complete immersion of the performance to have a double effect.
Taking place in a claustrophobic and dingy drag club with artificial lighting, it must have been easy to feel and live the character’s emotional journey within the confined spaces. This labyrinthine and shadowy environment is perfect for a violent cat-and-mouse type murder as behind-the-scenes politics and cover-ups add to the festering tension.
It’s fascinating to see so many familiar faces dolled up and the make-up certainly helps transport these performances, with Wessel Pretorius the belle of the ball. While obscured by the affectations, Albert Pretorius and Jacques Bessenger keep the potboiler steamy as allies and enemies emerge.
Returning to a self-help video for “budgie-smuggling”, there’s a curious commentary at play as James steers into his role as an actor-slash-actress versus that of a patriarchal family man. As he comes to embrace his new part, ambition pushes him to dangerous new heights, and he flies closer to the sun as the psychodrama begins to mirror Black Swan.
Stiekyt‘s cast features several SAFTA winners and nominees who amplify the drama with almost unrecognisable performances. These complete transformations are the craftmanship of excellent costume design as well as make-up and hairstyling, both up for SAFTAs at this month’s awards ceremony.
Nominated for a further three SAFTAs for its cinematography, production design and sound design, Stiekyt is a bold and beautiful undertaking, capturing a maze of behind-the-scenes interactions much like the Oscar-winning drama Birdman. Unlucky not to be submitted as South Africa’s official selection for Best International Feature, this odd and unapologetic dark comedy turned psychodrama thriller is exciting, entertaining and enthralling.
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